Tag Archives: meeting for worship

Speech to Parents: Parents Visiting Day 2014

Adapted from a speech delivered by Head of School Nancy Starmer during Parents Visiting Day 2014.

Welcome, it’s wonderful to see you all here today and thanks for taking the time to come to hear me; I know the day is busy!

The school year is off to an excellent start.  I hope the same is true from your perspective! The opening of our new fitness and athletics center was an early highlight.  We were thrilled that it opened on time and under budget, with none of the all-too-typical delays and punch-list problems that new buildings often exhibit.

Our students have been using the Center constantly, in their free time for pick-up games or lap swimming or to work out in the fitness center; the volleyball team is of course thrilled to have this new space; PE classes have taken over the movement studio and the pool and gyms; and teams are using the spaces in inventive ways as well (field hockey practiced in the multipurpose gym before their first game on the turf field, for example, to get a feel for the faster ball, and several teams have scheduled times to do strength training in the mornings before school.) We’ve had pool parties almost every weekend, open either to all students or scheduled as dorm events, and two weekends ago George School hosted a Health Fair in the new building, where community businesses and health services came to advertise and raise people’s consciousness about everything from stress to back problems to heart-healthy menus. Continue reading

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China: Summer 2014

by Michael LoStracco, religion department and international student sponsor

We arrived in China as tourists, but we left as guests, having learned one immeasurably precious value through our service-learning work, that of intimacy.

Upon our arrival in Beijing, we were immediately swept up into the manic rush of the sprawling capital city. High on the North China Plain, Beijing is an endless city, seemingly boundless across spans of history, geography, and imagination.  We spent our first three days in China visiting some of the most important Chinese cultural heritage sites, including the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.  Our group spent some time among the crowded and storied hutongs—the historic and quickly vanishing warrens of squat residential buildings and outdoor markets that characterize some of the oldest parts of the city— but mostly  we were whisked from site to site, trying to see all that we could see in our short time there.  We were fortunate enough to have some relatively clear, sunny days, which are few and far between in Beijing, with the notable exception of being caught in a rare hailstorm while visiting the Temple of Heaven.  During our time in the capital, we dined in popular restaurants and slept in comfortable hotel beds.  Pleasant, yes, but distant: our group was eager to experience China, to work and live within communities, to meet and come to know our hosts.

From Beijing we flew three hours south and west to the provincial capital of Guiyang, in Guizhou, a province populated by the ethnic minority Miao and Dong peoples.  From Guiyang, we drove another three hours to the prefectural seat of Kaili, a smaller city of approximately 500,000.  Along the way, we were introduced to smaller cities and towns, each known for its contribution to Miao and southern Chinese culture.

Our service work began in Kaili, where the transformation from tourist to guest began to take place.  Our group worked closely with the English language students at the University there, helping them practice their conversational English, teaching them new English words and phrases, and playing language-based games.  But beyond the instruction and play, something else was taking place: the students began connecting across language barriers and cultural differences with humor and curiosity.  Lessons and games turned into conversation and discussion, which then led to games of basketball and table tennis.  A transformation was taking shape before our eyes, though few of us were aware of it at the time.  Through smiles and laughter and sweat, a deepening understanding and bond was being formed.  We were getting closer, more intimate, with our hosts, the country and the culture.

From Kaili we hiked roughly nine miles through the Thunder God mountain range to the rural Miao village of Baibi, home to a community of subsistence farmers and their families.  The hike was arduous, and the group struggled mightily to complete it, but after four and half hours, we finally arrived and were greeted with the blasts of firecrackers, bamboo pipe music, and saucerfuls of warm Sprite, which were ceremoniously served to us by elder women in colorful traditional custom.  Exhausted and famished, we had dinner together and rested, preparing for our first full day of work the following day.  Our project in Baibi was to build benches and planters made of brick and concrete at the local elementary school.  All the work tasks were to be done manually: all the hauling, lifting, mixing, laying, and smoothing was to be done with our own bodies, by our own effort and sweat.

With gloved hands and aging tools, our group enthusiastically got to work the next morning, straining our bodies in the southwestern China sun, diligently completing each task and earning a righteous exhaustion.  Along the way, we learned from the locals how to mix cement, lay brick and handle shovels, hoes, and trowels without straining ourselves.  Our hosts were patient with us, and we learned from each other in ways beyond language.  Because school was still in session, we even had the opportunity to work with some of the children at the school, whose bright smiles and brilliant curiosity taught us all something about spontaneity, generosity and unselfconsciousness.  Each afternoon and evening we shared meals together in the village secretary’s home, bowlfuls of delicious locally grown and raised vegetables and meats, wok-fried to sumptuous perfection, served over heaps of white rice from the rippled hillsides around us.  The food and the time spent together eating and resting were nourishing.  Slowly, over the course of five days, we were growing more intimate with each other, with our work, and with the community that hosted and supported us.

Upon completing our service-learning work in Baibi, we continued on to the larger Miao village of Xijiang, which has developed over the last four years into a domestic tourist hotspot.  It is no surprise why: The picturesque village is tucked away in a lush valley surrounded by green hills dotted with spruce and cedar and lined with verdant terraced rice paddies.  Xijiang offers colorful demonstrations of commerce and culture and is quite bustling, a big change from sleepy Baibi.  Our group entered the village through one of its massive gates and proceeded to hike on up into the hills to meet our host families.  Fortunately, our large luggage met us at the top, taken there on mule back.

Our work in Xijiang began the following day, and unfortunately the mules wouldn’t be able to help us with our commute to the work site each day, which involved a steep and rigorous 30-minute hike.  As challenging as the hike alone was, the view it afforded was surely worth it: for miles all around one took in a vista of rolling, rippled deep green hills veiled in a soft grey mist, a mist that rolled on through the valleys like a tide.  The scenery was gripping, beautiful, causing one to pause every few steps just to take it all in.

Once we got to the work site, where we our job was to help repair and revive an old overgrown paddy, the hard manual work resumed.  Our group jumped to it, taking the shovels, hoes, and buckets and getting to the laborious task of earth removal, digging up mounds of grass and dirt to both flatten and clear the ground and to get at the clay we would use to make cement.  Again, the locals modeled how to work and use our tools properly, so as not to burn-out or injure ourselves.  We watched and listened closely and followed their lead.  In pairs, some of us took to the task of creating an embankment which would effectively retain the water in the paddy and prevent too much run-off and possible mudslides.  For three days we engaged in demanding physical labor under the cover of mountain cloud and mist.  We shared stories and jokes with one another and found ways to interact and laugh with our local guides.  In the afternoons and evenings, our group parted ways and returned to our homestays, where we had our meals and rested.  Again the service-learning work pushed us physically, but as we were beginning to realize, we were being challenged in other ways as well.

The elders in the village of Xijiang gave us a heartfelt and colorful send-off on our final night, performing several traditional songs and dances, much to the delight of our group and the small children of the village.  We were even invited to share something of our own, which we did, singing a rousing, if out-of-tune, rendition of the George School hymn.  The next morning we set out for Guiyang, the provincial capital, stopping along the way to hike through an incredible natural preserve with three gorgeous, crystalline waterfalls.  Once in Guyiyang, our guide Michael took us to visit a popular park in the city center, inhabited by wild macaque monkeys who happen to have an appetite for processed snack foods and bottled water.  Hiking uphill to the center of the park, we came to an ancient Mahayana Buddhist temple and monastery.  There we were greeted by the fragrance of incense and the billowing smoke from joss sticks lit to carry off supplicants’ prayers and intentions to the heavens.  We were shown around the main temple to Shakyamuni Buddha by a monk who explained the ornate decorations and statuary, and some of us were moved to make offerings of our own.  Considering it was our final night in China before a long day of travel home, such offerings seemed appropriate.

Throughout the trip we held meetings for worship, and before bed on our final night together in China, we met one last time.  Gathered there, the ten of us in a small hotel room in Guiyang, sitting in a circle on the floor, exhausted and eager to see our families after a long journey, it struck me just how close we had all become, and not just with each other, but also with the country, its people and the virtues of service-learning work.  This led me to reflect on the nature of intimacy, of closeness, and how in our ordinary life back home, we are hardly intimate with ourselves, our work and each other in the ways we are when traveling in a distant land and doing hard work, especially in a rural, mountainous region like Guizhou, so far removed from anything familiar to us back home.

Through our traveling together, on planes and buses and vans, we had come to trust and rely on one another for safety, for company, for the relief of laughter.  Hiking together— up and down the Great Wall, through the mountain wilderness and countryside—brought us closer not only to each other but also to a sense of China’s great history, to its immense and immeasurably beautiful natural environment and cultural heritage.  Working together, whether in the classroom or out in the rice paddies, brought us all closer to a sense of ourselves, what we are capable of, what our bodies can do and the limits of our exertion.  Through our work and sweat we gave of ourselves in service to others, from whom we came to learn how to do just that, humbly and graciously.  Through the food we ate we became closer to the land, eating that which was grown and raised locally by our hosts, in the places we saw and worked in.  We became more intimate with agricultural life, with the sounds and smells of animals that are uncommon in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Most importantly, through our entire trip together, we became thoroughly conversant and intimate with difference: the differences among individuals in our small group, the differences of geography, and language and culture, the difference between who we were at the start of the trip and who we had become by its end.  We had arrived as tourists, feeling distant and perhaps alien to the unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds of a foreign land, but through our service-learning work and being nurtured by the openness and kindness of our hosts, we had become guests, feeling close to the land and its people, learning the value of giving of ourselves and being open to receiving from others.

 

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Simplicity

by Michael LoStracco, religion department and international student sponsor

When I was 19, I was given the gift of an image, a memory I return to again and again in meditations on the testimony of Simplicity, a quality of unadorned, unencumbered grace.

At the time I was working for a tree service company in between semesters at college.  It was good, hard work.  We began early, 7:00 a.m., and I would walk to work each morning, half-asleep with a brown paper lunch sack crumpled in hand.  Quit-time was whenever the job was done, and it seemed the job was never done.  I worked with that company for all fours years of college, and it wasn’t until I approached the completion of my B.A. that my boss even let me near the proper chainsaws.  My main responsibilities were to clear  fallen debris from the ground beneath whatever tree we were working on, and to not get hurt.  Simple, yes, but I can’t say I was always completely successful at either.  I still remember our number one rule: when you hear the chainsaws running, don’t go under that tree. Continue reading

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Pruning

by Ralph Lelii, English department

When I purchased my home back in 1999, my wife was pleased to discover that there was a mature pear tree on the grounds which we had overlooked in the inspection. As we moved in during late August, the tree virtually groaned with ripe pears. They were plump and unblemished, but when we picked one to taste, we were disappointed in its bitterness; it seemed as if the flesh was bereft of sugar. All of them were like this.

Puzzled, we consulted an arborist who informed us that the tree had to be pruned in order to bear the kind of fruit we wanted. Skeptical, but obedient to his expertise, we did as we were told, and miraculously, after cutting away about a third of the tree, next year’s crop was flush with sweet, ripe pears. The idea of cutting away healthy, thick plant tissue to produce healthier tissue was a strange concept for me, but after fifteen years on the property, pruning has become a fall and spring ritual for all of our plants, empirical evidence that less is indeed often more.

As children, we produce more connections-synapses- between brain cells than we need. During puberty, the body carries out a kind of neural topiary, cutting away synapses and allowing others to strengthen. As many as half of these brain junctures are cut away by our bodies, resulting in more efficient, sophisticated and richer cognitive activity. It was once believed that this pruning stopped in our late teens, but it is now accepted that this neural pruning continues into our late twenties and beyond. Quantity is sacrificed for quality, even in the physiological vineyard of the very cells that constitute human consciousness.

I thought of this sitting in MFW yesterday as I was looking at some of the senior members in my monthly meeting. One couple in particular are in their late eigthies, hale and hearty and cogent as tax attornies. They once owned a huge house, raised a family, but in their own words, consciously pruned back their lives as they reached seventy, selling off what seemed unecessary, perhaps even counterproductive, and moving into a small apartment. Both husband and wife say that the last twenty years of their lives have been the richest they can recall, the spiritual fruit of their lives laced far more heavily with the sweet and subtle scent of self-awareness and connection.

It is hard in our culture to talk about death. Often it is seen as morbid or negative and depressing, and I suspect that this social quieting makes the underlying prospect seem even more terrible and isolating. As  I sit in silence and look at the beauty of the elders in my meeting, and then glance at the inchoate longings of the children and younger members, I think perhaps that even rich souls must be pruned away to make way for new ideas, new directions, new possibilities. It is the way of things, nothing more.  Viewed in this context, death does not perhaps lose its sting entirely, but it certainly gives us a possible way of understanding it that connects us more deeply to the miraculous nature of creation, death and rebirth, its myriad cycles and processes. Death isn’t personal; it’s just the business of life.

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New Year, New Goals

by Tiffany Olszuk, Advancement Office Intern

Tiffany Olszuk is a 2012 graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a resident of New Jersey. When she is not assisting with development projects, she enjoys coaching swimming, singing, and reading positive psychology or sport psychology research.

It’s that time of year when people begin to reflect on the ups and downs of the past year and map out their road in the New Year. For some, this means generating New Year’s resolutions. Whether they are made to be broken or not, it is my opinion that the act of engaging in quiet reflection and focusing thoughts has great potential to generate a sense of optimism or renewed energy going into a new year.

As someone who recently joined the George School staff, I find myself reflecting on all the ways that I have been welcomed by staff, students, and faculty since my first round of interviews and campus tour just a few short months ago. My collective experiences at George School thus far have inspired me to set a few George School related goals before the end of the academic year. In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I thought I would share a few of my goals—perhaps others share my sentiments!

Goal 1: Attend another Quaker meeting (perhaps more than one!).

  • Prior to working at George School, my experiences in a Quaker community were limited to studying contemplative traditions at Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College. I dedicated one semester to exploring contemplative traditions in both the United States and Japan and had the opportunity to study the role of silence and mindfulness in Quakerism as well as experience my first Quaker meeting. It was during this time that I realized the value of mindful activities in focusing thoughts and energy or reducing daily stresses. I attended Quaker meeting at George School in November and I was immediately transported back to my collegiate experiences with Quakerism.  The act of being still and engaging in a spiritual community was so centering that I am making it a goal to attend another meeting this year.

Goal 2:  Enjoy the many beautiful spaces on campus.

  • In the two months that I have been on staff, I have seen South Lawn transform into a beautiful canvas with pink, gold, and red hues at sundown (ideal for meditation!) to a sports arena, to an icy winter scene in which I can hear students bursting with laughter or the occasional sound of a snowball whipping through the air. I can’t wait to cheer on the Cougars at sporting events in the spring and take in the peaceful scenery within the next few months.
  • The Anderson Library is another location on my “to visit” list. I distinctly remember stepping into the Library for the first time during my campus tour and being amazed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. It makes me wonder whether George School students draw inspiration for their writing assignments just from being in that space…I know it would inspire me!  I hope to spend some time writing there in the future or perhaps participate in the weekly mindfulness practices held there.

Goal 3: Have more conversations with George School students.

  • I occasionally run into students via advancement office co-ops or brief dashes to the post-office or bookstore. Each time that I do, I learn more about George School and I am reminded of how each student makes unique and meaningful contributions to the George School community.  Whether I am learning about students’ athletic interests and community service activities, or trying to figure how the flamingo trend started (or where they will appear next!)I enjoy these brief interactions, as they  often  motivate me to want to do more to help improve the George School experience through my work.

These are just a few goals that I’m looking forward to working towards in 2014. I would be curious to see what other  members of the George School community are aspiring to in order  to “let their lives speak” in the new year. I invite you to share or comment below!

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Behind the Scenes of Holiday Weekend

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Juniors Jordan Dunbar, Alice Croom, and Kristine Olsen

Behind the glamour

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Juniors Rachel Keller and Monica Nadeau

and the dresses

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Seniors (and roomies) Buse (Sunny) Duz and Sunyul (Michelle) Kwak

and the smiles

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Dorm head Julia Nickles and hall teacher Courtney Harrigan

are a whole bunch of adults in sweatshirts.  Just as excited as the students.

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Junior Natalie Hackett and Courtney Harrigan

I can’t speak for the boys’ dormitories, but in Main (where sophomore through senior girls reside), watching the students depart for winter formal was one of the highlights of the weekend.

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Hall teacher Michelle Ruess (standing on chair) and dorm head Avis Leverett (in pink shirt)

To me the moment encapsulated everything we try to do as dorm parents: be supportive.  Keep organized.  Take pictures.  With many families far away, we filled that role wholeheartedly, offering hugs and compliments and the occasional advice on footwear.  We wanted each girl to feel as beautiful as she looked.

The girls were stunning, but more importantly, they seemed happy.  They humored the adults who made them pose for photo after photo

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Making C’s for Central (Central Main, our dorm)

and only got a little bit silly.

The holiday festivities continued the following day, with a dorm wide Yankee Swap (hot gift item: pink Snuggie), a candlelit Meeting for Worship with readings and music, and an elegant holiday dinner.  Even the beloved flamingos made an appearance in the Meeting centerpiece!

There are moments when dorm parenting (like real parenting) can seem focused on the humdrum.  Study.  Clean your room.  Call your mother.  These small things are part of building a relationship, and it’s important to have conversations about homework and college and why uneaten tacos shouldn’t be left in the hallway.  But this weekend, it was lovely to simply celebrate the season and the students.  Gathered in Midway with the residents of Main, decked out in their semi-formal finery, I felt every bit the proud parent.  I just happen to have 41 teenage girls.

Top photo by Courtney Harrigan

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