Civil Discourse

by Tina Oddleifson ’82

I’m related to the first person executed for murder in the U.S. You may not have heard of him, but his name was John Billington and he came over on the Mayflower.  He was a troublemaker who killed a fellow colonist and was hanged in 1630.  My grandmother bravely fought for access to birth control in the 1930’s, despite the social stigma. But she also once told me that she thought Apartheid wasn’t so bad.  My hometown of Boston is often the first to stand up for higher American ideals like equality.  But it also has a long and complicated history of racism. I could tell you that I’m a Mayflower descendant, that my grandmother crusaded for progressive causes, and that Boston is a leader for enlightened thought in America.  But that wouldn’t be the whole truth, would it?

As humans, we tend to hold onto certain parts of our story and ignore or gloss over the messy parts because they don’t support our idealized version of reality.  This has become an alarming practice in today’s political environment where partial truths and absolutes are ubiquitous, often in the form of memes and sensational headlines addressing the outrage of the day.  “Liberals want to take down the flag – share if you don’t give a damn” or “Conservatives are literally pining for a dictatorship” are two that came through my feed recently.  One of these is bound to irritate you, maybe even both.

Our obsession with sound bites, memes and partial truths may serve our need for self-justification and help us commiserate with our political team, but they not only promote divisiveness, they miss the chance for exploring a much more fascinating and complex story.  The recent cultural conflicts over civil war memorials and kneeling during the national anthem are just two more examples of how our social media obsession is drowning out civil discourse and the opportunity to explore those gray areas, where the truth actually lives.

So where does one go to have an honest and respectful conversation these days?  How do we move forward as a country teetering on the edge of a democracy and something altogether different?  Admitting that your life story or point of view is filled with a certain degree of hypocrisy is a good place to start.  Having a murderous Pilgrim, a feminist but prejudiced grannie, and a hypocritical hometown forces you to admit that maybe things are a little more complicated than they appear. Recognizing your own inconsistencies can help others admit theirs as well. The next step is to find someone who thinks differently than you and actively listen to them.  This is not the kind of listening where you spend your time figuring out your next counterpoint while someone else is talking.  It’s about being curious and asking questions.  It’s about making the other person feel “heard,” even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.  Civil discourse is not about trying to change someone’s mind.  And it’s not about giving up your own values, or trying to avoid conflict altogether. It’s about disagreeing without being disagreeable.  It’s about being open and respectful enough to consider a different viewpoint, so that we can engage in the healthy deliberation of ideas that a successful democracy requires.

If you’re wondering how someone you have always liked can have such a different worldview, maybe it’s time to reach out and ask them how they got there.  And maybe it’s time for all of us to admit that not all conservatives are racist, not all liberals believe in unlimited government handouts, and we all love our country.  It would open up a desperately needed conversation for addressing urgent policy issues from sensible gun laws, to health care and immigration.

If you are interested in learning more about ways to advance civil discourse, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has launched the Revive Civility project in Maine, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona with plans to go nationwide.  They offer resources for talking to friends and family about issues that divide us, including a new program called “Setting the Table for Civility” with tools for families and friends to have civil conversations over the Thanksgiving holiday.  You can find them at ReviveCivility.org.  Additional resources to explore include Allsides.com  and Livingroomconversations.org.  If we begin to model civil discourse, maybe our politicians will too.

Note: This op-ed was originally published by Portland Press Herald on October 16, 2017.

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Residential Life

by Vanessa Baker ’19

Living in the dorm has been the best part of my George School experience. Being from Michigan, I was pretty homesick when I first arrived at George School my freshman year, but the dorm staff and my friends made me feel unbelievably comfortable. There are four adults that live in each dorm and there are also four senior prefects who are leaders in the dorm and they help the dorm staff run the dorm.

Both my freshman and sophomore years I formed strong relationships with the seniors that lived with me, particularly the ones on my floor. The seniors had the almost awkward role of older sister while also being an authoritarian, but they were important role models for me while I was an underclassman. I also got to know some of the adults in the community through their role as dorm parents. One of the jokes I’ve laughed the hardest at is one my sophomore dorm head told me one night after check-in. I don’t even remember the joke, all I remember is physically rolling on the ground howling with laughter with another one of my friends.

The best part of living in the dorm, however, is getting to live with my friends—basically a nonstop slumber party. The bonds I’ve formed with the girls in my dorm are most definitely the relationships I’m going to cherish the most when I leave George School, which unfortunately will be sooner rather than later.

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Choosing Boarding School

by Shaina Gonzales ’19

The funny thing is, I never planned boarding school to be my future.

In fact, I didn’t even know it was an option—and even when I did find out halfway through my middle school years, I waved off the very thought of it. Besides, I thought, aren’t boarding schools for kids who want to get away from their families? A thing that only exists in books? A place for bad kids? A place that certain people had the privilege of attending?  I had a limited perspective on boarding school, but nevertheless, I was already dismissing this possibility out of the picture.

Most importantly, boarding school was impossible for me to consider, since I’m an only child of a single mother. My entire life, it’s always been me and my mom, and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her alone for four high school years. She was on the same page with me, until eighth grade, when my high school placement program came into effect. I think the pivotal moment where both of our minds changed was when we listened to an alumni’s parent share her experience with sending her daughter to boarding high school—she was a single parent with an only child, making it instantly relatable for us.

Intrigued, I recall the mother telling her story— the pains of sending her daughter off to a faraway place, having to continue daily life without watching her daughter grow through high school, being a distant figure from her teenaged child. But then, she stated she doesn’t regret the choice she and her daughter made, and would do it all over again. She saw how happy and satisfied her daughter was from attending boarding school. The mother understood that the boarding experience was an experience that benefited her daughter— an experience day schools can’t offer.

I think that personal story was the catalyst for choosing boarding school. I was moved and intrigued by it, but still a little hesitant. In my twelve year old mind, it didn’t matter what I wanted – what mattered was if me and my mom mutually agreed, because we are a team. However, my mom was also gripped by the alumni’s parent experience.

I remember clearly her turning to me, taking my hand, and whispering, “Let’s give this a try.”

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Tips for Newly Accepted International Students at George School

by Elenore Wang ’18

As I am munching on lotus flavored moon cake from Lan, our Chinese teacher, I realize it is the fourth Mid-Autumn Festival that I have spent at George School. It has been four years since I flew across the earth from a Chinese public school to George School, a place that seemed so strange but full of opportunities to the ninth grade me at the time. Looking back, I can say my four years here as an international student have been very happy and fulfilling. If you follow my advice below, I promise you too will have a fabulous journey at George School.

1. Be yourself

I know it is a cliché, but this really is the key to happiness at George School. When I first came to campus, I felt compelled to ingratiate myself with American kids by pretending to be someone I am not, because I was afraid of being different. Later, I realized this concern was completely unnecessary, because George School is the most accepting place you will ever find. Pretending is exhausting and futile, for everyone at George School respects and values individuality. If you are confident just being yourself, friends will come to you and you will be much happier.

2.    Don’t be afraid and try your best

George School offered me countless opportunities to do things I never thought I could do before. Not only did I have fun trying things out, but I also found my passion—film. I took film class my sophomore year and immediately fell in love with it. Now, I am known among my friends as “the filmmaker” and I am happy about it. Before I made my first film I was terrified, because I had zero experience. However, the tremendous support and encouragement that George School offered me eliminated my fear of failure. Feel free to try anything you like—sports, like lacrosse, or arts, like film. As long as you are willing to give your maximum effort, you have no reason to be afraid because you will succeed.

3.    Have fun!

Always remember that George School wants you to have fun. Please do not over-stress yourself and enjoy the George School years to come!

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George School Visits the Happy Island of Bermuda – 2017

by John Stevens ‘02

For the past three years, I have enjoyed summer weather in September, as my George School Admission travel has taken me to the Schools to Know Fair in Bermuda. A warm atmosphere has always appealed to me, and over the years, I have spent significant time visiting many islands, but Bermuda is my favorite.

Yes, the climate is wonderful, the views are breathtaking, and the food is delicious, but what separates Bermuda from the others is the people. During my visits, I have connected with hundreds of students, dozens of school officials, and countless Bermudians. Teachers and administrators are patient and dedicated, local business owners are creative and talented, and taxi drivers proudly wave and smile as they drive about the island. The people are happy, and they have always made this oblivious tourist feel safe and welcome.

This year’s trip was extra special, as I was provided the opportunity to visit and present to several schools. As I walked through the hallways, everyone made eye contact, and greeted me with a smile or a “morning” or “good afternoon.” During presentations, students took notes, listened intently, and asked thoughtful questions. When it was time for me to leave, they each shook my hand and thanked me for my time. Mutual courtesy is important to me, and Bermudian children are the most gracious I have encountered.

I was also fortunate to be joined by parents of current George School students for the two day Schools to Know Fair. In my opinion, parents are the most important ambassadors for schools because their feelings can be entrusted as 100% genuine. I love George School, both as an alumnus and admission officer, but I am unable to represent the feelings of a parent whose child is truly happy in a school environment. These parents are happy because their children are happy, and they conveyed this happiness to both myself and prospective families.

I am thankful to have spent time in such a beautiful country, with such happy, gracious people, and I look forward to the next group of Bermudians joining the George School community.

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Summer: The Perfect Time to Learn?

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by Addie Gerszberg ’18

While rest seemed to be a critical part of many students’ agendas this past summer, so was learning for the many of us who take the time to investigate passions that the busy grind of the school year often prohibits us from pursuing. For me, those passions are international relations and learning more about the world’s languages and cultures. This summer, I focused my attention on learning about Japan after I was grateful to have been accepted to the High School Diplomats Program at Princeton University.

This program, which has run for the last 30 years thanks to the generosity of AIU Insurance Company of Tokyo and the Freeman Foundation, focuses on friendship, community, and peace: values that were all consistent with what I have learned at George School. During the ten days of this program, my Japanese roommate, Hana, and I had the opportunity to see diplomacy at its most basic level: through friendship. Through each days’ themes and scheduling, all of the Japanese and American students engaged in meaningful activities and conversations. I will never forget when my friend, Mizuki, from Hiroshima, shared her grandmother’s experience of the atomic bombings of their city during World War II. Likewise, my friend Sayaka’s story about being from Fukushima and the impact the nuclear power plant disaster following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 has had on her life was also profoundly moving. Through these friendships, what I had previously only learned in history books, came to life, and while those examples are of atrocities, the positive stories these new friends have shared are already too numerous to count. These jovial experiences of connection among us “high school diplomats” are best exemplified through two of my favorite days of the program: the Japanese culture festival and the Paula Chow Diplomat Talks.

During the festival, I gained cultural insights, and a closeness to Hana, that I had not had before through partaking in a traditional tea ceremony, appreciating the art of calligraphy, and playing games. This experience was only strengthened by wearing traditional Japanese dresses called yukata (light cotton kimono) with Hana. This gift from my roommate is one I treasure dearly.

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While the festival was light hearted, the Diplomat Talks took on a more serious note, enabling all of the Japanese and American students to have discussions about the world in which we live. Being a George School student and having learned about how to have these kinds of difficult discussions was the best preparation I could have had to fully embrace the experience. The program and my education complimented each other, and while George School has taught me how to be an engaged community member, High School Diplomats enhanced my ability to be a global citizen. Now a month after I have completed the program, I have been gifted with lasting friendships and a new knowledge set that has already enriched my first classes back at school. I hope more George School students can take part in this life altering experience, and current sophomores and juniors can check the program’s website for the application (available online from 9/15/2017–1/8/2018) for this fully funded opportunity.*

*For more information please visit the website: Highschooldiplomats.com or contact the American Director, Mrs. Celine Zapolski at (571) 234-5072 or celinezapolski@highschooldiplomats.com

 

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Coming Full Circle

by Kim Major, associate director of admission

Last week was my favorite week of the year, hands down. While my children think I am crazy (they think the last day of summer vacation is the worst!), I know I am right. You see, last week was orientation for our new students and the start of our new academic year here at George School.

So, why was that the best? I mean, the start of the academic year to faculty and admission officers means back to long workdays. It means many, many meetings. It means late nights, tired eyes, and no more trips to the beach or the pool. I already miss those trips to the beach and the pool. HOWEVER, what it also means is that I get to see the fruits of last year’s labor. All of the students with whom I worked so hard last year – at admission events, in interviews, in follow-up phone calls, meetings, and emails – I get to see all of them on campus, here and now as students!

Over the last year, I got to know 170 new students, most of them in person in some capacity. I knew we admitted a rocketry wizard, and I got to make sure our robotics and engineering faculty knew about her. I knew we had at least four students who count ukulele as a big-time hobby, and I got to let them know about one another (some pretty cool jam sessions are about to go down in our dorms). I knew that one of our students had a really challenging summer and was feeling a bit down, and I got to make sure his advisor was prepared to offer a little extra love. I got to understand, before the rest of the school, that our new students are going to knock the socks off of our faculty and returning students. Now everyone gets to know it and I get to see the joy that brings.

Many people see admission officers as gatekeepers, standing at the school doors and judging who gets to come in. While we certainly have a difficult task in making admission decisions, we aren’t gatekeepers. No, I see myself more as a matchmaker. Through the admission process, I help students to navigate the admission process (and sometimes that means helping them to find a match that is better suited to their particular needs). And, when the school year starts, my matchmaker skills kick into high gear as the entire school prepares to welcome them. I help in the faculty advising and roommate pairing processes and work with families to match them with the resources they will need to get started here at George School.

So, when move-in and registration days roll around, it all comes together, and it is magic. The best part? I know that I have two, three, or four years more with these students and I get to see all the dreams they talked about in the application process come true – and I get to see them discover new dreams they didn’t even know they had!

That, to me, is what makes George School so special. New students aren’t a number. Each new student is a person, a part of a family, a dreamer, a do-er, an artist, an athlete, and so much more. When they start their first day here, they start with many, many people knowing quite a bit about who they are, and they already have a jumpstart in helping them to reach their goals.

Here’s to another terrific year!

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How We All Live To Let Our Lives Speak

2004_Jessica (Jess) M. Klaphaak

by Jess Klaphaak ’04

In recent years, I have come to be a rather active member of the Quaker meeting here in Copenhagen. Every Sunday I sit with Ulla and Mogens, both are over 90 years old, who lived through World War II and took part in the Danish resistance against the Nazis. It is quite an experience to listen to their stories of vandalizing fighter jets and sewing dresses from fallen parachutes to hide the evidence of soldiers escaping from battle. We have about ten regular members and at 30, I am the youngest of our little group by about three decades.

At the beginning of July, my family and I went to the Scandinavian Yearly Meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden. There were over 120 participants from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The three of us went as the only participants from Denmark. One afternoon, I sat with the executive secretary of FWCC-EMES and we had a-one-on one conversation about the challenges that face all Quaker communities across Europe. I voiced my concern that our biggest challenge in Denmark is building community, getting people to stay and take on responsibility and that I personally struggle with a feeling of hopelessness for our community that has recently been affecting my motivation and drive.

Being a Quaker and going to Yearly Meeting and other Quaker retreats was such a big part of my childhood and teenage years, and subsequently my adult life, that it is difficult to witness the community that always seemed to sail so smoothly, struggle so hard to keep afloat. Here in Copenhagen, I often feel like I am alone on the mast of a sinking ship. What should I do? Should I jump into the lifeboat of mindfulness or Buddhism or should I climb down and repair the holes myself? For now, I choose to patch the holes. Quakerism offers something more than mindfulness and obviously something different from Buddhism.

As a whole, my experience in Gothenburg left me with the sense that we are all delicately connected—a connection that exists because we, as Quakers, reach out beyond ourselves to actively create community. Perhaps Quakers are particularly good at this because, in my opinion, a true sense of community is formed when we answer that of God in others.

Community is by definition something bigger than one’s self. It is a network of connections to which we belong. Even though un-programmed meetings face dwindling membership across the planet, the few who stick around often accomplish great things through service efforts and lobbying activities. Silence is merely a tool we use to listen to our inner Light, but it is what we do with the messages we receive that defines us, both as individuals and as a group. When a group of over 120 active and engaged Quakers meet, in spite of cultural and language barriers, it is impossible not to feel how we all live to let our lives speak.

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Friends Council on Education Statement – August 15, 2017

The violent expressions of hatred, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville, Virginia were directly opposed to the values our schools stand for. These events serve to deepen our commitment at Quaker schools to teach our students habits of heart and mind that insist upon a disposition of openness and respect for every member of our community regardless of race, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, place of national origin, gender identity or gender expression.  

As we wrote in November:

William Penn founded the first Quaker school in 1689, one hundred years prior to the formal addition of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution.  Penn directed that the school educate students from all walks of life, genders, religions, and ethnicities to prepare them to be moral leaders within the Commonwealth no matter what profession or trade that they might someday pursue.

Penn’s school created a program of study through which these young people might together imagine a more ideal society. Today all Quaker schools strive to serve this critical public purpose just a Penn imagined it in the earliest days of what would become the United States.

In time of uncertainty, and deep distrust, Quaker school communities turn to the Quaker values of peace, integrity, equality and community, as well as the longtime practices of peaceful conflict resolution and nonviolence, as touch points for navigating these turbulent waters.

It is our sincere hope that as children everywhere return to school that they may come together, in the spirit of respect for all, to find a way to listen deeply to one another, to value the gifts that all students bring with them to school everyday, that they might, together, imagine an ideal society.

Each of the 78 Quaker schools across the United States is founded on core Quaker values and practices. These principles strive to address issues of societal injustice. Friends schools seek to create inclusive and diverse communities and to live into the Quaker values of peace, equity, and social justice.

Friends Council on Education supports schools in their efforts to teach for justice and equity. To that end, we lift up just a few examples of how Quaker schools and Quaker school educators are actively working to provide students with skills in mediation, conversations about differences, and peaceful ways for resolving differences.

Upper school students have a social justice collective where they meet weekly to engage in conversations utilizing the model of Intergroup Dialogue. (Germantown Friends School)

Students participate in a Peer Facilitator Training Program that strives to provide students with skills in asking open ended questions, clarifying and summarizing what you have heard, giving respectful feedback – all with the goal of preempting conflict. (Media-Providence Friends School)

The social curriculum serves as a foundation for a Social Justice Unit as early as preschool focusing on fairness, inclusion, and community. (Friends School Haverford)

Upper school students team up with students at other independent schools to host a student-led Mid Atlantic Regional Diversity Conference. Students explore issues of identity (sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, age, ability, socioeconomic status, gender, and religion) through activities that encourage building community and leaning into discomfort. (Abington Friends School)

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A Reflection on the Senior Class  

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by Ralph Lelii

When the neurologist Oliver Sachs was dying in 2015, he had written initially that he feared his imminent death. He had a sense of dread about the future, and lacked faith in what would follow his demise. As he entered stage four of his cancer, he was treated by a young Japanese-American oncologist. He wrote shortly after in his last essay that he had been changed by the experience. When he saw the care, the competence and the dedication of this young physician, he realized his arrogance. He would die confidently, in his words, that the future was safe in the hands of the young.

Each year I find proctoring the IB/AP examinations a moving experience for several reasons, but today Sach’s words resonated with me. As I watched almost eighty of our seniors engage a sophisticated literary essay for two hours, I was deeply touched by their sense of purpose and duty and the need to construct meaning from what they had read, but more than that, I was conscious of what it is we are doing here at this school, what we must do.

Every one who works on this campus, no matter her role, is participating in the survival of our species. We are communal, collaborative, and highly social creatures, and whatever else we are doing, we are passing on what we know so that we might survive beyond ourselves. The truth of it was palpable for me today as I watched them in their youthful beauty and strength struggle with that examination. Despite our pretensions as adults, their imperfections and anxieties differ from ours only in degree. Freud said that we become truly adult when we realize that our parents suffer just as much as we do. I would add the corollary observation that we fully grasp the nature of the young when we grant them the complexity, the nobility and the mystery we attribute to ourselves.

Earlier this year, I had a minor surgery, although as I learned, there really are no “minor surgeries”. They are all risky and require great precision. As I lay in the OR, I was surrounded by eleven doctors, technicians, nurses and support staff, each playing their part in this elaborate and precisely staged medical ritual. I remember thinking of all the teachers each had encountered in their youth, all the men and women they had observed in so many roles, how they had absorbed both the utility of knowledge and the sense of ethical duty that accompanies it.

Today, watching our seniors, I felt again the simple truth that the far larger share of the future belongs to them, not to us. Despite our human tendency to think that the entire universe revolves and evolves around our own consciousness (it does not), it was satisfying to know that I, like Sachs, like every one of us, am just passing through. This work we do matters so much because it is fundamentally about the survival of our species, about our continued evolution and the adaptation it necessitates; they will do well when their turn comes, perhaps even better than we. In the words of the poet Sharon Olds, it is the oldest story of the human race, the story of our replacement.

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