Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Being Cool About School, a series: How Can We All Care About Our Public Schools? {And Why Should We?}

During the first week of my kids' abrupt transition from homeschool to public school, I was back and forth to the front office a good bit handling paperwork and ironing out details. It was the last week before Christmas break, a delightful week of parties and cupcakes and general goodwill. 

On one of those days, the staff person who runs the front office apologized for being in a hurry. She and one of her helpers had to scurry out to homes and deliver Christmas gifts to kids in our community. They were in a hurry because the deliveries needed to be made before the children got home from school. The school's "Santa" is rather anonymous and inconspicuous. What mattered was that these kids in need received their gifts. Kids who may not have received gifts if not for the school. Kids who were writing and reading and eating cupcakes alongside my own kids. 

I stood there at the front desk a bit baffled. The school took gifts to its own disadvantaged children? 

On that December day, I received an ironic invitation: to be part of a needy and generous community.

Because no matter how you educate your own kids, the schools in your town are a significant part of your community. Though we all play various roles and feel called to serve our community and its children in different ways, I'm afraid that our heads are in the sand if we think our public schools aren't relevant to us simply because we choose to homeschool or private school our own children.

I'm a rather strange bird who, despite dreaming of a classical private school utopia for my own children and then homeschooling, has always had an abiding appreciation for public schools. Maybe it's because I come from a long line of teachers. All four of my grandparents taught in the public schools, as did my mom. My husband and I are both products of public school, K-12.

For better and for worse, much has changed about our schools in recent years. Strong opinions abound. The critics' voices on all extremes of the political and religious spectrums scream for our attention and our allegiance. I sometimes worry that the actual children end up drowning in a sea of rhetoric and red tape. I mean, they are the reason education exists, are they not?

But despite the inefficiencies and weaknesses of public education, despite the polarization and politics, I still thank God for our nation's schools. I thank Him for those who are called to teach the gifted children, the struggling learners, the middling masses, and the precious ones with special needs. 

I thank him for those who help teach my own children.

Many say that our public school system is broken. If I only read the headlines or listened to those motivated by the politics and platforms of fear, I'd probably agree. But I don't say that it's broken. I say that it's bent. Badly bent in some places with failing schools that often mirror failing communities, but strong and true in other places with inspired learners and relatively stable locales.  

There are a million variables and therefore just as many different outcomes regarding our kids' security and successes in public schools. Comparing one public school to another school just thirty minutes down the road can be like comparing a 2014 Lexus to a 1970s station wagon with fake wood paneling peeling off the sides. They're both automobiles. They're each designed for the same purpose. The Lexus will definitely get you where you need to go. The peeling station wagon is supposed to get you there, in theory, but the odds are not so much in your favor.

But we shouldn't let an institution's scattered weaknesses and inequalities define it as a whole and cover up the beauty. We shouldn't allow fear or frustration or firmly-rooted ideologies to tell us to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." We need to be active investigators and participants in our own communities. When we ignore our schools because they're seemingly irrelevant to us or bent beyond repair, we've turned our backs on one of the cornerstones of society.

Despite its imperfections and frustrations, I believe public schools are God's common grace to us. 

As Christians, we're called to live in this world and to care about it. We're not all going to be education activists or teachers. We're not all going to even send our kids to public school. But we are called to care, to vote, to sometimes work to change that which is not fruitful or beneficial or true. 

My own church recently provided opportunities to help out at our local elementary school during the first weeks of school. People could volunteer to help kindergarteners find their way to their classrooms or work with Good News Club. At other times it's assembled work teams to help spruce up the school grounds. I hope these small kindnesses communicate a big message: We care about you, our local school. We're here for you. Let us know how we can serve you and the children in our community. 

Some of you may be tempted to stop reading at this point. Come on Scooper, are you trying to guilt us into volunteering at schools our kids don't even attend? 

Not at all. Volunteerism isn't even the point of this post. It's just that I've had to think and re-think and pray and cry and un-learn and re-learn so much about this whole issue of school during the last couple of years. I've been forced in new ways to consider how my faith informs the instruction of my own kids but how it also informs my attitude and approach toward schools in our community. 

Those opportunities I listed above? I didn't help out with any of them. I'm a mom with three kids and was too busy getting them ready for and settled into a new school year. I have some other endeavors of which I'm a part and we can't do it all. Nor should we even try. There are seasons when we can help and seasons when we cannot. There are opportunities for which our heart leaps and says Yes, I know I'm called to do this and there are opportunities we allow to pass.

But there is never a season in which we shouldn't care. 

The children in our communities matter to God and therefore they matter to us. They are the "least of these," the "needy," the "vulnerable." Sometimes they are the literal "orphans" and the "oppressed" that Scripture clearly and frequently calls us to care for. 

When Jesus came to earth and did ministry here, he did it incarnationally. Meaning, he "moved in" with the needy, the scandalized, the outcast, and the vulnerable. He sat the children on his lap, despite protests from the grown-ups. 

He entered into the lives and institutions of communities...and they were changed. For those who are in Christ, He is not only our model; He is our motivation. In Him we live and move and have our being. We can carry grace into the struggling lives and stagnant places of this world because He's with us. 

You may be wondering, So what does this have to do with public school, especially if my kids don't even go there? 

That's a good question, one I've asked myself a time or ten. Part of the answer lies in this story:

About seven years ago, my church had a Sunday School class for women. Over the course of the semester, various ladies in the church shared their stories. It was an incredible time, one of the most hopeful and encouraging experiences I've ever been part of. Women shared about marriages that shouldn't have made it but somehow, because of Jesus, are now whole. They shared about overcoming addiction and shame and wretched backgrounds. They shared about second chances and healing. Week after week, one redemption story after another.

One week my friend Carol {not her real name} shared. Truthfully, she was more of an acquaintance, a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent woman I primarily knew because she taught at my kids' preschool. I couldn't have imagined Carol's story. We never do, really. We look at people in their put-together Sunday demeanor and simply assume that they have always lived somewhat "together" lives.

But Carol hadn't. She told a story that revealed a childhood of unspeakable victimization. I marveled that she had been put back together at all after the hell she had lived through. And yet here she was, a wife, a mother, a preschool teacher, a devoted friend to many. She was living, breathing hope and redemption to us.

I have a reason for sharing her story. Do you know how God held out a lifeline of hope and love to Carol when she was a child and adolescent? By sending Christian friends and teachers her way throughout her public school experience. She told us that public school was her only safe and secure place.

Carol reminded us that we have a purpose in public schools. She told us that Christian kids and their families saved her and that we never know who our own children, through our influence and encouragement, may be able to love and serve. 

Though she felt passionately about public education, Carol didn't have ill will toward those who chose to educate their kids elsewhere. She was a model of grace. I talked with her often after we were homeschooling; she was nothing but kind and supportive. But she knew from the deepest well of experience that Christians have the powerful privilege and opportunity to hold out the hope and love of Christ to so many public school children who, every day, haul in abuse and baggage and unspeakable pain along with their pencils and notebooks and juice boxes. 

A sidenote: Carol also escaped her troubled childhood through books. In fact, she's the one who inspired me to read, read, read to my own children. Shortly after she shared, I began reading Charlotte's Web to my 5-year-old daughter and I've been reading to my kids ever since. Seven years later, I've just begun the same book with my 5-year-old son. We all have Carol to thank for the many books we've enjoyed together over the years. 

Some of you reading this will know that we lost Carol to cancer not so long ago. I don't know why certain people seem to endure an inordinate amount of unjust suffering in this life. My consolation is that she is fully whole and safe now, radiant and with Jesus. She influenced so many people throughout her life, myself included. Her plea, to shine a light for struggling kids, continues to echo in my thoughts.  

I hear some of you now. Scooper, that is an amazing story, one that tugs on heartstrings and inspires. But you sound as if we all need to put our kids in public school in order save the world. 

I'm not saying that. There are sound arguments to be made for all the ways in which we can educate our children. But for those of us who do have children in public school, we need to be aware of the opportunities before us. I daresay, we have to be aware. For those who don't have children there, I'll get to you in a minute.

In his book, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just, Tim Keller says this:

In general, to "do justice" means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to "do justice" means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down... 
How can we do that? The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it. Human beings are like those threads thrown together onto a table. If we keep our money, time, and power to ourselves, for ourselves, instead of sending them out into our neighbors' lives, then we may be literally on top of one another, but we are not interwoven socially, relationally, financially, or emotionally.

Friends, we must "reweave shalom." Shalom literally means complete reconciliation, wholeness, and peace. Shalom impacts and reflects all aspects of society, including its institutions. It's become one of my favorite words because it's what we truly, intrinsically long for in our homes, in our relationships, in our communities, and on our earth.

Though perfect shalom will never be fulfilled on this fallen, sin-scarred globe, we've been given an invitation to participate nonetheless. We can practice shalom today, in our communities and in our communities' schools, where the teachers and leaders and parents of tomorrow are being cared for and trained and befriended by your children.  

Bringing shalom to the places that need it usually costs us something. Carrying burdens and loving sacrificially always does. But for those who are in Christ, our motivation is not duty or even charity; it's love. It's knowing that because of our own great need, Christ put on human flesh and lived among us and died for us. We are made new. We can live free. We know the beauty of hope. We are wild about grace.

We give because we know how much we've been given. 

Living intentionally in our public schools as we teach, volunteer, and instruct our own children {as best we can} to live the second greatest commandment--love your neighbor as yourself--is no small thing. My own family isn't a great living example of this. I don't write  this because we are. I write this because I want to hold out shalom. I want to be mindful of opportunities to serve and befriend and give to those in our path.  

I have a feeling you do too. 

This actually has very little to do with volunteering or signing up for the PTO or raising the most money in the fall fundraiser. Though it can be that. It has everything to do with being aware of specific opportunities that come into your family's sphere of influence.

For those of you who don't send your children to public schools or whose children have finished their many years of school, what is my challenge?  

I simply ask you to care. Put your community's schools on your radar. Walk in its 5K races, for example, and show your support in a way that works for you...if you can. Do you know men and women who teach there? Encourage them. Pray for them. Thank them for the work they do to teach nearly all of the children in your community. 

The work they do is tough. Many of the kids in their classrooms are not easy to teach. They are up against family situations and bureaucracy and entitled parents. I'll be honest, I couldn't do it. But I am thankful beyond measure for those who do. We should all be thankful.

Despite the failings we're quick to highlight about our public schools, I don't think any of us would want to deal with the brutal realities of a largely uneducated populace. 

And for those of us who are Christians, imagine the bleak realities of our nation's schools without any believing teachers, administrators, staff, families, and children. And really, it's not just a Christian thing. We're called to act justly and to love mercy. Whatever form mercy takes, whether it's Oprah or Compassion International or after-school volunteers, I'm grateful. Imagine if everyone simply gave up?

My years of homeschooling were rather all-consuming. There wasn't much I could do, tangibly, to support our local schools or be involved in my community. And that is just fine. Raising up little ones is a full-time endeavor. Some days we did well just to get everyone fed and in underpants. This is sacred, noble work, by the way. Who knows how today's "mundane" tasks of motherhood may impact the world twenty years from now?  

But I do regret that my overall attitude was rather apathetic during that time. I regret that I didn't think and pray for those I know who teach and work in our public schools. I regret that I didn't make more of an effort to engage, even a little bit, in discussions regarding our schools.  

Simply put, I wish I had cared more, even if there was little I could actually do at the time. 

Next week concludes the series and I'll spend some time talking about ways we can come together. But for now let me leave you with this:

No matter how we school, we all live in a community together. Some folks in our community do life and education very similarly to us. And some don't. But like it or not, we all play a part. When we're apathetic toward others in our community, we play a part. And when we're attentive toward others in our community, we also play a part. 

The question is, which part do you want to play?

Shalom is there. She's in the park. On the football field. At the 5K. In the grocery story. At the local community care office. In your kids' school.

She holds out opportunities tailor-made for each of us. A love-starved kid in your child's class. A tired and discouraged teacher who lives next door. A cause or a club that needs the $10 or $100 you can spare. 

Will you notice? Will you say yes? Will you hold out your portion of hope and love and wholeness to the community where you live? Will you be an instrument of peace, goodwill, partnership, and encouragement?

I don't have a great track record. I haven't noticed like I've really wanted to. But I'd like to change that. Maybe you do too. 

Let's notice together. 


This is the seventh post in a series: 

Being Cool About School: 
Finding Grace & Freedom for Ourselves & Others in Our Educational Choices

{Whether We Teach Our Kids at Home, 
in School, or on the Moon}

You can read the earlier posts in the series here
Feel free to subscribe to the blog if you'd like to receive the rest of the series in your e-mail's inbox. You can do that in the right sidebar. And you may unsubscribe anytime you like. 


  1. Simply. Profound.

    Sitting at your feet,

  2. OK. I just scrolled all the way down to the bottom to say this: Wait til you see what I'm posting tonight. :) It was supposed to happen earlier but got bumped for Ruby's braids. :)

    So I'm not going to read this post yet because I need to write mine, and you k now how that goes...but I can't wait to come back!

    Will they be on the same page? Won't they?

    haha :)

  3. Love this, Marian! I think I need to read that Tim Keller book :) Thank you so much for sharing your gift of wisdom through your gift or writing! I think this is one of my favorite posts, and I pray we can all live out our calling to fully live in and love our communities. Love you!

  4. So sorry for the loss of your friend, a trophy of grace, and a bright spot for many children in your community. I live in a really rural, economically depressed area in Texas. Most people seem downtrodden in life, with broken spirits because of the toll of withstanding so many forms of abuse; physical, substance, emotional. (similar to remote parts of Pickens County) Participating in library story-time has been a really good way for me to interact with children in this community and be an adult who will listen to a story, or read a story, or celebrate something that is happening in their life. At times the needs can be very overwhelming. The older I get the less I know, but I pray these simple acts and simple words water seeds of love, hope and His peace. I appreciated your words today and your perspective on being a generous with our community. (and I love the Tim Keller quote, anytime I quote him I feel instantly WAY smarter :) He has such a gift for communicating ideas)

  5. This one. This post gets me. Because we see it on the faces of our children's classmates. We hear it in their voices. And sometimes we forgot that God has directly placed us where we are.

    I remember being so apprehensive about sending our kids to our local school, I had all sorts of opinions that were not at all based on truth. When we realized it was that local elementary or home, we figured we might as well check it out. And I quickly learned how wrong I was. The school my children attend is filled with caring and supportive staff, many who hold the same beliefs we do. And we take every opportunity we can to be involved and present there. Because we know that God wants to use us.

    We will be leading a Good News Club this year and are praying for the opportunities. We are praying for the souls. Thank you for the reminder that what we are doing is not only our duty as Christ followers but our privilege.

  6. Finallllllly, I read!
    This is fantastic.
    "Because no matter how you educate your own kids, the schools in your town are a significant part of your community." YES.
    I love this work you're doing, Scoop. (Also, your words are so grace-filled and make me sound a bit bossy in comparison. haha.)

  7. Thank you,
    We will be getting involved in our local public school.


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