As a journalist, I mostly have the “Quaker beat” to myself: Friends are a tiny sect, known mostly for being “quaint,” the inventors of oatmeal, riders in buggies, and extinct. (Never mind that the last three are not true; they’re still what we’re “known” for, by many in what the elders used to call “the world,” when such folk bother to think about us at all.) So when I report on Quaker stuff, it’s rare that I have to compete with “normal” reporters.
But sometimes I get scooped; and that happened again today, and in no less an outlet than the New York Times. (But hey, if you’re gonna get scooped, it might as well be by the best.)
And why would the Times bother with us? If you don’t already know, think for a minute: The Times’ base constituency is the affluent (and up) of the nation’s largest city. And what artifacts of Quakerism are such moneyed folk most likely to bump into? (Hint: nothing to do with oatmeal.)
Right: “Quaker” schools. Several such are at or near the top of the social/prestigious/rich private school hierarchies of their respective hometowns, places that charge as much as $50,000 for a year of high school. You’ve likely already heard of the Sidwell School in Washington DC, where the Obama girls went, the latest in a long line of presidential progeny who enrolled there.
It seems that Manhattan has one such school, called Friends Seminary, down toward the southern end of the island, not far from Wall Street, Greenwich Village, and some of the most expensive gentrification on the continent.
But “Friends,” as it’s called for short, was there first, going back to 1786, and was started to provide the culturally separatist Quakers of the day a “guarded education,” long on basics and the Bible, short on contact with the “world” outside, and “peculiar” then because Quaker education included young women Friends.
However, merely being 240-plus years old and pricey does not open the way to the top of the private school heap in Gotham. According to the Times, the city’s truly elite educational cognoscenti sniff at it as being “second tier” in its league.
But “Friends” is peculiar no more. Its headmaster (who came there, not coincidentally, from a stint at Sidwell), has been determined to vault it into the first tier, and is doing so via a path that’s all too familiar to those who follow such things (which includes me at a distance): raising millions for the endowment, buying up adjacent buildings to fill more and cooler educational stuff, and slimming down the Quaker heritage so it fits seamlessly into the marketing plan (which means quietly dumping the religion part, and turning it into a “SPICE-y” mix of something called “Quaker values”; but don’t let me get started on that hot mess. A related rant is here.)
Such trading up and slimming down, as you might expect, raised all sorts of hackles about money, class, and Quakerism. Some of these have been momentarily sticky with many New York City Friends, but have been largely smoothed over (some with a bulldozer). Yet it has also meant cutting back on actual, you know, Quakers in roles like, the faculty. Indeed, a year ago “Friends” was down to single Quaker teacher, named Ben Frisch. Who also happened to be its longest-serving teacher.
But last March, the headmaster fired Frisch.
Not “released”; not retired; not quietly eased-out-with-a-severance-package-&-a-non-disclosure agreement (tho they tried). Fired.
The result has been chaos, continuing protests, Trump-style publicity, and most recently, a union arbitration hearing. (Wait — a teachers UNION at a Quaker school?) Yes. For the moment.
In fact, the current article is the Times‘s second: they broke the story on March 23, under the excellent headline, “Someone went too far at Friends Seminary, but Who?”
WTF?! (What’s This, Friends??)
Well, I won’t say much more here, because really, all I’d be doing is cribbing from the Times‘s new report, which describes the whole ungodly mess in intriguing detail. So take a break from the secular agonies of the news day and check it out.
Though alas, it won’t really be a break from the agonizing issues of the day, especially for Quakers. And it’s not over yet.