Soccer, Ireland, and Above All, Friends
Niamh Henchy ’18 has been playing soccer since she was 8 years old and has racked up an impressive set of statistics in games played, goals scored, and assists. But ask about her most recent championship-winning soccer season at BFS, and the talk is all about her teammates.
“The soccer season is the happiest time of the school year for me,” the IB Diploma student says. “Our team is so close, so supportive, and so loving to each other.” So close that when the transition to the 2016 season proved to be a rough one and the team sustained some hard losses, the players called a team meeting to address the problems head on. Niamh explained that the team had to adjust to a new coach, a new style, and many days that lasted until 7 at night. “In the beginning we had the hardest opponents, and we weren’t communicating well,” she said. “After the meeting we were united and worked together.”
Working well with others comes naturally to Niamh, whose older sister Aoife Henchy ’15 had an exemplary record on the BFS soccer teams and who went on to even more success on the soccer pitch at Bard College. The two sisters played together on the BFS varsity team, and Niamh was a member of a traveling teams and even a coed team at one point. “It was difficult to get the boys to pass to me,” Niamh laughed. “But I learned to be aggressive.”
This combination of modesty, authenticity, and self-assurance is an apt characterization of Niamh, a BFS student since preschool (also known affectionately as a “lifer.”) She has fond recollections of her first teachers, Suzanne Stevens and Debbie Prince, and of how she made friends quickly, adding, “Some of those friends are still friends today. I remember enjoying school a lot at that point.”
That joy in friends and in school has carried forward through Niamh’s many years at Brooklyn Friends. In explaining how, she turned once again to the influence of others: “BFS has some of the best students and young people anywhere. I’m inspired by the people around me, and all their accomplishments.” Her esteem extends to the faculty as well. “One of the biggest strengths of BFS is the faculty,” she said. “The teachers have had a positive attitude and a genuine desire for their students to learn and to do well.”
Doing well at BFS also embraces the Quaker dimension of a Friends education, something that Niamh knows well in theory, in practice, and through experience. Like most students interviewed for the “Portraits of Young Friends” series, Niamh has had a mixed experience with Quaker Meeting for Worship, which occurs once a week at BFS. “I have learned to really enjoy Quaker Meeting,” she said. “In lower and middle school, it was seen as a ‘chore’ by many students, including me. Even as a 9th grader, I didn’t really appreciate it. However, now, Quaker Meeting is one of my only free and quiet moments in my busy week.”
This year, Niamh – along with five other upper school students and six more upper schoolers who were conference planners – participated in the 20th annual Quaker Youth Leadership Conference (QYLC) in early February, which was hosted by BFS and Mary McDowell Friends School. QYLC brought together 180 students from throughout the US and internationally for a three-day gathering aimed at “Building Bridges.” In addition to keynote speakers, cultural excursions and service learning experiences, there were numerous faculty- and student-led workshops. Niamh led a workshop on rape culture, defined by sources such as Wikipedia as “an environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” Niamh became familiar with this trending issue in her sophomore year Service and Justice Seminar and led a similar workshop for the Upper School’s Community Issues Conference.
Niamh has another connection to Quakerism – one that happens to be combined with her Irish heritage and culture. She explained: “My dad is Irish and grew up in a small town in County Clare, in the West of Ireland. He left Ireland in his twenties and met my mom who grew up in Great Neck, New York. . .We used to visit my grandparents in Ireland twice a year, and it gave me a perspective of a different way of life than my own in New York.” It so happened that five years ago Niamh’s mother, an artist and an art professor, received a four-week studio art fellowship in County Mayo. The family came along and Niamh made a connection with a student attending Newtown School in Waterford. Last year, with groundwork laid in the BFS Upper School and the Quaker Life Committee, Niamh made a trip to Newtown School to investigate the possibility of an exchange program between Brooklyn Friends and Waterford Friends. While her visit was brief – three school days – she observed a great deal and gathered enough information to write a narrative report and make an initial proposal for a student exchange to Head of Upper School Sidney Bridges.
In reading Niamh’s report, one of the differences that stands out between BFS and Newtown is what one would call a “top-down,” adult-in-charge approach to teaching at Newtown with BFS’s more collaborative approach with students and teachers learning together within a strong advisory system. Still at Newtown, there were regular classes in Gaelic, current events and politics, as well as a daily “collect,” in which topics like the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising and the Syrian refugee crisis were addressed. Newtown’s 9:00am starting time would surely appeal to a number of BFS upper schoolers, as would its acres and acres of land.
When it was suggested to Niamh that the time and energy she has put into the school exchange would readily qualify for the IB Diploma Program’s Creativity, Activity, and Service requirement, this buoyant and secure young woman quickly demurred. “I really want to work with young children and teach them how to cook,” she said confidently. Her response is one of many examples of a young woman who knows herself well and looks forward to the many ways in which her life will evolve. As she said when discussing her life on the BFS soccer team, “I came onto the BFS varsity team as a scared eighth grader. I am now captain of the soccer team and I think this team has helped me cultivate my leadership and my ability to persevere, to adapt to changes and to meet challenges.”
PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER/SPRING 2017 BROOKLYN FRIENDS SCHOOL JOURNAL