“Call me Ishmael”…
(Actually, I prefer that you not. It may be less offensive than what you would like to call me, but I still would rather you not call me Ishmael than whatever it is that you currently call me.)
Hearing the opening line from Moby Dick makes me recall everything I love about that book. I smile (internally) when I hear that line because I anticipate all of the poetry and storytelling and rabbit trails and whale hunting instructions about to come my way. While Moby Dick is not universally agreed to be a fantastic book, I love it and we humans are shaped by the stories we love.
It has been said, “art may imitate life, but life imitates TV.” I want to explore the ways that, maybe, life does imitate art. When we think of potential role models, we often think of the living, older family members and friends we each have in our lives. For me, the characters in the narratives I love have had as much influence on who I want to be as anyone in my own life has had. It is not that I do not love and admire my grandfather and my dad; it’s just that I know too much about them to still believe becoming them could be an ideal. In contrast, I only know enough of the negative things about the characters in a story to make them relatable. I will never know anymore. They can remain heroes. They can remain ideal enough to want to strive to be like them.
The character-shaping narratives we love can obviously come from the literature we read and the movies we watch, but they can also come from history, the Bible, and other places.
This brings us to Ambleside’s connection to this very one-sided discussion.
My own children have a great many potential role models that are good, living people. They have a strong community at Ambleside and church. Yet, how can any live person compete with Beowulf? Or Joan of Arc? Or Ehud the judge? Or William Wallace? Or Leonidas?
These are characters I still aspire to be. These are soul-filling stories I love, and I now see my kids carrying around the books. These are the narratives I have overheard them discussing in class through the years.
Because of the emphasis that Ambleside has placed on great literature, classic literature, the Bible, and the narrative nature of the historical record, the students at Ambleside have the opportunity to be influenced and inspired by the same characters that influenced and inspired C.S. Lewis and Nelson Mandela. Our students have the opportunity to consider and discuss what they think and how they feel about Atticus Finch and Hester Prynne. Do they want to be like Anne Frank? What would they do in her situation?
Our children live in a world that is absolutely inundated with “influencers.” While not all of today’s “influencers” are bad, not very many of them are William Wallace. If it is inappropriate (and ineffective) for me to just tell my children what to think, then I am eternally grateful there is intense competition for their hearts and minds. I could not be more excited to know that no matter what crazy book they bring home next, there is an idea or a character in there that may be the one that captures my child’s imagination.
The first step in having our students fall in love with good narratives is to expose them to the stories themselves. Ambleside is doing a fantastic job at that.
The next step is to direct them to the ideas those stories contain and to be excited ourselves about those ideas. I know the teachers at Ambleside do this with excellence, but what is our role as parents in nurturing the relationships our kids have with these stories and the ideas and the characters they contain? I am sure that some of you are exemplary at nurturing every idea your child is excited about. I am also sure that some of us could spend some time considering that our child is actually not us. Not all of the things that excite you will excite them. And not all of the things that excite them will naturally excite you. But as their parent, would it not be wise in some circumstances to nurture an excitement in your child, maybe even one you don’t naturally share, just because it is something they are excited about? And just because it might be the thing that inspires and informs who they want to be?
Ambleside sets the bar very high for what it looks like to present ideas and characters from classic texts and make them available to the students in an accessible way. How hard are we working as parents to continue that work at home? Are we looking for every opportunity to let our children be inspired by characters who are better than we are, or are we trying (maybe unconsciously) to create an environment where the nuclear family is the sole source of role models and inspiration for who our kids are designed to be? Are we unintentionally doing the best we can to doom our children to be no better than we are?
Just a consideration.