The Day I Stood Up
(A Quaker Thanksgiving story)
When I was my daughter’s age, I went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia called Germantown Friends. There were buildings on the campus that were so old, you could feel the ghosts of the Quakers who settled in the city hundreds of years earlier. The ghosts may have come from the graveyards that surrounded the school where we picnicked and played. In the Fall, the campus was carpeted with ginkgo leaves that fell from the trees. The fruits smelled like vomit and we held out noses when we ran between buildings but when I smell ginkgo now, it smells like the safe happy days of childhood.
Because it was a Quaker school, even the youngest students were require to attend Meeting for Worship. The Quakers are the quietest Christians. They are the anti-Baptists. Instead of traditional church services, they have Meeting where members sit quietly. If someone is moved to speak, he or she gets up and says what’s in his or her heart or mind. There’s no back and forth discussion, just people occasionally expressing their thoughts. Meeting houses are plain and the benches face each other so instead of everyone looking at a pulpit, you’re all looking at each other.
Every Thursday we would go to Meeting and sit quietly. I’d like to say that I found the practice relaxing and that it gave me a chance to reflect on the week but I was a kid and usually, I was just bored. Along with my friends, I learned interesting ways to twist my fingers into different shapes (steeple, dragon) and then basic sign language so we could still secretly talk. I remember staring and my thighs and thinking for the first time that they were huge. I remember watching the neck of a boy I had a crush on and spending the whole Meeting willing him to turn around and smile at me.
The people who spoke were usually the old Quakers who came to campus just to go to Meeting. Sometimes teachers would speak, occasionally a student would stand up. And then there were popcorn Meetings where it seemed like the spirit was moving everyone and people were standing up all over the room to have their say.
The Meeting I remember the most was a popcorn Meeting. It was the last Meeting before Thanksgiving break and there was that giddy, pre-vacation feeling in the air. No one wanted to just sit and stare so students were jumping up all over the place waiting to speak.
I must have been 10 or 11 years old — old enough to being to feel self-conscious but still young enough to want attention. As I sat there my heart began to race and I broke out in a sweat as I realized — I was going to stand up and speak.
I wasn’t sure what to say but I knew with every fiber of my being that I was going to speak. It felt the same as when you know that you’re going to throw up. You don’t necessarily want to do it but it’s going to happen.
My mind raced trying to think of something cool to say. Everything around me faded into the background as my mind focused like a pin on this one thing. What could I say?
Suddenly I had an idea — a great idea. I knew exactly what I was going to say. It was going to move people and really give them something to think about over the break. I stood up.
I don’t know if my friends were actually staring at me but I felt like every eye in the Meeting House was suddenly turned to me. My stomach did a back flip but I didn’t sit down. In my head I rehearsed my words so I would sounds strong and secure when my turn came.
And then I said:
“Thanksgiving isn’t just about eating turkey. It’s also about giving thanks for everything we have.”
OK, so it wasn’t poetry. Or even very original. Or even very smart. But I didn’t care. I was so proud of myself. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my parents that I had finally stood up in Meeting. I had found something to say.
My words might not have been profound but that experience marked me and there were many more times in my life when I stood up. In high school when I thought we needed to pay more attention to human rights, I stood up and started an Amnesty International club. In college, surrounded by the smartest people I ever met, I stood up and voiced my opinions in class. After school, when I needed to find a job, I stood up and told people why they needed to hire me.
This week, some 30 years later, I watched my daughter stand up. She’s ten years old and was running for school president. She stood up in front of the whole school and told them how they should vote for her because she’ll make the school year fun.
It might not have been the best speech and in the end, she didn’t win. But the important thing is that she stood up. I’d like to think that my standing up back at Germantown Friends all those years ago set my life on a course that led to her being the courageous and confident person she is. And I hope that she’ll find many more moments in her life when she can stand up.