Cary Anne Kane ’13 (right) and her mother Dorothy Cary (center), a member of the GFS Class of 1975, learn together in Pierce Buller’s Germantown Friends School Essentially English Class on Medieval literature.

by Laura Jamieson

“You have to understand things were different back then,” said Betsy Kalish.

Her classmates, all are a few decades younger than she is, nodded silently. Kalish graduated from GFS in 1973, but she is back in school with the GFS Essentially English program, which offers classes for alumni, parents and other adults who take the courses with other GFS students in grades 10-12.

Kalish’s younger classmates have never known an America without women’s rights and civil rights; have never gotten a draft number; and couldn’t tell “where they were” when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

“This is the era that I grew up in. It’s interesting to engage with young people and to hear how they understand the ’60s without any experiential reference – because I lived it,” Kalish said in the class “Mad Men and the American Dream.”

Essentially English classes have brought together generations of learners since 1978. Today, adults and teenagers are still gathering in GFS classrooms to talk about literature, culture and life. Ken Finkel, a professor at Temple University, has taken an Essentially English class with each of his three sons. With his oldest son he took a course on the literature of the Vietnam conflict, which he lived through, but the teenagers only knew about from history class.

“It really brought me back,” he said.

Finkel is currently in the Mad Men class with his third son, Mack.

“I find what the students choose to talk about in regard to the stories very interesting,” he said. “I’m seeing it as a middle-aged person and they are seeing it as teenagers.”

Far from being embarrassed to have a parent in class him, Mack Finkel is enjoying the experience with his father.

“He has a perspective that none of the students can offer,” he said.

“It’s really great to get other adult perspectives involved in the mix,” said class teacher, Sara Gordon. “The kids really enjoy interacting with adults on an equal intellectual level in an academic setting. It’s very empowering to them; and the adults are often blown away by what is going on with their own kids that they didn’t know. It’s always an eye-opener.”

The themes of Essentially English classes are often contemporary and engaging.

“It’s an eclectic course offering. It shows off teachers’ expertise and passions and gives students an alternate space for delving into new ideas,” said director of the Essentially English Program, Joe McGeary,

Classes are taught by members of the GFS faculty as well as outside teachers and experts in various fields – most meet one evening a week (for three hours), closely following a college-course format.

“It’s my last year at GFS and I’m increasingly aware of how little time I have left here, and I figured taking a class with a parent was something I didn’t want to miss, “ said senior Cary Anne Kane.” Having the chance to share my class experiences with my mom has been amazing.”

America has changed dramatically since 1978, but the GFS Essentially English program still successfully bridges generations of GFS parents, students and alumni, who are pulled together over good books and interesting discussions.

As alumna Betsy Kalish puts it, “I feel like I’m one of the kids!”

Ken Finkel said, “But I didn’t have this much fun in high school!”