By Laura Hunt, third grade teacher
Sometimes people ask me how teaching in a Friends school is unique. The first thing that comes to mind is our weekly Meeting for Worship. People are intrigued by the image of 200 young children and their teachers sharing a half hour of silence together.
I must admit, not every Meeting I have attended has felt particularly impactful. Sometimes simply attaining a single moment of silence has been our crowning achievement. Feet shuffle, noses sniffle, little fingers braid each other’s hair. Friends make eye contact all the way across the room. They giggle. They squirm. They make shadow figures from the light streaming in from the window. All under the watchful eyes of their teachers. Who hush. Or give “the look.” Or model how to fold your hands gently on your lap. And not one message is spoken for the group to hear.
“Seriously?” “Why?” “What are they learning?” people ask.
Lower School faculty have grappled with those questions a lot in recent months. Their answers became clear during this week’s Meeting for Worship. Children’s minds run deep. They are filled with questions and they seek to make sense of their world. Their hearts are huge. And, indeed, they can be our best teachers. Silence creates space for reflection. Silence encourages rich learning.
Let me paint a picture of my most recent experience during Meeting for Worship with children.
Classes had filed into the Meetinghouse, and everyone had taken their seats. The room settled, seemingly on its own. I sensed a slightly unusual rhythm of calm. After several minutes of silence, a fourth grader rose to speak. She talked about how her class is reading the book, Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper. She explained how the main character’s disability led other people to make false assumptions about her. She reminded us of the importance to remember – just because people don’t have control of their bodies doesn’t mean they don’t have good minds. She told us that everyone is “smart.”
I smiled. Others did too. Everyone was silent. For a few minutes.
A fifth grader rose to speak. Her voice is familiar in our community. She has shared out of silence during many a meeting. This day she spoke about a special neck warmer she had received as a gift, but that she had unfortunately lost. She ended her message with these words. “I am sharing this with you today because I want you to remember – if you have something special, remember to hold it close.”
“Hm.” I thought. “I’ll remember.” I smiled. Others did too. Everyone was silent. For a few minutes.
Another fourth grader rose to speak. She explained that her class had been talking about emotions. She wanted to tell us what she was thinking about anger. She said that anger can be a funny thing. That sometimes when people seem to be expressing anger, they are actually feeling something else inside. Like worry. Or sadness. Or loneliness. Or hurt.
“I’ll try to be more mindful of that,” I thought. I smiled. I noticed a teacher tearing up just a little. Everyone was silent. For a few minutes.
Then a fifth grader stood up. We’ve heard his voice before too. On this day he told us that he was ready for a snow day. Not just because it meant a day off from school, but because snow days give him time to play. Really play. The kind of play that gets you outdoors and takes your mind off of everything else. Play like sledding. And snowboarding. And skating. And right now there are a lot of bad things happening in the world. Like war. And hunger. He wants to free his mind of them. He wants to really play. And have fun. He wants a snow day.
“Well, yes.” I thought. “When I think about it that way, I’d say I’m pretty ready for a snow day myself.” I could feel the warmth of my teacher friends’ smiles wrapping around me. I couldn’t wait to connect with them after Meeting. Everyone was silent. For a few minutes.
A second grader stood up. She’s new to our school this year. Seven years old. The fourth grader who spoke first was seated right behind her. She faced the fifth grader who had lost her neck warmer. The little girl’s voice filled the room as she told us about a book her class was reading. It’s called Roxaboxen. It’s one of my favorites. She told us about children who used rocks and boxes and things from nature to create an imaginary village for their play. Sometimes they play war games. And they use their imaginations. And that is important. She ended her message with these words. “I am sharing this with you today because I want you to remember – if you have something special, remember to hold it close.” She looked for the eyes of her sister’s fifth grade friend as if to be sure she had gotten her words right.
Anna Hopkins, our interim science teacher, explained to me later that some Quakers would call what happened a “gathered meeting.” All of the ideas that were shared are unique, yet they seem to be connected. You can string them together, like beads on a thread. This is not the kind of learning you find on a test. It is the result of a shared belief that words are important and that everyone holds their own truth. It emerges from a community that has committed to caring for its people. It builds confidence and character and respect for humanity. It is spiritual. This, to me, is what it means to be a part of a Friends school.