Friday, March 25, 2011

Olney Gym Ex and the Quaker testimonies

Every year at this time, Olney Friends School holds Gym Ex, a gymnastic exhibit. I love Gym Ex, because it so completely expresses the Quaker testimonies:

Simplicity: A 70-year-old gym, floor mats, a hand-made pole vault, jump ropes, and a trampoline are all the students need to put on an hour-and-a-half show of athletic ability and coordination. It's an impressive and unvarnished display of physical ability using the simplest of equipment.

Community: Gym Ex is the point in the year where the students show they have coalesced as a community. Community emerges as they work together to dance, jumprope in groups, do gymnastics together and build human pyramids. It's expressed as they applaud and urge each other on. It reaches a high point when the girls file in at the end of the evening holding candles and serenade the boys with a song they have a chosen. This year it was "I want to Hold your Hand." Community is expressed too in the continuity of Gym Ex from year to year. It's a tradition handed down person to person going back at least a century.

Equality: Everyone is equal, Everyone works with each other. Girls are as athletic as boys. I'm impressed at GymEx, as I always am at Olney, at the girls' ability to be the strong humans--in body and character-- that they are. I never hear the word "feminism" or the term "woman's rights" spoken at GymEx, yet, harkening back to the earliest Quakers, girls are treated as fully human. Maybe when that acceptance is part of a culture, terms like feminism can fade away. I wish there were a way to spread this respect out more widely into a culture that sexualizes women so totally. I could say the same for race, ethnicity and nationality: they are celebrated and yet don't matter because there's absolutely no shred of hierarchy. This is a Quaker model at its best, and I wish it could be shouted out to the world.

Peace: This is more subtle--and there's even friendly competition to see who can jump highest over the pole vault-- but GymEx is a peaceful display of athletic prowess.

Integrity: When the above four interact, integrity is the outcome.

As I have since I arrived at Olney, I wish there were a way to push this model of education out into the wider world. What perplexes me is the difficulty of spreading the simplicity of what the school offers. In a time when we are handwringing over the high cost of public education, this model is inexpensive, were the boarding school portion removed. (Feeding and housing students and offering 24/7 care does add to the tab.) None of what the school offers requires spending huge amounts of money. It does require establishing small educational communities with an emphasis on relationship building and the Quaker testimonies. Yet it seems to me by using simplicity to encourage academic ability and good physical health, trusting students and building respectful relationships, the school is doing what is most important towards nurturing the kind of functioning, whole people who can enter the world and make it a better place.

Why do you think it is so hard to replicate this model? This is what baffles me--its seems as though schools like this should be everywhere, and they're not. I would think parents would cry out for this model of humanity over a bigger chem lab or more language offerings, but for some reason, we don't. I wonder why not?

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