Teachers rarely experience silence. There might be a moment of quiet, followed by a “Ssh!” or “Be quiet!” or “She’s pushing me!” During tests, there are papers shuffling or keys clicking. The cell phone in the backpack is a more recent classroom sound, closely affiliated with the tick of buttons texting under a desk. The movement, voices and general clamor of a school become ingrained in our heads like a high-pitched dog whistle that only we can hear.
Musicians seldom come across silence, either. If we aren’t actually listening to or playing music, it is roaring through our head at full speed, providing a constant soundtrack, even when we sleep. Teachers and musicians know what it’s like to hear things from the inside out. Silence is non-existent.
Quakers are known for their preference towards silent, reflective settings. The Penn Valley Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends allowed my mother and I to dive into this place without testing the water first. They were welcoming, full of small talk and introductions and then it stopped. The Meeting began and the sound disappeared. For only that split second, when the quiet began, I heard nothing.
Then, I snapped out of it.
I closed my eyes in prayer and drifted immediately to my students. I heard their laughter and gave thanks, felt their pain and asked for help, but then I started to think about lesson plans. I hummed songs with my breath and recited them on sol-feg to reason their difficulty with the appropriate grade-level.
Someone shifted and I opened my eyes for a moment, hoping the Spirit had moved a Friend to speak. The man beside me simply crossed his legs and settled back into the nothingness. Silent sigh. I closed my eyes again, trying hard to concentrate on the silence.
Then, of course, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” started running through my head. I had no sense of time, but figured that in the first ten minutes, I had lost any hope of undergoing a divine transformation. I also knew that unless someone spoke-up soon and gave me something to ponder, I was going to lose myself inside my crazy head.
This would have been the perfect moment to hear Kate Oberg’s voice. My Quaker friend from Oberlin is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends. She helped me research from afar and picked out the Penn Valley Meeting for me to attend. But whereas I felt the focus on silence in this Meeting, Kate was more of a passionate listener. During ecumenical discussions, she would sit forward, looking directly at the speaker. Occasionally, she would take weeks before responding during discussion. When the moment finally came, she would sit back and say, thoughtfully, simply, but prophetically something like, “I think…there is a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness.” If Kate had been there, my thoughts would have transformed into a faithful theological discussion in my head.
Instead, though, I was left with a radio station on the “scan” function moving from Simon & Garfunkel to Justin Bieber’s latest, “Baby,” last week’s “Song of the Week” in my classroom. By the end of the meeting, I had ran the entire Kindergarten program twice, figured out the first verse of “The Boxer” (also by Simon & Garfunkel) and pondered utilizing boomwhackers or bells on the “Bluebird” game with first grade. When they gave time to joys and concerns, I thought intensely about the next two weeks: a gig with the St. Joseph Symphony, Census Training, Starlight, a kindergarten program, and a voice/violin performance at my Grandpa’s nursing home.
And once again, we’re back to it being all about me. The Quakers represent the opposite of the mega-church. Structure, leadership, blaring sound and constant entertainment versus simple, silent and peaceful. My problem was, I entered this situation with the attitude of the mega-churcher. “What will this church do for me?”
I keep myself busy because I’m not a fan of being left alone with my thoughts. Even in a solitary state, I can distract myself with television, books and writing. Every now and then, I get a glimpse of what is going on in my crazy brain, but overall I try to stay out of there. When I do delve into my thoughts, often right as I’m falling asleep, I get lost in worry and planning. My brain and insomnia are in cahoots to make my life miserable.
So what I learned from the Quakers today, I actually learned from Kate several years ago. Rather than thinking, praying, planning, worrying, learning, etc., I should just listen. I pride myself in keeping an open mind, when really, I’m just stuffing it with pointless thoughts and distractions. If I just stopped and listened, I might feel more comfortable…and a little less self-righteous.