It all started when I watched him scoop up that boy who stank of yesterday’s potty accident, who wore the too-short pants of another season, who’s hair may have concealed a louse or two, and spun him round, placed him on his feet again and smiled, looking straight into his eyes before he released the small boy to scamper off to another part of the classroom.
Teacher Dennis. It all started with him.
He took interest in and taught all the kids in his classroom with equal respect. My precocious daughter was learning her alphabet sounds when she was just shy of four-years old and began her fourteen years of public education in Teacher Dennis’ Head Start classroom. She could count forward to ten and back to zero, she knew her colors and how to blend her own shades of green and orange. She would learn to read before preschool ended. But Dennis treated everyone the same in his classroom. It didn’t matter where they came from, how smart they were or what they smelled like.
For many reasons, we chose to enroll her in the community center’s low-income/affordable preschool program and because we struggled financially being a one-income family, we qualified. We couldn’t afford preschool tuition and honestly, homeschooling Bella would have been counterproductive.
But it was Teacher Dennis that ruined me. I will always remember the unforced and equal attention he generously doled out, day after day, to those little barely potty-trained, booger-eating, precious people. And I saw there, and in the next year’s classroom led by Teacher Stephanie and Teacher Erica, a certain grace that to me, looked like the grace Jesus must have lavished on the sick and the needy and the children that followed him throughout Judea two-thousand years ago.
I’m sorry to say, I don’t recall receiving that kind of unearned favor in my years spent in Christian schools. I am really sorry to say it. Maybe it was there at times, but it never made an impression that stayed with me like the morning I watched Dennis and that little boy.
Making the best decision regarding our children’s education is a privilege, but that doesn’t make it easy. In the ensuing years, we chose to take our children’s education year-by-year, considering our options: home school, private education, public school programs. I homeschooled one child one year; another year we enrolled in a parent co-op at the public school. We chose to drive our kids out of district for middle school and opted to send them to the high school closest to the downtown core of our city.
In the course of those years, their daddy began the day with Matthew 5:14 and encouraged them to be salt of the earth and little lights, to take with them to school every day who they really are in Christ and shine, to be a vision of grace in someone else’s life.
We choose, with intention, public school.
We choose to focus our energy as parents on educating our children in character and grace while allowing the teachers, classmates and the various experiences (good and bad) to teach and test and prove them. We want them to know that while we choose the Bible as our basis of authority, we live in a free society where others don’t see the Bible or Jesus the same way we do. And that’s a good thing.
Free will is the greatest gift our Creator gave us when he breathed life into humanity. We don’t want from them a robotic response to God’s offer of love any more than he does. We want them to choose, to respond, to have their hearts softened by grace and fortified by the truth of his word. That has been our aim and we felt that keeping them in public school afforded them, as individuals, more opportunities to make a real, informed decision about Jesus.
While we believe parents should have the choice and the final say in the course of their children’s education, we intentionally opted to work with a system that was in place, flawed in many ways, but effective, too. As we watched Bella receive her diploma from the urban high school that we “choiced” her into, we regretted not one year of her public education.
Sure, she’s heard her share of F-bombs and seen PDA in the halls that would make a grown-man blush; she’s had to memorize facts of evolution that we believe to be, in a word, gobbledygook; she’s had friends become mothers before they obtained a driver’s license; and, since fourth grade, she’s attended sexual tolerance and human health education units that promoted secular values.
But you know what? She did shine like a star in a dark sky. She also benefitted from the challenges that she had to face while in public school. Bella debated her science teacher in fifth grade over the validity of the geologic column and the inerrancy of scripture. She watched kids come to school stoned after lunch. Her classmates planned to lose their virginity on prom night. She’s had a great education in the public school system, but often it was down-right hard.
And we watched her battle through the tumultuous middle school years fraught with physical development and its twin, insecurity, years populated with first boyfriends, mean girls and copious quantities of lip gloss. We prayed hard and stayed in her corner, we fought for her and with her, but we also watched her dig her own roots deep into her own experiences of grace, we watched her seek truth in scripture, journal her heart out and turn to Jesus. She found Jesus, for real; he saved her, for good. She points to that season in her life and says, “There, that’s when my relationship with Jesus Christ became real.”
She made her own choices, based on the truth and authority of God’s Word, the birthplace of her character; she wrestled within her own mind and spirit whether or not this God thing we believe at home would be her God-thing.
And she also knows how to be in the world but not of it. This is a life-skill invaluable to today’s Christian. She’s more skilled at it than I was at her age, which causes a mix of emotions from embarrassment and pride to bubble up within me. I regret that I hadn’t a greater sense of who I was at age eighteen.
We had to learn to trust others to influence her, invest in her, cheer her on and spur her along towards being an authentic human being–others that perhaps choose different religions or ideologies than we do.
We watched teachers like Judy, John, Ms. Katke and others influence our girl in ways we, as her parents, could not.We get to observe this amazing dynamic our children have with the outside influencers in their lives. We get to help them with the challenges, pray through the difficult times, and talk about the culture of our society even when it contrasts the culture of our family.
I can’t tell you five reasons why I don’t home school. I won’t develop a solid six-step plan to advise someone else on making the best-most-God-honoring decision for their own kids’ education. I can say I am thankful we’ve had the freedom to consider and decide what works best for our family. I can say that when I see the faces of our children’s teachers in my mind’s eye, I breathe a thank you to them and lift a prayer on their behalf, because they are daily showing grace and teaching facts and figures and contractions and good-sportsmanship to the least of these, to the children of our society who need knowledge and unearned favor.
My children have been educated by committed and caring people who possess such a passion for educating children that they invested their own time and money into getting certified to be classroom teachers. They spend every day with nine-year-olds. Really, think about that. Every day. They manage over-populated classrooms and creatively impart the lessons of Homer, the value of the area of the circumference of a shape and why it even matters, they inspire poetry and test ideas with the scientific method. I have seen, from twenty years (32, if you add in the other 18 combine years of my other children’s years in school), that they are doing their job to educate kids. Perfectly? No, of course not.
And I am educating them, too. Perfectly? Hardly. But I’ve come to accept that having my kids in public school is part of the process that God has used in my life to help me daily say, “I trust you, God, with these kids of ours. Help me be courageous enough to show them how to trust you.”
And learning to trust God, like educating, is messy business, but one done best in community and perhaps, out there, in the world, in public.
So why do I write this, devote a post on my opinion about our family’s decision to choose public school?
Because I know that we parents questions ourselves along the way and wonder if we’re doing right by our kids. We hear the voices all around, some shouting and some murmuring, telling us what’s best. Sometimes these voices make us wonder if we’re doing anything right.
Because we live in a place where we are free to choose our kids’ educational pathways and in this vast “gray area” where our choices mayn’t be necessarily wrong or right, it might be helpful for you to hear from a happy public school parent.
And lastly, I write this because we are grateful to the men and women who choose education as a vocation, because we know it isn’t just a job, it is truly a calling. And to you I say a big, stamped at the top of the paper with a smiley-face, “Thank You!”