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A Quaker School in a Modern Day World

Life is like an algebraic equation. Stick with me. There are things that are given, and then there are things for us to find and decide. One given in this equation of life is that in the year 2016, our world is a tough, cutthroat place where people compete for jobs, status, college admissions, etc. We here at Friends Academy, a Quaker institution, now have a tough situation to deal with. We live in a society where efficiency and qualification have a heavy emphasis put on them, where the Quaker values like fairness, equality, and community are often brushed aside. This creates a compelling dynamic for students, as well as for faculty, as sometimes these values may not be practical. So how do we solve this equation? If it is a given that we don’t live in a world where everybody can be the lead role in the play, or a world where everybody can be qualified for honors classes, then how do these Quaker values work at Friends Academy? Do we use them when possible or convenient? Do we actually use them as rationale to decide conflicts and answer questions in our community? Do these values get tossed aside altogether? It’s clearly not realistic to use Quaker values all the time. With that being said, there are many apparent contradictions that seem to be a little bit too non-Quaker to be acceptable in our community.

The first thing to recognize about our modern day society is that it’s mainly focused on efficiency. The faster you can do things, the better off you can be. Time seems to be something that is given to things WE view as important. I’ve often wondered why the “Quaker Decision Making” process has never been used at Friends Academy to determine things like class representatives, team captains, and other roles in the community that require selection. Whenever I ask why we have elections or higher authority figures just select people for these roles, the answer I have always received was either: “We don’t have the time to do Quaker decision making” or “It’s too difficult to have so many people having a discussion in that type of format." My answer to those responses is simply: “Aren’t we a Quaker school? Why wouldn’t we take the time to make these decisions? If it’s too complicated to have everybody meet over these decisions, why not invite everyone to make the decision and those who care enough to show up to the meeting can be a part of it?” Our values should be something that we regularly use to help us reach our mission as a school, not something that we talk about when convenient. “With the Quaker decision making process, you give everyone who has an opinion on a topic the opportunity to express their viewpoints,” said Julia Berke, someone who was raised under the Quaker values, “when there is simply a democratic voting process, your voice or opinion can be muted by the majority.” Julia brings up a good point, in that in certain cases, it can be frustrating to have your vote or opinion brushed to the side because more people have a shared opinion while you don’t even have the opportunity to share yours. It’s very curious as to why something that is so “anti-Quakerly” is used for making major decisions in the school. But this actually happens in all walks of life here at Friends.

Now, I’m only going to touch on dress code once, because there’s already been a ton of discussion in our school about it. Put aside the lack of simplicity the dress code brings about at times, and put aside whether or not boys’ dress code and girls’ dress code are equally enforced. Quite simply, if a girl were to wear an button down shirt without tucking it in, a pair of black jeans, and a pair of flip flops, she would technically be in dress code. If a boy were to wear that, there would be about 5 different violations of the dress code he could be punished for (credit to Amy Geiger for the example). There’s not much else to say on the issue for some people at the school- changing the dress code may not be plausible, but it’s important to recognize that there are inconsistencies with our Quaker testimonies in something that would seem as simple as our dress code. This is not the only example where Friends Academy struggles with the idea of Quaker values while also remaining reasonable.

The more I think about it, the more the idea of “Friends Academy” seems like a contradiction. “Friends," a term for people who you like and trust, seems like a Quakerly goal. It makes sense that a Quaker group would strive to create an environment that feels, for lack of a better word, friendly. However, the term “Academy” that follows directly after seems to suggest somewhat of a different idea as to what our mission as a group is. One term encourages us to support one other, look for the good in others, and wish the best to all teachers and students. The other term has a connotation of achievement through competition, in some cases building ourselves up by knocking others down. It sends a really confusing message, but it seems as though the notion of the “Academy” is deeply engrained in our community due to the world we live in. While it is important to bring others up and celebrate their accomplishments there are aspects of this culture that do not coincide with what we would want in our school. For example, while it is unrealistic for a coach to carry every player who tries out for a team if the numbers do not work out, there is something rather unsettling about students competing for spots in a school that focuses on togetherness and community.

I was so interested in this dynamic that I went to speak with John Scardina, Quaker in Residence of Friends Academy, on the idea of “Friends Academy." “I think the name really captures the struggle that we have,” said Teacher John, “Are we a Quaker school, first, that happens to be a college preparatory school? Or are we a college preparatory school, first, that happens to be a Quaker school?” He brings up an interesting question, as it seems like in many instances we do wind up in an environment of a competitive school, despite our wishes to maintain Quaker values. “There’s always a mixture of practice,” said Teacher John, “But this year, most of the major committees did Quaker consensus instead of voting, so that’s a step in the right direction. It’s hard to do class reps with a group that size. When I was at Westtown, they still voted for student body president, but there was a male and female for every position to have to gender equity. It’s always going to be a struggle.” It is certainly a good sign to see major committees choosing clerks through a series of Quaker consensus process. We do have to continue to find the balance of adapting to today’s competitive nature of society while also holding onto Quaker values in all walks of life at Friends Academy. When asked how to find that balance Teacher John quoted the Dalai Lama: “First and foremost is love and kindness. If we start from there, most other things will follow.” In his own words Teacher John continued by saying: “As a school, if we focus on supporting each other, the rest will work itself out. I always ask the faculty here: ‘If I walked into the classroom, not knowing where I was, how would I know you were teaching in a Quaker school?’” This is an important question to ask. Anyone who is reading this could probably think back and think of a time where they were involved in a conversation that would suggest they weren’t in a Quaker school. It’s okay that these things happen, as we are all human and all susceptible to breaking with Quaker values from time to time, but it’s also important to recognize that we’re not always Quaker in the way we do things. “An old expression that many Quakers use is: ‘Quakerism is caught, not taught’. You discover it by experiencing.” Teacher John continued to speak about how useful it has been to send students QYLC (Quaker Youth Leadership Conference) as it gives students the opportunity to truly understand Quakerism on a deeper level. Perhaps we, as a community, need this deeper understanding of Quakerism as the world evolves around us.

So let’s go back to the algebra equation. If the given is that we cannot change the evolving society around us, what do we do to make our Quaker values an important part of our daily life at school? It can be perceived as hypocritical to talk about Friends as a place that holds these values so close in our community while there are so many instances that contradict that idea. It’s time for our community to decide whether or not we continue to pride ourselves on being something we are not always capable of living up to. There has been much agreement within the student body that there needs to be a change, and perhaps, with a bit more thoughtfulness, our community could be on its way to some major changes.

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