Why Public School is The BombEssays, Featured — By Todd Johnson on September 17, 2009 at 12:00 am
You’ve witnessed the scene in 24, Lost or many other nail-biter action shows: a time-bomb is ticking down to zero; the hero or heroine must act quickly to avert mass destruction; a red wire or (wait…was it?) blue wire must be cut to avoid the apocalyptic blast of fire, concrete, and combustible carnage.
Sound familiar? If so, then you already know exactly how I feel whenever a well-meaning soccer mom from church asks me this question:
“So, are you guys going to home-school?”
The topic is an unstable atom, a shaking bottle of nitroglycerine, a lump of C4 your toddler mistook for play-dough. Contrary to the typical high-octane TV series, defusing the home-schooling “bomb” is no Keanu cake-walk. It makes me nervous. Maybe because, as NPR’s “Monkey See” blog claims, home-schooling is the number one toxic topic to avoid discussing on the internet.
But what recourse do I have?
Choosing to involve my kids in the public school system has a.) taught valuable life/character lessons, b.) promoted social justice, awareness of the marginalized, and community building, and c.) encouraged our family’s faith and that of the Christian teachers working missionally within that environment. Public school is a viable option for conscientious Christian parents. So please bear with me as I push this ominous red button while gripping a grenade tightly between my teeth.
For the record, I am definitively not against home-schooling for its own sake. Last year, when we were living in a rural Tibetan town, my wife and I home-schooled our five and seven-year-old daughters. It was a great experience because of the one-on-one involvement, the child-tailored learning, and the unhampered spiritual input we could provide. We all benefited from that experience, and it suited our situation and the developmental needs of our kids. I am not grinding my axe here.
When my wife and I returned to the States, many people in our broad Christian community assumed we would continue home-schooling. In the three years we were living overseas, there was a subtle paradigm shift that occurred with many evangelical Christians. Home-schooling was suddenly the spiritual option; public schooling was considered, at best, unspiritual/uncaring, and, at worse, a form of Christian child abuse. At least that’s what some parents’ looks, awkward pauses, and sighs seemed to imply. As a returning ex-pat, I thought maybe I was over-reacting, but hearing an NPR broadcast (All Things Considered – The Changing Face of America) confirmed this growing home-schooling trend. According to that program, there are now 2 million home-schooled children in America, a number that has been rising over the last ten years, up 15% annually during that time. While not all of these home-schoolers represent a “Christian” belief, the report claimed “an overwhelming majority” are motivated by religious reasons. This is not unwarranted. Obviously, Public school provides a very natural platform for Christians to engage with their local community in redemptive, relational, and loving ways – like Jesus did. If parents are willing to model this active involvement, it should be no surprise when their children grab the baton and run.
When we enrolled our kids at the local public school, we were shocked by the ethnic, religious, and economic diversity in their classrooms. This was surprising because the school is located in a scenic suburb of Seattle known for its affluence. (I guess you can’t judge a town by its Starbucks-density anymore.) With over 32 languages spoken, at least 7 different ethnic categories represented, and a large percentage of its students receiving free/reduced lunches, the school felt like a melting pot of missional opportunity. It was like we’d swapped the Far East for the ‘It’s A Small World’-ride at Disneyland. Familiar with cross-cultural life already, our daughters could relate well to “foreigner” feelings and challenges, had been second-language learners themselves, and knew the awkwardness-leading-to-joy of making new friends in a pint-sized international community.
It was heart-warming and inspiring for us to see how our two young daughters translated “loving neighbor global” into “loving neighbor local” without any difficulties of translation. One day. our kindergartener came home telling us how one of her friends at school, Christina, wanted to know about Jesus. Christina, who was born into a Buddhist family, told Sarah she had never been to church before. When we asked Sarah how she had responded she said, “Oh, I took her to my sister, Anna, because she knows lots more about God than me.” Then Anna finished the story, “Yeah, I told Christina all about Jesus and how he is God and how he loves all people.” Smile.
When I hear after-school stories like this, when Anna or Sarah wants to take their Bible or China pictures in for show-and-tell; when I see how concerned the girls are for their classmates, I can’t help but think of how salt works its way into a bland meal—flavoring it. I know I’m biased and think my kids are special, but the way they are active shouldn’t be seen as extraordinary; it should be seen as standard practice for believers of all ages. It challenges me. Love, grace, compassion, social justice, mercy, vulnerability, honesty, relational empathy—these fruits of the Spirit shouldn’t be rotting on the tree. They are meant to be picked and shared lavishly with the rest of the world.
Christians, sadly, tend to believe more in the negative power of sin than they do in the redemptive power of Christ in the lives of His people. The Watkins family, the Christian home-schoolers interviewed by NPR, said they didn’t want their kids in the public school because of the negative influences. Mrs. Watkins, a former public school teacher herself, said this:
“A lot of it was peer pressure, attitudes; you could have a bunch of really good kids in there and you only needed one to destroy all of it. You only needed one. And there was always one.”
I know there are great challenges facing believing students (and parents) within the public school system. I often think of Columbine, drugs, teenage sexuality, and the bitter Darwin-obsessed biology teachers out there. I’m not naive; I went to public schools myself. But does the “bad apple” theory really hold sway over salt-n-light? And if so, is avoidance and disengagement the answer? It points to fatalism and a disbelief that Christ really changes anything in individual lives or society. If one “baddie” can destroy the lot, isn’t it also possible that a single “saint” could reform a school? When I send my kids off in the morning I like to think of them being unleashed. Watch out world! You don’t know what’s about to hit you.
But it’s not just about the kids. Adults—teachers, faculty, and parents—have to be an integral part of kingdom-building in public schools. My wife began by volunteering two mornings a week helping out in the girls’ classroom. As a family we attend fund-raisers, PTA-events, harvest parties, and open school assemblies. We’ve met other like-minded Christian families through this process. The more engaged our family has become, the more our eyes have been opened to the great needs and opportunities. Felix, in Sarah’s class, told a story about how his family went fishing one time because they didn’t have any food to eat. Omar doesn’t speak a word at school…ever. His parents, raised in a different country, refuse to enroll him in a special class because they believe this will reflect poorly on him. After school, Madeline and her younger brother are often seen waiting on the curb for many hours. If asked, they will tell you a friend will be picking them up; it’s never a parent. As we engage with these real-life problems, we are trying to find practical ways to reach out to these children and their families. Knowing them, and sharing life together, is the crucial first step.
These social problems would seem overwhelming if not for faculty and teachers who actually care. One of the bright spots in this whole journey for us has been getting to know Anna’s teacher, Mrs. McCullough. Besides being an amazing teacher from the scholastic standpoint, she has also modeled social justice to me by her willingness to sacrifice economic and professional gain by working in a high-needs school. Much like us, Mrs. McCullough was at first surprised by what she saw in these multi-cultural classrooms. She wasn’t fully aware of the needs when she made the move, but after teaching at this school for some time, she realized it was where God wanted her to be—and that she could make a difference. In practical terms, education becomes ministry and vice versa; Mrs. McCullough is a first-rate minister even though her job title might read First Grade Teacher.
Even Christian teacher-ministers need the encouragement of Christian parents and students. On one particularly tough day, Mrs. McCullough was counting down to three o’clock. It was “one of those days” we all have on occasion where we find ourselves praying one of Anne Lamott’s favorite prayers: “Help me! Help me! Help me!” So when the class went off to P.E., Mrs. McCullough was happy for the break. It was then that she found a colored note from Anna sitting on her desk. The top facing page of the note read:
When she turned the note over, this is what it said on the back:
I pray my prayers
when I do something wrong
or when something bad happens
because God wants me!
Later Anna told us that she had originally made the note for herself, but that she felt that day Mrs. McCullough needed it. She did.
God does want us and He wants our neighborhoods, our communities, our schools. I think that’s why he asks us to be salt, light, and effervescent metropolitan centers on a hill. There’s no age-limits set, but there is a risk involved. Our children could fall to the various temptations and depravity of our sinful world. Or, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the world could fall to the enticing temptation of the loving Spirit of God actively present within our kids. And that possibility could be quite explosive.