My High School Gathering Experience
By Elizabeth Baltaro
My grandfather pulled the car up in front of huge stone building. The front steps of the building were covered with teenagers about my age. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It was the end of June in 1997, and I had come all the way from Oklahoma City to Harrisonburg, Virginia to attend FGC Gathering. I had been to Gathering several times before, but I was nervous because this was my first time to attend the Gathering in three years and my first time ever at the High School Program.
All the worries that I typically had when I first met a group of people began to overwhelm me. What would these people think of me? Did I look okay? Was I wearing the “right” kind of clothes? Should I have put make-up on? Would I see anyone who remembered me from Junior Gathering three years before? Would my roommate be nice? How would I be judged? I put on a big grin to hide all my worries and got out of the car.
The next few days were nothing like anything I might have imagined. I had not been to many Quaker gatherings as a teenager, and my high school was very small and conservative. I had never seen so many different types of people in my life. There were all types of hairstyles and guys wearing long skirts and nail polish. Many girls did not shave their legs or their armpits. People I did not know asked me, “Can I give you a hug?” I often saw “piles” of people on the floor laughing, talking, and giving each other back massages. Nobody seemed to pay attention to the differences in the way people looked.
I had never witnessed this type of openness between people, and at first, it was difficult for me to understand. People gave me hugs and invited me to join their groups, but I did not know what to think of being so close to people I felt I did not know. As the week progressed, I began to meet more and more people through workshops and activities, and I felt more included. I got to know people better, and suddenly it no longer mattered what anyone looked like. I noticed that I did not think about what I would wear in the morning, or worry about what I should say or do around people, like I usually did. I felt like I did not have to be concerned about myself around these people because they would accept me for who I really was. For the first time in my life I was able to really “let go” and dance at the closing celebration.
My first experience in the High School Program was three years ago, and I have insisted on attending the Gathering for the past two summers so I could be a part of this unique community again. The High School Program has been a “break” from the real world, one week each year when I have been able to be free from the preconceptions, judgments, and worries that normally surround my teenage life.
One of the best gifts I have gotten from the High School Program is the ability to be truly open-minded around other people. I remember discovering all the wonderful people from Gathering who I thought would be strange due to their different appearances. What I found was that they are really some of the most kind and loving people I have ever known. I have tried to carry the accepting and honest feeling at FGC Gathering into the rest of my life and throughout the rest of the year. My new attitude has helped me to be more true to the Quaker testimony of equality.
In the unique environment provided by the High School Program, I was also able to learn about Quaker process. After attending my first High School Business Meeting, I felt like I had really had a part in the decisions that were made. In the meeting, I felt like everyone was an equal part of the decision making process. It was wonderful to see how the community could continue to be accepting and open-minded while making such difficult decisions. After my first Gathering, I became much more interested in Quaker process.
Although I had always had the option of attending meeting for business in my monthly meeting, I never really felt like I was a part of the decisions being made. After FGC Gathering, I truly felt like I had as much of a part in making decisions as anyone else in my meeting. I am much more interested in attending business meetings, leading forums, attending workshops, being part of committees, and eventually clerking. The High School Program was a leap in my spiritual journey because of the way it has helped me to see “light” in all sorts of people, relate to everyone without being judgmental, and under-stand Quaker process.
After I came to college this fall, I had a telephone conversation with someone I knew from the Gathering. When I was trying to describe my friends here, I told her they were like “FGC” people. I used the abbreviation, “FGC,” as an adjective to describe the people here who are free, open-minded, honest, not judgmental, and truly beautiful. I will miss the unique community I have found each year in the High School Program, but the blessings I have gained from it will constantly be a part of me.
Elizabeth Baltaro is a freshman at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She remains a member of Oklahoma City Monthly Meeting although neither she nor her family is currently living in Oklahoma. She is a member and year-level clerk of Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford. Elizabeth plans to attend the 2000 Gathering of Friends in Rochester, NY.