In fifth grade, I left behind my public elementary school life and transitioned to a tiny Classical School in New England, where autumns burned glorious, and scholarly minds were most prized.
After the first few weeks at this school, I accepted two cold facts: the headmaster regarded our studies as the be-all and end-all, and the brightest students were her charms.
The upside about my being an average student was that I blended in. Public speaking and performing and even answering a question aloud felt like sudden death. So I studied hard, kept quiet, and observed. It was fun making new friends, but the academic expectations were taxing.
Headmaster, I am sure, had noble intentions. She was passionate about history, and it became widely known that her grade-school history exams rivaled that of most college freshman. She was born to lecture and philosophize, and would probably have been better suited teaching at the graduate level.
I distinctly remember trying to memorize the lengthy definitions of our vocabulary words: city-states, Acropolis, colonization, revolution, assimilation, Manifest Destiny, Louisiana Purchase. After defining these from memory on our test, we moved on to a matching section. This was followed by a handful of short answer questions. Then the dreaded map: twenty cities or countries or bodies of water to color and label. The grand conclusion? A one to two page essay. These Friday exams took an hour to complete. I was eleven years old.
When Monday arrived, she handed back our tests, always in the order of our scores: from highest to lowest. The same few students continually achieved the top grades, and Headmaster smiled, congratulating them as she returned their tests, voicing their scores. The rest of us prayed we wouldn’t be last. We looked away from that poor student who clutched the final handout.
I preferred to stay in the shadows, and I didn’t worry about getting the highest grade. But I did want to understand what I was studying, and often I did not. I dreaded those tests because of the suffocating pressure from the top. Drooping under the weight of being a slave to the test rather than a master of the material, I was not consuming any of history’s rich lessons. The irony was that the school’s primary objective was to train up children to think biblically and critically; grasping our world’s historical sins and mistakes so as not to repeat old follies.
Recess was even measured by brain power. Many recesses were staff-structured around a highly involved game of capture the flag. I nodded in pretend understanding of those complicated strategies, while my heart longed to play tag or softball or four-square…all things I had done at my previous school.
English class proved to be arduous as well. The diagramming felt endless. We parsed sentences to death on that black chalkboard; chopping them up and dissecting , naming every blasted syllable and part of speech. While this must have had its benefits, the beauty of the music of the sentences fell deaf; crushed beneath my chalk-dusted fingers.
I did earn an A for spelling, and went on to win a trophy at our small area spelling bee. Headmaster quickly reassured our class that spelling did not reveal intellectual ability; studies proved that people who excelled in this area had a unique way of processing written words in their brain. Perhaps it was meant to comfort the smart kids. I put my trophy away, feeling oddly apologetic.
Shortly after this incident I decided to change my handwriting. One day I simply altered my cursive. She handed back my short story, looking displeased.
I will not grade this story until you write it in your real penmanship.
I think my phony handwriting was my way of telling her my words, my style, my real penmanship, seemed never good enough.
So I began filling composition books at home with short stories and journals and ideas. I kept it carefully hidden under my pajamas in my dresser drawer.
The next year, when I was a sixth-grader, winter struck hard, and one January day it was too icy to go outside for recess. No capture the flag today. Headmaster announced that we would play an indoor game instead. Everyone groaned.
I will pick an unusual word from the dictionary, and each of you will create a plausible definition.
She would then read our definitions aloud, without revealing the author, and our class would vote on the definition that sounded correct. Slipped in between our fabricated answers was the real definition.
She spoke the first word, which I no longer recall, but remember it being a noun. I played with it in my mind, and scribbled down my first thought.
A tiny, dwarf-like creature.
I won that definition, and Headmaster looked up at me. Surprised. She carried on with the game, and I scripted some more false definitions that earned more votes.
Kristin wins again. Her eyebrows furrowed, and it wasn’t so hard to read that expression. It felt a whole lot like the Spelling Bee, part two.
And that is precisely when I folded.
Written words held power, and she didn’t like my words. I was not supposed to win anything, because I was not an exceptional student.
Her words and opinions wielded their own sovereignty too, and I was tired on the inside. I stopped trying to do my best, and wrote crummy definitions for the rest of the game, pretending not to care.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in ninth grade and at a different school, that my heart’s door slipped open; ready to participate in English class once again.
Then I was thirty-two with four children of our own. We had been homeschooling, and I was in love. With my husband and our children; with our life. With the school lessons, and especially the stories we read aloud together every day. It was simple and true.
When our daughter, our fourth little one, was two-months old, we found out that we would be moving across the country. My stable existence melted. As we lugged moving boxes, insecurities suddenly reared, voices whispering and begging my attention: was I really doing a good job homeschooling? Were my lesson plans truly challenging enough? We wouldn’t know anybody in our new state, so should I enroll our oldest in school?
There are all kinds of ways to stifle the Holy Spirit. And I did just that. I acquiesced to the loudest sound, pushing down the quiet truth of wisdom that my heart already knew: my children, beloved by God, were on the right path. Our home was gently structured: breakfast, chores, Bible lessons, math, reading, history, science and read-alouds. Lunch and rest time, plenty of fresh air and free playtime, library visits, trips to the park, good movies, and backyard football. There were hard days, to be sure, but overall it was wonderful. There was order but mostly there was a bunch of love, unhurried and strong.
So we schlepped across the country in a huge moving truck, unpacked, and tried to settle in. Our sweet baby was thrown off her normal sleep pattern and cried on my shoulder night after night. Our little boy was scared to sleep in his new room, and took to bringing his pillow on the stairs where he could get to us more quickly in case of bad dreams. Our two-year-old clung to our legs, unsure of where we had landed. I had also enrolled our third- grader in a university-model classical school which meant he would be attending classes two days per week, and completing work at home the other three days. I ignored my gut instinct, reasoning he would make new friends and still be at home most of the time.
When I had registered for these classes, however, I had not taken into consideration the fact that I would be dressing and hustling four children into the van bright and early, driving 25 minutes to drop him off, another 25 minutes home, homeschooling my first grader, getting our baby down for a nap, and entertaining an exhausted two-year-old. Lunch was a rushed affair, peanut-butter-and-jelly left on plates followed by another round of: Hurry! Hurry! In the van! Time to retrieve our son.
As it turned out, there would be more problems. The amount of work our son brought home was appropriate for a tenth-grader, not an eight-year-old. I could read our dear boy, who never was one to complain. But he had certain tells, and they were manifesting in spades. He was a bundle of stress. We all were.
One night, when everyone was fast asleep, I studied my son’s binder, and the work he was expected to do. My heart began to thud. It suddenly struck me; why had I not recognized it? I remembered my Headmaster’s face, prizing her sophisticated lectures, but never truly connecting with the student. And now I had resisted the promptings of the Holy Spirit, trusting my doubts rather than my God, placing our son into this wrong, yet strongly familiar setting.
I knew then that school was never meant to be a Venus Flytrap: snapping up a child and snuffing out his life. An education should be a gentle wooing, challenging and beautiful and filled with all of the good books and read-alouds: Shiloh, Little Britches, Lad: A Dog; Little House on the Prairie, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Hobbit. Stories of redemption, pulling the reader’s heart toward the goodness of God. Stories with meat that would form character: mind, heart and soul. I wasn’t after heady knowledge; I was pursuing lasting heart-change for our children. And the master key? Relationship with my beloveds. Take my hand and I will show you. It wasn’t going to happen if we remained tangled in the chaotic, neglecting our consistent ebb and flow of schoolwork, outdoor play, unhurried meals with good food and better laughs.
That schoolyear mercifully ended, and none too soon. Our son came home that final day, dropping his backpack by the door. It landed with a thud. He raced to join his brothers, sifting through Legos together as they built. I rocked our baby girl, kissing her soft hair, enjoying the sound of their laughter and her sleepy song. The relief was stunning, and I closed my eyes, thanking God for new beginnings.
My sons were building Legos, and I was building our life.