Samuel School is one of my favorite things about my home yearly meeting, Northwest Yearly Meeting. There is Samuel School I and II, I is for seventh graders and II is for juniors and a few seniors in high school. The goal is for each meeting in the yearly meeting to choose two (or more if they have them) youth that age in whom they see leadership potential and an openness to God. I must confess that I didn't go to either of them as a youth--I wasn't chosen as a seventh grader, probably because I was fairly shy and going through a lot at home that year, and in high school I already had a commitment the weekend of Samuel School II so I couldn't go. But since then I've been to each several times.
It's called Samuel School because of the story of Samuel and Eli in I Samuel 3. God speaks to Samuel, and Samuel thinks it's Eli, until they both realize it's God and Eli sends him back to listen and respond. These youth, "Samuels," attend Samuel School and go home to monthly meetings with their "Eli," an adult in their meeting who acts as a mentor, listening to their stories and helping them to hear when it's God who's speaking to them even when they can't recognize it as such.
Samuel School I aims to help kids think about the fact that God is speaking to them, and that they can hear it. It gives a few tools for discernment and ideas about what that might sound like. Campers are split into groups of 3-5 youth with an adult camp counselor, and after each class session they have time to journal and discuss the class with their counselor group.
Samuel School II is the one I just helped out with, and it's more in depth: not only is God speaking and it's possible to hear that, but the youth are given more specific tools to listen well and to understand what the "voice of God" means. It's not just an audible voice, not just major "donkey-talking" experiences (as one class teacher put it, referring to the prophet Balaam's donkey talking to him in Numbers 23), but in simple things, impressions, nature, thoughts, dreams, feelings in one's body, and other things. The weekend goes Friday evening through Monday noon, with classes entitled: Dialogue with Christ, Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Gifts, Choosing a Vocation, Confronting Culture, and Transitions.
The focus in these classes is on the fact that God is speaking to us all the time, we're just not always paying attention. We're always being spiritually formed, but are we being formed into what we want to be and what God wants us to be? Our vocations won't be things we hate, but the place where the world's greatest need intersects with our greatest passion (Beuchner). We may have to do an occupation to pay the bills, but our vocation, what we're called to do and feel most fulfilled doing, should be what we focus on--not how much money we make. The transitions class helps these youth as they are going from high school into young adulthood to understand the transitions they'll be feeling so they can go through them more smoothly and with a greater sense of awareness and preparation.
In addition to these classes, we generally take the afternoon on Saturday and go do something fun and relaxing, like go to a town and let them roam free for a couple of hours. All day Sunday we go to a camp with a ropes course, and for three hours the youth and counselors have solo time and then for another three hours they experience the challenge of the high ropes course, confronting fears and learning to work together.
Most of these youth have never spent three hours alone without media, in nature, to focus on God. It's usually a pretty powerful experience even if they don't feel like they connected with God at all. They learn a lot about themselves and generally feel pretty vulnerable. The ropes course presents a varying degree of challenge, from physical to mental to spiritual. Some kids are athletic and not afraid of heights, others are the opposite, and everywhere in between. But it's a great analogy for life, having to trust someone at the end of a slender rope to keep you alive, and having to get past the psychological fear of being high off the ground. Most youth are able to draw amazing metaphorical connections between their experiences on the ropes course and their spiritual lives.
During the retreat it is also important that we worship together, eat together, and play many games together. It is stressed that God speaks just as much as we're playing games as when we're having solo time.
So all in all, I love Samuel School and think it's a tremendous ministry of our yearly meeting. It's interesting to see the people who counsel from year to year, and to know that nearly all of them went to Samuel School as youth and have stuck around, and are now involved in leadership--not out of a sense of obligation, but because they believe in this program and the things they learned about God through it. I think this is so important, because it is an actual training program for leadership, which is something I think Quakers aren't always particularly good at. Not to say that people who don't go to Samuel School can't be leaders, but just being chosen to attend helps youth to feel like someone's noticing them, someone is willing to journey with them in their spiritual life, and someone believes they have potential. These are tremendous gifts to give to a young person, especially as they're moving out of the "safety" of high school and youth group, and into the wide world of being able where they attend meeting for worship.