Lee Clasper-Torch: seeker

“At Moses Brown, we’re sitting on a goldmine—the practice and pedagogy of silence.”

leeLee Clasper-Torch departed at the end of this year, his 25th at Moses Brown. Lee arrived in 1989 to teach in what was then the department of religion and human values, which he later served as department head. Lee’s interest in developing students’ spiritual awareness and encouraging them to look inward as well as outward, led to courses such as Existential Literature and Religion and Society. His interest in acting on one’s beliefs led to his helping students to found the Student Peace Action Movement. As a wrestling coach, Lee urged his athletes to embrace the grace of the sport. His regular messages in Meeting for Worship have helped shape the thinking of students and colleagues as he reminds us all of the importance of mindfulness and joy. He shared these reflections in June.

What led you to the teaching profession?

Moses Brown has been my first and only teaching position. I did my undergraduate degree in comparative religious studies and my graduate work at seminary exploring theology and philosophy. Before teaching, I was an ordained minister in a congregation for three years. I found congregational ministry to be deep and meaningful work, but soon realized that teaching was the aspect of pastoral work that was most stimulating and rich for me. I gradually recognized the vocational call to teaching. Both my mother and father were long-time teachers and I suppose, too, that some of their spirit and influence was in my blood and consciousness!

What led you to Moses Brown?

I went looking for opportunities to teach material I felt passionate about, and had studied in school in comparative religion and philosophy. I immediately turned to the Friends Council on Education to aid my search because—while not a Quaker myself—I had had a long connection with Quakers and in particular the work of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). I considered myself then—and still do—a “friend of Friends.” I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Wider Quaker Fellowship for many years. I found the job opening in Moses Brown’s religion and human values department fairly directly, interviewed with Dave Burnham, and gratefully and joyfully accepted the offer to teach in the department—this was in the spring of 1989.

MB offered a wonderful opportunity to connect with Friends education and spiritual values, and to teach the material that I loved and studied with an open and dynamic curriculum for the time. It was an exciting prospect to be able to teach at an independent school that was informed by a Quaker heritage and ethos.

What has been the most gratifying to you in your time here?

Without doubt, working with the students. It‘s been a gift to have the opportunity to create a space where the students and I can be learners and seekers together. Quakers have historically identified themselves as seekers. I like to think that I was fashioning a classroom space—both physically and metaphorically—where genuine seeking could go on. Our motto, “For the Honor of Truth,” becomes the center of the classroom. If your classroom contains that genuine search for truth, meaning and purpose, often that center can be stumbled upon. What has been most gratifying has been the opportunity to learn along with bright minds and open hearts, where deep learning happens.

I recall a number of times when in the course of discussion—as we unfolded a topic or probed a certain text or idea—there was a moment of individual epiphany and simultaneously, an almost palpable class epiphany. There have been a variety of these instances, too numerous to mention—always unique but recognizable. “Aha!” moments, you might say!

What’s it been like to guide students through these times and historical events?

In a way, it hasn’t been easy. We are living in critical times; socially, economically, culturally, and politically. It is as if the world is convulsing in perpetual crisis. At Moses Brown, we’re sitting on a goldmine—the practice and pedagogy of silence. When crises occurred through the years we could gather as a community in this deep silence which then provided a cocoon of sorts, a place to process thoughts and feelings so that genuine understanding and positive action could emerge. Because of that foundation, and because of the subject that I was teaching, it always felt natural to offer moments to pause, to listen, to ask “What are we all feeling?” The Quaker heritage allows for that at its best—if we understand it and nurture it.

Along with this, another dimension of my service here that has been most meaningful to me has been being able to act as an advisor of The Student Peace Action Group. I’ve been most impressed and heartened by the spirit and concern of a regular stream of students who felt the genuine desire to care for issues of peace, justice and human rights—and to seek ways to move others toward action against injustice, war and strife, for peace and equality, far beyond simple charity. Many of these students have been beacons of hope for me.

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