Tag Archives: Quaker

A Conversation with Kathy Coyle

An interview with Kathy Coyle conducted by Chloe ’16. Check out some of Chloe’s other posts on the blog including: Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Filling Your Empty Canvases (Making a Dorm Room Feel Like a Home, Not a Box), and Speaking of Squirrels.

Hey Kathy!

Hey Chloe

You excited? You look super excited.

I’m so pumped! Continue reading

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A Conversation with Stephen Moyer

An interview with Stephen Moyer ’82 conducted by Chloe ’16. Check out some of Chloe’s other posts on the blog including: Pumpkin Spice Oreos, Filling Your Empty Canvases (Making a Dorm Room Feel Like a Home, Not a Box), and Speaking of Squirrels.

Hi Stephen!

Hi Chloe.

Whats your position here at George School?

I am a member of the Religion Department teaching Essentials of a Friends Community and Holistic Health. I have taught Spiritual Practices and Quakerism as well. I’m also the faculty sponsor to the Model United Nations club. I coach all of the running sports–boys and girls cross-country and boys and girls indoor and outdoor track so I’m coaching all three seasons and I’m the head of Drayton Dormitory with my beloved wife, Laurie. Continue reading

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The Examined Life

by Ralph Lelii, English department

On the Sunday before Christmas, I sat in worship with my two grandchildren in the Abington Friends Meetinghouse. It had been a festive and blessed morning, complete with caroling, a roaring fire and general good cheer. Out of the silence, a Friend stood and spoke. He said that he had been angry earlier that morning and had acted in ways that made him feel ashamed. Before sitting, he said it was important that he remember that if there is to be peace on earth, it needs to begin with him.

In that ancient room, there was a feeling of gathered spiritual commitment. The spoken ministry had seemed earnest and timely, and the assembled Friends, myself included, were united in that vision of the world, one in which spiritual contemplation and its resultant action could result in a better, more ethically coherent world. It is a vision of human existence I hope my grandbabies will share, one where there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Spiritual reflection often brings such hope and such rewards, but as the silence returned, my thoughts wandered away from this tranquility. Continue reading

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Tour Guides: A Glimpse of Life at GS

by Ashley Pettway, Admission Office

First term is in full swing and our campus is buzzing with visitors. It gives us great joy here in the Admission Office to share our campus with you and it takes a lot of people behind the scenes to make your visit special. Last week, I introduced the ambassadors, a select group of students who blog, take pictures, and talk with families during visits. This week, I’d like to introduce you to our tour guides. Each year, the Admission Office selects outgoing sophomores, juniors, and seniors to serve as student leaders in our office. These students have shown a love for George School and often hold additional leadership positions on campus.  They are the heart of our office and we could not function without them. Continue reading

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Pumpkin Spice Oreos

Hello, all.

By now we can agree that the George School academic year is in full, Cougar Crazy swing. We are all getting to know our new teachers and excitedly greeting our old ones in the happy halls that make up our friendly establishment. Yes, Friends, the year is on, and we are ready to take it in with open arms, hearts, and minds.

I know I’m super excited for the rest of this year, though I have to admit that I am amazed at how quickly summer flew by me. Only about a month ago I was lounging on my couch with a fuzzy blanket wrapped around my torso and Netflix reflected in my retina. Just before that, I was a whimsical sophomore coasting on the gentle waves of my then minimal workload. Answer me this: what happened? Where’s my Netflix? Where’s my blanket? Where did all this homework come from? Continue reading


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by Ralph Lelii, English department

On January 18, 1991, I was sitting in the faculty lounge grading papers with a colleague when it was announced on the radio that Saddam Hussein had launched SCUD missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa. My acquaintance, whom I knew as a faithful Quaker, pumped his fist and said, “Yes.” One can understand his response in a number of ways, and I knew him to be deeply committed to living out the Testimonies of Friends’ Practice. War, its indiscriminate violence and cruelty, challenges us in multiple ways, and he had a deep political allegiance in that part of the world. That memory, viewed in the context of our current world crises, prompts me to reflect on our Peace Testimony and its particular challenges.

This ideal is historically grounded in our record of Margaret Fell’s declaration to King Charles II in 1660, uttered in challenge to the imprisonment of George Fox. He had been arrested in response to an armed revolt by religious radicals, and she wanted the King to know that he could have had no part in the violence.  With utter conviction Fell claimed that “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable…” There are no qualifications in the statement, no conditional clauses, no caveats of exemption.

Many religions have as part of their theological scaffold a commitment to peaceful coexistence, forgiveness and redemption, and a recognition that there may be times that call for spiritually righteous participation in armed conflict. In some creeds this has been called the “just war” condition.  The pacifist claim, of Margaret Fell, however, is unconditional: her claim is a denial of all war, all weapons, all strife, and therein lies the rub. Our species has evolved to construct systems of meaning which rely heavily upon abstract qualifications, subtle distinction, intellectual ambiguity and the relative merits of ethical, spiritual, and political hierarchies. This particular Quaker testimony, however, permits no sliding scale. As I read it, one cannot be a partial Pacifist, a sometimes absolutist. In a pure sense, one either is or is not a pacifist.  I think, however, that perhaps many of us struggle toward that as a spiritual goal, her words a map which is not necessarily yet the territory.

My friend and sometimes mentor Kingdon Swayne, former Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly meeting and George School historian and archivist, participated in WWII as a combatant, as did several other members of Friends Meetings to which I have belonged. Many other Quakers refused to participate in that war, either removing themselves completely or serving as medics or in other non-violent capacities. To say that all Friends are pacifists is to make, I think, a complex and inaccurate claim. I asked Kingdon once in his office if he would serve again in the military against Hitler. He said, with his usual philosophical subtlety that he would, but neither gladly or willingly, because he felt that was an evil to which he could not respond otherwise. As a caveat, he added that he still struggled with the question, probably always would.

I assume that just about every nation which has ever gone to war has had a long list of ethical, moral, and economic justifications. The Peace testimony is very difficult for me because as soon as I lay claim to it, some particular conflict comes forward and  seems to ask that I  adjust the ideal. The moment I admit an exception, though, I am no longer capable of making the claim for pacifism. The world intrudes, and in fact some peoples and cultures seem to us more violated than others, more the subjects of injustice and horror and exploitation than others, and we want, in our human essence, to right those wrongs. Fell, I think, knew that, and what she said is haunting and terribly difficult to do. There is no caveat in this testimony, no exception to the rule, and hence as a Friend I can only say that I aspire to that particular ideal, that I hope to evolve to a place where it can be simply the case.  Much as I would wish it otherwise, I am not yet there, plagued as I am by the lessons and mysteries and repetitions of history. It is also the case that I have lived my entire life free of the physical experience of war, privileged to have the time and the peace to raise my children to adulthood, to read books, to contemplate the meanings of such questions in solitude.

Margaret Fell’s words and their implications are haunting. No matter how deeply our sense of justice is affronted, no matter how cruel the hand of history or culture or national or ethnic violence, we can never be justified in responding in kind. One must wear this suit of clothes in its entirety, sans personal embellishments or omissions, yielding fully at the last to its particular and unyielding insistence.

As the human paleontologist and naturalist Loren Eisely wrote in The Night Country, we are likely still nascent in our evolutionary history, and God willing, we may a hundred thousand years hence, embrace by inclination or necessity the logic of Fell’s position. Until then, many of us will struggle in the dark night of the soul to find our way fully forward and into her Light.

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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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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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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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Why We Offer Both–Justifying the IB and the AP

by Ralph Lelii, English department

When I speak with parents of prospective IB Diploma candidates, I am asked this question most frequently: “What is the difference between the IB and the AP?” My answer reflects differences in assessments, curricula, and philosophy, but I do not think it is the most significant question one might ask about the two programs. I believe instead that a far more interesting query might be centered on what justification we might offer for featuring both programs here at George School.

The respective histories are worth mentioning first. After WWII, the Ford Foundation supported the formation of a committee to study innovation in secondary education. It was called the “Kenyon Plan” because it originated at Kenyon College. The first study was conducted by three prep schools—the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy—and three universities—Harvard University, Princeton University and Yale University. They concluded it was possible to teach rigorous, college level material at the secondary level and offer college credits. The Advanced Placement program has been in existence continually since 1955.

The IB has a more complex genesis. Though the idea for the IB began in 1948, it was at an international conference in Geneva in 1962 that the plan gained traction. It was actually an American history teacher, Robert Leach, who organized the Geneva conference. UNESCO became interested and funded the ongoing development. Coincidentally, a Ford Foundation grant funded the final study at Oxford University in 1966. The participants looked at the A level system in the UK and studied the Advanced Placement program as well. In 1969, the IB began its Diploma with a six year test program, and the IB Diploma was formalized in 1975.

Both the AP and the IB stress academic rigor above all else, and interested readers can explore their respective philosophies and curricula readily online. For me, the justification for our participation in both programs resides in two ideas about human nature and our existence as an International Friends School.

The term “confirmation bias” was coined in a paper published in 1960 by British psychologist Peter Wason.  It stated that people will tend to support their own hypothesis in a one-sided way by searching for evidence which supports their beliefs, and selectively excluding evidence which tends to disprove it. This idea is hardly new; Aristotle spoke of our desire to select our side in an argument on the basis of what we already believe and to eschew principles which seem to contradict them. These studies have been repeated again and again with similar results. Because any teacher worth his or her salt has a passion for the job, it seems likely to me that we will at least occasionally see things in ways that reinforce what we want to be true in our pedagogy. For me, the IB and the AP are like referees on a basketball court. Left to their own devices, players might begin to justify their own fouls and diminish the claims of the opponents. These two programs provide an outside pair of eyes, not perfect by any means, but rigorous and standardized.

The second idea about human nature that I reference is the “observer effect” first stated about physics. It suggests that by the mere act of observation, we change in some degree the things we see. In a small, highly personal school community, it seems at least possible to me that our perceptions of our students’ work, by virtue of our constant close observation, might influence the production of it and our evaluation as well. Having the outside assessments of the IB and AP on hand give us a way to balance our own perceptions. Again, it is not that one is right and the other wrong. It is a system of checks and balances, I believe, that can lead to a greater level of intellectual accuracy concerning our notions of what students actually learn. I would never be in support of a school curriculum composed entirely of AP or IB classes. Here at George School, students who take these externally assessed components still receive the full GS experience and most of their classes are mixed right through senior year.

Finally, George School is an international Friends’ institution with young people in attendance from forty-eight different countries. That staggering number is a testament to the extraordinary ambition and energy of our Admissions Department. For me, it seems right that we acknowledge and reward the trust of those parents around the world by having the humility to temper our academic autonomy at least a bit with assessments constructed internationally and administered in all of the their respective homelands.

In 2007, I was a guest examiner in Cardiff, Wales at the IBO assessment center. The supervisor of my discipline, English Literature A1, was a Moroccan educated in Moscow and London. There was a Peruvian on my team, as well as a Canadian and a Saudi. I was the sole US representative, and I was not afforded any special status. I was treated equitably, charitably and professionally as was everyone else, and I came away with a sense that this collaboration was something worth modeling for our students, destined as are we all, to live with empathy and compassion in a world they never made.

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