Friday, June 25, 2010


"But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray." Luke 5:16

I came home from the beach early to begin teaching Freshman Comp, and realized I have spent probably more time alone these past six months than in the past 25 years. It's been a fruitful solitude, and Barnesville, where I am sojourning by myself at the moment, hardly fits the description of a desolate place-- it's bursting with all the fecundity caused by a rainy spring, including my abundant raspberry patch--but I am here alone.

I do miss Roger and my kids--and that's a good thing. It's a good thing when you can say you miss your teenage children and mean it!

This past semester at ESR, I was also in solitude often, as I rented a small apartment near campus and stayed there midweek to attend classes. Often, it was so bitingly cold that I hurried home to be in the warmth and do my reading. As spring came, I made friends, for which I am glad, but often was still alone with my work.

I realize my time in Richmond at ESR was a joyful, rich solitude, and quickly understood that my deliberately austere apartment was my version of Thoreau's cabin, a place stripped down to the essentials where I could "front" life. The solitude was creative and clarifying, though I would miss Roger terribly at times.

My children being gone--either to college or boarding at Olney--has created much of this solitude. While I was glad the boys could board at the school last year, I also wonder if we should have kept them home another year. I developed a pattern of stopping at Sophie's college town en route to Richmond so we could have lunch together weekly, which was a good way to keep in touch.

I know people have different tolerances for solitude. I am glad Jesus went off by himself to commune with God and refuel. I wonder how other people deal with solitude and whether they find it helpful or not.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Right now, I am in a brief period--a few of hours--of transition between a week at the beach and beginning teaching my summer English class at Ohio University. The vacation-- at Chincoteague--was glorious in terms of weather, and it was a rare opportunity for family time with all of us together. I loved the marshes, the cry of the seagulls, the brackish smell, the unspoiled beach.

I look forward, however, to beginning teaching. My class numbers only six and that marks a wonderful opportunity for workshopping and individualized learning. I also redid what had become the weaker parts of the class and feel excited about trying some new ideas. On this longest day of the year I feel both stretched and centered, whatever that means.

"Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." Habbukuk 3:18

How are you?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quaker Education

Note: I started writing this before Jeremy's comment, which I will refer to later ...

When I was an education reporter, I covered home-schooling from time to time and couldn't help but notice that many home school parents wanted to do more than teach their children "at home" all the time. Many homeschool parents networked to provide enrichment for their children and a whole industry had arisen around providing classes to homeschooled children during regular school hours. For example, I did one story on a women who had made almost a full-time job out of offering Latin I through IV to homeschooled high schoolers--classes that enrolled anywhere from eight to 16 teens.

I realized that many homeschool parents were not rejecting the classroom model per se, but the constraints and problems of public and private education. Some homeschool mothers I interviewed would have liked a private school for their children, but either had too many children to afford it or too little income. Others homeschool parents tried private schools but found they mirrored too much of what they didn't like in public schools, such as discouraging substantive parental involvement or dismissing parent concerns or not teaching phonics. In other words, at least some homeschooling parents would have been glad to place their children in a school, could they have found an affordable school that lived up to their expectations.

At one point, I covered a homeschooler's "school," and I can't shake it from my mind. This school was parent run, started by two women who wanted more for their children then the loose homeschooling group they were part of. To make a long story short, they banded together, found some other interested parents, borrowed Sunday school rooms in a large church, chose a curriculum and held classes for their children two days a week, with the rest of the at-home school week structured around lessons arising from the classes. By the time I arrived, the school, which still met twice a week, had grown to cover grades 1 through 12, and enrolled 125 students.

Parents ran the school--there was no administration, though there was a parent board--and parents were clearly heavily involved in the day-to-day activities of the school. The school cost $1,000 a year per student, and students who created problems or who could not keep up with the curriculum were asked to leave.

I think about this school because it was as "out of the box" an enterprise as I saw during my time as a reporter. (There's one other one, but that will be a different post.) This was clearly a case of parents a school to fit their children's needs, not setting up a school the way a school "should be" and forcing children to fit it and parents to pay the price.

It dovetailed with other thoughts I have had over the years, chiefly involving Quaker education meeting Quaker family's needs. The biggest need I have seen is affordability. So I would suggest starting there. Find out what parents can afford to pay and work around that, rather than what a school "must" have at ... 10K or 12K a year ... or more.

I can envision a scenario in which, say, nine Quaker families decided they could each put $1-2K a year into a pot to educate their 15 elementary age children. Let's say they ended up with $17K, including donations from Quaker organizations, and some in-kind donations of supplies, etc. The first step would be for all the parents to become approved homeschool parents, and the second would be to get together and fashion a set of goals and principles. I would strongly recommend a first principle being "serving other people's children," to weed out the parents who are only it in for what they can "get" for their own offspring. Third, I would see how much collective education the 17K would buy and work from there. Maybe the parents could obtain free use of Quaker classrooms connected to a meeting. Maybe they could rent at very low cost, say $1,000 a year, from a church or community center. Maybe they would designate another $2,000 a year for supplies and opt to keep $1,000 in reserve for emergencies. This would leave $13,000.

While I don't know the details of all this or what insurance liabilities would be (and perhaps this would all have be done in homes ... I don't know) conceivably, the school could hire a part time teacher for 6K a year total--kind of an adjunct--3K a "semester" who would come in and lead school for 21/2 hours a day two days a week. This could be supplemented by a parent-run meeting for worship before the teacher began her day, and followed by parent-run recess and lunch. And to be part of the group, each parent might be required to offer a few hours of enrichment each year/quarter to all the students ... and that would be a start. Maybe a weekly service project would be another part of the school. Perhaps the rest of the money could pay someone to coordinate the school. Accreditation would not be a problem as all the parents would be homeschoolers. The key point is that it would start with affordability.

The main goals, I believe, for a Quaker school is transmitting Quaker values and serving Quaker children. Much thought needs to be given to what those values are and to what serving Quaker children means. I write this as someone whose children are past the need for this type of schooling--who are two years from high school graduation.

Jeremy Mott went on a similar track when he wrote: "Someone might try to get a little
grant from the Clarence Pickett
Fund---see website---to develop a course on Quakerism for
Quaker parents who are home-schooling their children (I think there are many of them now.) The course could also be used by any of the numerous new Quaker schools which have no Quaker teachers; but
that wouldn't be the emphasis, for Friends Council on Education already tries to help them. The
material might be based, in part,
on what Max Carter of Guilford
College has done to develop curricula on Quakerism and on world religions for the upper grades of the Friends Schools in
Ramallah in Palestine (You can
find this info in their latest newsletter on the web.) There have
got to be ways to make Quaker education less expensive, even in
the U.S.A."

What do you think? Would you be willing to trade in the "bells and whistles" for a school built around Quaker values? What should these values be?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Olney Graduation

Saturday saw the class of 2010 (19 students, 17 present) celebrate graduation at the Stillwater Meeting House. Friday was the annual almuni meeting at Stillwater, which is part of the graduation ceremony. Every year, the alumni meeting includes a roll call of classes. This year 13 out of the 21 from the 50th anniversary class (class of 1960) showed up and five from the class of 1940. We learned that oldest known living alumna is from the class of 1924, presumably 104, and still living independently.

When I watched commencement, the alumni meeting and, earlier in the year, Gym-Ex, I was reminded of how long it takes to build traditions and how they can't simply be replicated from scratch because they carry with them pieces of other times. I'm always impressed with the loyalty of the former students, and am glad the school has changed little and slowly, opting to keep to Quaker ways rather than embrace every new fashion.

I wish more Olneys could spring up around the country--small schools offering strong ethics, a safe community and excellent academics in a simple environment. In a time when many private (now called "independent) educational institutions (including many Quaker schools), have, like the rest of the country, followed the pattern of becoming the elite few separated from the deteriorating public sector, Olney is a refreshing reminder of an earlier time. The school offers a distinctly Quaker education in a setting that is still middle-class, not impossibly posh and elite. I really love that, and mourn that I don't know of more schools that follow this pattern.

Of course, Olney is still expensive, even with generous financial aid (though I imagine most people from the coasts would find, after aid, the entire cost of tuition and boarding less than the average Quaker day school) and the school has been pondering how to become more affordable. Perplexingly, the real cost of attending Olney has risen over time, even with salaries kept as low as possible (much compensation comes in the form of room and board) and a very careful eye on other expenses. The school will be having a summit in the fall to consider, among other things, ways to lower the cost of an education here. Those who can't participate in the summit can go to the Olney website and fill out a survey, and the school is looking for as much input as possible.

I sometimes worry that parents of potential students might be concerned that the school doesn't offer all the bells and whistles of an elite Quaker boarding school. We're struggling to put up the new activities center (gym) and in the meantime, parents drive past the old, disused tennis courts. I hope we can convey that something better is going on at the school--something more rare, more elusive, more difficult to find--than state-of-the-art buildings (though we hope soon to have a "green" gym).

While I have issues with the Harry Potter books, and know that Hogwarts is an over-used (and often false) comparison, Olney does have several things in common with the fictional boarding school. It's old, with a long tradition, and it builds strong community. Of course, it's Quaker and doesn't indulge in magic and occult. It's most like Hogwarts, to me, in not being visible to the average "muggle" eye: If you are looking for outward packaging or a particular kind of school, all you will see are old buildings and a school that doesn't offer 12 languages. It's as if it is disguised from the shallow and materialistic. But if you have the eyes to see ...

At graduation, we also saw our friend from Patapsco Meeting in Ellicott City, Ramona Buck, class of 1965. Johanna Danos, another Patapsco Meeting friend, whose son Elvin just completed his first year as an Olney student, arrived with her mother Helga, a healthy and glowing 83 year old who was much impressed, as I was, by the commencement address given by a recent humanities teacher.

As with most things in the "upside-down" kingdom, the school's financial struggles in the recent past (it almost closed a decade ago) are what have kept it true to itself. Now, however, with the economy down, the school could use more scholarship money as well as the rest of the funds for the new gym, but there's a trust that both will come as needed.

I hope the school will be more and more accessible...and that more people will be able to see that the school is an attainable goal for their children.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jobs for the Young, retirement $ for the Old

Young people can have jobs and old people can pursue, not the rocking chair, but fulfilling second ...third ...fourth ...
IF we push back.

According to the June 7, 2010 Nation:

"Social Security has accumulated a massive surplus--2.5 trillion now, rising to $4.3 trillion by 2023. This vast wealth was collected over many years from workers under the Federal INsurance Contributions Act (FICA) to pay in advance for baby boom retirements. The money will cover all benefits until the 2040s--unless Congress double-crosses workers by changing the rules. This nest egg does not belong to the government; it belongs to the people who paid for it. FICA is not a tax but an involuntary savings."

Our God is a God of abundance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

We could retire earlier ...

From the New York Times (

Beth Almeida is executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington. She is the co-author of “A Better Bang for the Buck: The Economic Efficiencies of Defined Benefit Pension Plans.

She writes:

Longer lives do not necessarily require longer careers. Yes, seniors are living a few years longer than they did decades ago. Life expectancy at age 65 has improved by about 35 percent since 1950. But our country’s gross domestic product is also roughly six times larger than it was in 1950 and household incomes have grown by a similar amount.

Higher retirement ages are not economically or demographically necessary.
That means not only can we still afford retirement, we can afford even more of it if that’s what we want. That’s good news. Yet somehow, longer lives have become an economic bogeyman.

I have often thought about this: We have so much more wealth as society than we used to even 50 years ago that we don't "have to" up the retirement age. We could, for example, decide we don't want to provide 50 percent of the world's military budget. We don't have to assume that younger people won't want to pay for older people's retirement. I can easily imagine younger people buying into the idea that if they pay now, they will have the same benefits to look forward to when they get older. We could also allow more immigration if we are short of working-aged people to support baby boomers.

Another writer talked about the changes in aging in this country and argued that people want to work longer, take care of "unfinished" business and do meaningful work as a long as they can. I agree with this, but don't think it means we need to somehow limit or do away with retirement benefits. For many people, meaningful and part-time work at the end of life is only possible because of the cushion of social security and other retirement income. Also, I worry that what is good for the middle and upper classes--a lifetime opportunity to work--could become lifelong wage slavery for working class people. I hope we will find the will as a country to continue to both finance retirement and allow people opportunities to contribute to the common good or their own enrichment as long as they can.

The Bible speaks to this by noting that love casts out fear. If we are loving others and putting first the kingdom, there will be an abundance of resources. The story of the loaves and the fishes illustrates this point.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The hermeneutic of imagination

Recently, I finished my first semester at ESR, and my first semester as a full-time student in a very long time. It's been an interesting experience and there's so much to say about it that it becomes too long for a blog, so I will talk here about one piece of it.

The program merges an emphasis on scholarship with a push towards creativity. In both my Old and New Testament classes, despite the rigorous scholarly approaches, we were encouraged to be creative in our final projects. Since I am engaged by both scholarship and creativity, I did both, developing what I call a "hermeneutic of imagination."

The hermeneutic of imagination worked as follows: I first very deeply imagined myself into both the book of Revelation (for New Testament class) and the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba (for Old Testament class). For Revelation, I took to heart Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's advice to approach the book imaginatively, and as I read, I lived beside John touring heaven with the angels as his guides. It pulled me into John's vision of heaven in a new way. I then took what I "saw" on that journey and used it as an entry point to a scholarly reading of Revelation. What I learned touring with John is that heaven is incomplete without The New Jerusalem: that heaven, a pallid, emotionless space (except for endless praises to God and the Lamb) needs the robust embodiment that earth offers as much as humans need the justice and mercy that heaven offers. It's a symbiosis. This surprised me, because I'd thought of heaven as perfect and complete--that which we aspire to. John's heaven is not. It needs the "juice" of earth and humanity--of God's worldly creation.

I also imagined my way into Abigail and Bathsheba, and soon realized that although they are kept separate in the narratives, they must have known each other, since both were David's wives. I imagined them together and what they might say to each other. I learned from this that both, despite the misunderstandings of the scholars, were empowered by silence, and I learned that you can't impose the same interpretive grid on both David and his wives, because David had a great deal of power and the wives didn't. For people with less power, the ability to operate silently--underneath the radar--is so important. For a person such as David--a king--public displays of power are all important.

I made many interesting discoveries about Bonhoeffer, and somehow intuited that Shakespeare was a lens through which to understand him. This gets back to a subject that has been much on mind: the role of fiction in understanding fact.

Somehow, God is central to this: the God that wants all of us, body, mind, heart and soul, imagination and reason.