by Lila Sternberg-Sher
GFS Class of ’17
Early on the morning of Jan.6, I met up with three Germantown Friends School classmates and a faculty chaperone at Philadelphia International Airport. We were headed to an exchange program to Winchester College, an elite, all-male, preparatory boarding school located in the south of England.
Dan Gordon, a Mt. Airy resident and former GFS parent, who thought that Winchester and GFS shared the common goal of developing students’ minds, bodies and spirits, as well as an interest in developing a broader perspective on the world through international study, started the program in 2014. Now, each January, four lucky seniors are selected to spend three weeks at Winchester, and four Winchester students come to GFS each fall.
During my time at Winchester, my fellow travelers – Ray Hill-Cristol, Griffin Kaulbach and Claire Saint-Amour – and I followed the British curriculum, attending only three subjects but taking multiple classes in each. Under the British system, students in their second-to-last year of high school choose three major areas of focus, then spend the next two years of high school studying only those topics.
This means that, by their last year of high school, they have learned significantly more in their three subjects than we have in the United States. For this reason, my GFS classmates and I took classes with the fourth-years (equivalent to our high school juniors), who had just begun to ‘focus’ in the beginning of the year, and were therefore not nearly as advanced as the top years (seniors).
While I only took Spanish, English, theology and philosophy, and Div (a class, in my case, used to discuss current events and the Age of Exploration), I had three different English classes, two Spanish classes, and two theology and philosophy classes. In English, I read three texts with three different dons (teachers). In one of my Spanish sections, we read a book about the Spanish Civil War; in the other, we worked on grammar and vocabulary.
My theology and philosophy class was split into one section of theology and one of philosophy, each taught by a different teacher. As someone who has never loved STEM, being fully immersed in the humanities felt like a breath of fresh air.
The classes themselves were not dissimilar to those at GFS. Class sizes were small (mine ranged from five students to about 15), the teachers were all very intelligent and excited about their subjects, and the students were eloquent and intellectual. The teachers wanted to keep the students engaged, so much of what we discussed in class had to do with things that were going on in the world.
My classmates and I , along with Susan Lowry, our chaperone and a longtime member of the GFS Art Department, took up residence in the cozy, three-story guesthouse on the edge of campus. Though we had no Wi-Fi, we only had to walk seven minutes to High Street – Winchester’s pedestrian-only main drag – to the nearest Starbucks for service.
The town itself was both charming and historic, boasting Jane Austen’s grave and King Arthur’s round table, as well as the longest cathedral in all of England. Walking five minutes in the other direction led to a path not unlike Forbidden Drive in Fairmount Park, and to St. Catherine’s Hill, from which you could see the whole town of Winchester.
One morning when we were feeling particularly daring, we woke up early in order to climb St. Catherine’s Hill. We reached the top just as the first rays of light were beginning to break through the darkness and were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise.
My fellow American students and I would normally spend our evenings in College, the oldest and most prestigious of the 11 houses. Unlike the other houses on campus, boys had to sit for “intelligence” exams in order to live in College. Not only did they get bragging rights for passing the test, they were also rewarded with their very own sports fields, and were given Harry Potter-esque robes to wear during the school day. Most of the College boys, however, managed to maintain their humility, and we had many interesting and enjoyable conversations with them each night.
After eating dinner with the fourth years in College, the other GFS students and I would join the boys in their chambers. While they did their homework, we would sit in the common room doing the work we’d been assigned and taking advantage of the Wi-Fi. At 9 p.m., the College boys would head to the beautiful, historic chapel located right across the courtyard to have their nightly meeting, called Preces. Announcements were made regarding lost items, which the boys desperately needed back, and a teacher or top-year student would read an excerpt from a book. On Mondays and Thursdays, all of the boys would join together to sing a hymn, accompanied by the student organist.
The housemaster would close the evening with a short quote from the Bible and a few moments of silence, after which the boys would be free to do whatever they wanted, provided that they stayed within the boundaries of the College house.
Winchester’s academic reputation draws students from around the globe. While there were many similarities between it and GFS, one thing that truly surprised me was the number of conservative boys who attended the school. When I was there, I met students from Singapore, Russia, Hong Kong, Prague and Ireland, as well as many other countries. Most of the boys who go to Winchester are wealthy enough to pay the $44,000 annual tuition.
Maybe I should have expected to meet conservative people; after all, England is not known for being liberal. But I was still surprised when, on the first day, a boy in my Div class listed Trump’s election to office as one of the only good things that had happened in 2016. At first I thought he was joking. How could someone who was obviously so intelligent be a Trump supporter? When no one laughed, I realized that this boy was completely serious.
I had another similar experience on the day of the Women’s March in Washington. A group of us were on the train coming back from a soccer match, taking advantage of the Wi-Fi to check out the photos that our friends and family members had posted from the march. A Russian boy, whom we had befriended, heard us talking about the march and voiced his confusion. He told us that he didn’t understand why people who were part of a democracy would march – our voices had already been heard.
We explained to him that just because we voted, it didn’t mean we’d gotten our way. And even if we had gotten our way, it wouldn’t mean that we agreed on every single topic with the President-elect. Our country is run by the people so, if we are unsatisfied, it is our duty to make that known. Our new friend continued on and said that this march made even less sense to him because the women weren’t marching to try to change something.
In explaining to him the point of the Women’s March, I came to fully understand it myself. These women and their allies were marching to say to Trump, “We are here and we won’t back down. No matter what you do, you’ll have to go through us to do it.” When we had finished explaining ourselves, the boy didn’t protest or start a huge argument. He merely nodded and said we would have to agree to disagree.
It was conversations like these that stuck with me most. Learning how to explain my point of view to someone who disagrees with it is invaluable, and it was at Winchester that I learned to do this, to exercise my voice. While there, I came to realize that people who are politically conservative, who do not always see things through the same lens as I do, can also be some of the kindest, most welcoming people. Those are two important lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life.