I saw one woman dabbing her eyes with tissue. Several babies strapped to their mothers. Some attendees came to see their grandchildren. I recognized perhaps only a third of those packed in the Parish Hall. From the back row I also noticed relational joy pinging from face to face, my own included. I wasn’t so sure I saw the same level of joy in some of the high schooler’s faces, however, and I wanted to catch eyes with them, send a warm, knowing smile that let them know, “It’s okay. It’s okay! Someday you will be so grateful you had this community!” One might wonder how I feel at chapel, being the one with the gold magnetic Ambleside Ocala badge fixed to my dress embossed with the word “Founder.”
Founder! The word still sounds uncomfortably descriptive of what Charlotte Mason called, “the vulgarity of display.” True, I started this school: I was the initial Ocalan who was determined to have an Ambleside School for my children when one did not exist in this town. And for the fact of what I witness each Friday morning at chapel I truly, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!”
I was a tenacious 30-something when my personal mission began in 2003, and there were only three other Ambleside schools in the U.S. (There are a couple of dozen now.) I traveled to the flagship Ambleside School in Fredericksburg, Texas many times. I figured out what was needed to legally form a school in the state of Florida. I filled out paperwork to become a 501c(3). I formed a board. I created a website. A portion of the campus of First United Methodist Church was leased and renovated by a group of us. I made a school calendar and teaching schedules and purchased K-1st grade curriculum and 12 small wooden desks and chairs. My husband and I hosted events to tell everyone we could about what we were doing in the hopes of inspiring others to join us. Often people responded with incredulity, sometimes even with thinly veiled disgust. Those responses stung, but I pressed on, always marinating in and dreaming of the educational philosophy summarized by the phrase, “a living education.” I was somewhat of a one-man show until Susan Carrion (principal, teacher, musician, and chief bottle-washer) and a part-time teacher’s assistant were hired. Then, after much prayer, waiting, struggle, and sacrifice, on August 14, 2006, we opened for the inaugural school year. Then the pain really began! If it’s true God collects our tears in a bottle, then he has a large vat full of mine from 2006 to 2016; too many of those tears were not from joy. (The truth is, Ken Ausley deserves greater “Founder” status for this school since he kept me from quitting many times!) I’ll be blunt: the early years of starting this school rarely felt good. Weekly chapel was no exception.
In the first year, with only eight students, and three or more not-so-talented adult voices to accompany the lone instrument, a piano, which mercifully Mrs. Carrion could play, chapel gatherings felt like a struggle too. Yet, there we were, a small community, sharing the strangeness together, wondering as we endured delicate chapel services from week to week, whether or not this living education thing would catch on beyond the handful of souls gathered awkwardly in the room. By faith, we saw in our hearts what can now be seen and felt in real-time Friday mornings in the Parish Hall: a packed house, a chorus of children’s voices singing with drums, piano, guitar, and even the violin!
Year-by-year Ambleside Ocala took on a life of its own, apart from me. And by that I mean talented, passionate people came along, took ownership, added their own sweat and tears– folks who are still around like Valarie Lacefield, a dear friend and continuous partner in this work since 2008. Stephen Zedler (since 2009), Jill Romine (since 2010), Josh Head (since 2012), and many, many others. There are 34 staff members this year who make this place what it is: A place of joy, belonging, and delight. Intense struggle was not only a necessary part of Ambleside’s birth, but it will continue to be a part of our history moving forward. Our entire community is expected to count on struggle, plan for struggle, and persevere through it. Why? Because the struggle is there to accomplish something good in our lives: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)
Now, when I say, “our entire community” I mean not only the board, staff, parents, and students, but also alumni, grandparents, former staff and former parents, anyone who is drawn to the fire burning at the heart of this work. And what is that fire? Yes, the answer is Jesus. Chapel feels so good because the light and warmth we feel there actually emanate from him. The reality of God’s good life can also be seen across campus in such things as smiling faces, the rich content of beautiful books, gentle responses to weakness, or just a flowering plant in the courtyard.
This is who we are. And it is good to remind ourselves: We are a community living in the vision of God, where the wisdom and love of Jesus animate all our efforts to bring up children and ourselves to maturity.
As a community, we must also be on guard against complacency of vision and heart because “nothing fails like success.” The fire that burned in Charlotte Mason, still burns in the founders of Ambleside Schools International, Bill and Maryellen St. Cyr, and (I will be so bold as to say) it still burns in me. We are a people who work out our educational vision within the greater vision of God. We spend our thoughts, feelings, and strength upon loving him and, at his command, each other. Otherwise, “[t]he mission and ministry is what we spend our thoughts, feelings, and strength upon. Goals occupy the place of the vision of God in the inward life, and we find ourselves caught up in a visionless pursuit of various goals. Grinding it out.”
When this school was still just a dream I often prayed, “Lord, don’t let this school become ‘just another one of those.’” In other words, a “Christian” school in name, but lacking the fire of Jesus at the center, and therefore lacking the invitational joy, belonging, and wholeness that Jesus exuded, and to whom people flocked, even though following him also includes awkwardness and suffering. Chapel is where we celebrate and delight in the God who is all about our growth. And it sure feels gratifying to the girl in the back row with “Founder” stamped on her badge.