Why would anyone ever write a story like that?!”
Sobs from my sensitive middle child pierced my heartstrings as I held her and searched for words to console her. There were none that would. Her reaction had been as I expected but the Mama Bear instinct still swelled inside me wanting to shield her emotions from any harm. And that included 19th-century tragedies read in second grade. I recognized the story to which she was referring and had strong feelings about it myself, having wrestled with it only a couple of years prior. Overwhelming opinions aroused my controlling nature as I began the all too familiar process of questioning if this was even “right” for my child. How could something triggering this reaction be anything but wrong?!
Right and wrong really are the only two viable options in the eyes of a perfectionist. And while it’s been a struggle, I’ve learned in life to embrace this personality trait which has shown to be both blessing and curse. Although perfectionism at times proves to be a constructive quality, in decision making it is often an obstacle. Maybe I take my sweet time sorting through 47 avocados at the produce counter before I find the best one. This simply shows my earnest desire to pursue the most favorable outcome in every situation I face, and I try to allow for due process in order to attain ideal results for all involved. For this type of individual, it is upsetting to witness a thing being done the wrong way. By anyone. Fortunately for my husband, I have a Ph.D. in dishwasher loading and though it’s taken him a while, he is quickly becoming my best student. This need for what is right naturally overflows into the well-being of my family members as I make choices that affect them. I admit it is an ongoing humbling process but through prayer and spiritual growth and the most loving discipline of my Creator, I am reluctantly coming to terms with the world’s, and my own, imperfect state. Even so, my default has been to see matters as either black or white and I’m adamantly opposed to gray having the claim to so many shades.
It was 2013 when we were faced with the task of deciding on a school for our oldest child. I had my ideas of how I wanted my children educated and was fully aware of there being no such thing as the perfect school, but it needed to be “perfect” for our family. Given its rich, Christian-rooted curriculum and inspiring, down-to-earth teachers, Ambleside gave all the feels of a close-knit family. Although a weighty decision, we were blessed with an obvious choice. While my husband is not of the perfectionist persuasion, for me to put my child’s instruction into the hands of other individuals, some of whom I barely knew, was significant. This was a form of trust I hadn’t yet experienced and it nudged me out of my comfortable little box. However, over time I’ve grown to cherish what were once unfamiliar methods, the carefully chosen list of “living books,” intimate community… elements which have since deepened my certainty in our choice. But the years have not passed without the occasional hiccup.
I have at times challenged a piece of curriculum, as I believe a parent ought, should questions arise. While some texts I wouldn’t have considered including in my child’s development, this is where I am humbled and able to surrender any narrow opinion. I must step out of my box of comfort for the sake of my children’s prosperity, and in this yielding, I am free to question my motive and to determine whether the inward battle is worth disputing. I applaud the response from a fourth-grade teacher when we found ourselves in debate over age-appropriate content of a particular subject: “She will inevitably be exposed to this at some point. Wouldn’t you rather it be in a safe environment with people she trusts?” She countered my doubt with tender authority and I walked away knowing I had made the right decision – not only in where to have our children educated but in choosing to confront. A well-received encounter such as this holds much value and speaks volumes of the sincere care demonstrated by our faculty.
This brings me back to when the tragic story in second grade was introduced to my first-born, two years previous to her sister. She’d been absent and an excerpt from the story was sent home the following day, including a note from her teacher stating she thought it important for a parent to read with her. (High praise for teacher notes!) My daughter caught me up to speed with the storyline thus far before I read the continuing pages aloud to her. At that time I was unfamiliar with the story, and the underlying theme of “What is love?” caught me a little off guard for second grade. In the tale of a self-absorbed student and an ingenuously kind bird, the author attempts to arouse emotional thought in the reader, as the question is left unanswered. I am entertained by the unpredictable and can enjoy the occasional missing happily-ever-after; this text, however, just didn’t sit right with me. There was blood, a character died… and ((spoiler alert)) it ended on a sour unsettling note.
(Dang you, Oscar Wilde and your tragic poeticism!… albeit beautifully artistic.) “But it’s not FAIR! It wasn’t fair to the bird!”
Her sweet animal-loving spirit had been crushed. This “fairytale” by any stretch of the imagination, was one of her first tastes of literary tragedy and although plainly fictitious, it struck her as violent and unjust. With feelings reminiscent of my first read-through Romeo and Juliet, I wholeheartedly agreed. There were questions, so many. And tears. Some answers and some more questions. I had not planned on explaining the unfairness of life to her at the tender age of seven. This couldn’t be right. It was so dark gray to me. It pains me to be forced out of my “box” especially when it comes to my children’s exposure to coming-of-age topics. Was she even ready for such a discussion? I was determined not to allow this to become a disenchanting experience for either of us. I then found myself explaining how in this beautiful world there exists the cruel reality that fairness is usually the exception. I knew it was a hard one to swallow, but she needed to hear the truth in love. She is much like me and I had to level with her – it’s okay when things aren’t perfect or fair (( gulp )) but we try and use every chance, every sad story, to learn and grow. Her la-la land had been bitterly invaded and I was here, in this moment, to lessen the impact.
These moments brought my thoughts to our school, the teachers, their intention. Of course, I’m not going to fall into agreement with every choice they make but could I trust? Trust in other humans, in my decision, in the Holy Spirit whom I believe guided me here? I could feel the discomfort and ache of being stretched. I’ve often weighed whether the unease of my strong feelings over a school-related topic is even worth the confrontation. (Yes, I’m THAT parent.) I needed peace and assurance. This is the part when God uses something so seemingly minute to mold his children into what He wants them to be if they are willing. This is the part when stubborn, controlling moms can make the pivotal choice to loosen their grip on what they think belongs to them and allow God to take over so they, and their children, can flourish. I met Him there and chose to surrender. My little girl would grow up someday… no, she is growing up – each day a bit more – and I was so honored to be there for this part. She was in good hands, even though they weren’t always mine.
Last semester my youngest hopped in the car from pick-up one day with a somber look in his eyes.
“Did something happen at school you’d like to tell me about?”
“Oh, Mommy… we read the saddest story. It was about a little bird that died.” His voice quivered.
“I know this story. It is very sad. Did you cry?”
“I tried not to but I think I did, just a little. Other kids did… and my teacher cried too.” (Congratulations, Mr. Wilde. You’re 3 for 3 with making my kids cry.)
I imagined all of their sweet little innocent hearts, some of which have become very dear to me, listening and learning and growing up. This time there was a peace that came over me… the very kind that holds me back from a minivan u-turn and impromptu teacher conference. Considering myself a seasoned Ambleside parent at this point, I was well acquainted with the text and had a strong love/hate relationship going. But I still queried inwardly. Was his teacher able to assuage the intensity of the story without robbing the author of his creative ambiguity? I believed it so. This is when they were learning it. In a safe environment with people they trusted. And though somewhat troubling to envision the scene through my Mama Bear’s mind’s eye, I knew it promised a most rewarding end.
Oh, Ambleside… how you’ve pushed and prodded and peeled back and exposed… and in so doing caused an unearthing of much needed fruitful growth. Not to mention what you’ve done for our kids. This gift we have in a school has proven to be so much more than just that. A “living education” united with a faculty passionate about each life involved is an extension of family and has played a vital role in our home life. Something I couldn’t have or wouldn’t have (in a good sense) ever solely fulfilled. It has become a partnership that has proven to have a synergistic effect on our children’s overall character development, education, and well-being.
A wise woman whom I call Mom once advised me this: “Don’t always expect perfection. Just know that it most likely won’t go your way, and on the rare occasion it does, then rejoice.” She wasn’t trying to be pessimistic. She was trying to hit me over the head with reality so I could still enjoy life when it happened outside of my box. This truth has resonated with me time and again and is playing out now more so than ever as a mom of three. Ah, perfection… most certainly a reason to rejoice. But so are many more things on the way to achieving it.
“Consider it all joy… when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4