catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


In search of a good education

The importance of gratitude and true grit

For the past fourteen Septembers, I have prepared children for the first day of school.  The first year I was supposed to send my oldest son to kindergarten, he was still taking afternoon naps every day and I just couldn’t do it.  I borrowed a curriculum and some flashcards from a homeschooling relative, bought some crayons, phonics workbooks and a primary-colored Fisher-Price desk and we made our own school.  The following year, first grade, we lived in a new town and I drove him to the little elementary school, walked him through the doors and, after a little trouble finding his classroom, dropped him off and walked back out empty-handed.

Until you’ve done this for yourself you can’t really imagine how scary that can feel.  Another year, after the September liturgy of the first day of school, I wrote this entry in my journal:

Out of the 365 annual possibilities I have to be astonished that God gave me four children, perhaps the singular most shocking day of the year is The First Day of School. I’ve discovered that it is not while I am in the middle of the swarm that is my family that I remember to be amazed. But when, each September, they sever the ties of summer and walk away from me — into the authority of other adult people, into buildings I know nothing about, surrounded by people I’ve never met — that solitary moment is when I most feel like a mother.

In the fourteen years I’ve been sending children to school, we’ve moved into three different school districts, each one larger than the last. This summer we moved from New York to Texas and landed in Austin one week before the first day of school.  Not for the first time, we scratched our heads at the seeming insanity of entrusting strangers to the academic and social care of our children.

It had been a while since we’d thought through the homeschooling option, but after a couple of weeks here, it seemed one of our children was especially struggling.  I began to see the pattern that had been unfolding for her during her middle school years, one in which she seemed to thrive everywhere but school.  

Austin offers a variety of excellent education alternative, but as I began working my way through the list, one by one, none of them seemed feasible for us this year.  One evening, after small group gathering in our new church, I lamented to a woman who’d taken us under her wing.  “For the first time in a very long time as a parent, I have no idea about the right thing to do.”  Yvonne looked at me straight on and pronounced, “The problem is there are too many options.”

This was no “back in my day” rant on her part.  She sent her kids to school in Guatemala during the nation’s civil war and then moved the whole family back to the U.S. when her three children were in middle school and high school.  She’d been there.  I took her word for it.

Still we gathered our options, listed the pros and cons for public school, Christian school, homeshool co-op, classical education, charter school, magnet school, unschooling.  So many choices.  All of them right in one way or another, and at the end of the listing we were back right where we started. 

I’ve had the privilege of knowing families from every educational option and, at the end of the day, we all face basically the same challenges in raising our children. We want them to know who they are and to have many opportunities to use their talents and skills.  We want them to realize they are part of something bigger than themselves and to have opportunities to give to the community at large.  We want them to have a love for learning that reaches far wider than any curriculum’s scope and sequence.  We want them to experience academic, social, relational, athletic success.

In the middle of our years of parenting school-aged children, though, my husband and I have been developing another sort of conviction that we don’t really come out and say at parties too often: we want our kids to know how to live in a system where they are unknown, a number rather than a name, an ordinary student among a mass of other ordinary students. 

Don’t get me wrong.  We do not want them to be content with the mediocre or status quo.  We do want them to learn how to be content in the middle of that field though.  If we have to err on one side or the other, we want our kids to know how to pursue excellence even when it goes unrecognized. 

A friend sent me the link to an excellent article featured in the NY Times magazine’s annual education issue.  In the article, author Paul Tough asks the question, “What if the secret to success is failure?" after interviewing Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Academy, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools.  Randolph, along with a group of fellow veteran educators is leveraging all of the data that has been accumulated from character-based educational initiatives attempting to integrate values-building and character-development along with academic instruction.

Randolph would argue that he’s more interested in developing students who not only get into college, but who have developed the character traits necessary to get through college and on into life as ever-learning, productive citizens.  In his 23 years of experience as an educator, Randolph has been able to narrow down the list of most valuable traits to these:  zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  His premise is that in order to help students develop these kinds of traits, we need to make space in our educational models for failure.

I’m quite impressed with the determination educators like Dominic Randolph demonstrate to keep the larger view of culture and civilization in mind, beyond the individual student’s GPA and test scores, when it comes to setting educational goals.  In addition, both the interviewer and interviewee alike acknowledged that it is our very affluence as a nation that affords us any discussion beyond the basic questions of literacy for our students. Our children.

Maybe what my friend was trying to tell me after small group last week was this: the very fact that I had the option to be stressed over where to send my daughter to school is at its very core a privilege.  It was a good reminder.

We still haven’t decided for certain what school is the best option for our daughter.  But we’ve gotten clearer on our values in the process.  Thanks to my friend Yvonne, I’ve been more mindful to choose gratitude over anxiety.  And thanks to the work of Dominic Rudolph, I’m encouraged that, no matter where she lands, we’ll all have upped our “grit quotient” quite a bit.  

your comments

comments powered by Disqus