Plodding through Weigel's biography of John Paul II, I am struck by the Pope's frequent insistence that decisions (or actions) must never simply be made "against" something negative, but ought to be made "for" something good.
That insightful principle has given me a powerful new tool with which to evaluate decisions I am making as a wife, mother, friend, citizen, etc.... Recently I have had several reasons to reflect on whether or not to continue homeschooling. I have chosen to go forward, after clarifying to myself that homeschooling must never be a decision "against" anything, but a decision "for" something great.
The big buzzword in our family life these days is "parish renewal". Rich's brand new job is all about Church renewal, the New Evangelization, parish renewal - in short, his job involves deeply recognizing that something has gone drastically wrong in our culture, that "religion" is no longer thriving quite as it used to. Something new, something creative and perhaps radical, some attempt to think outside the box is needed; if the Catholic faith is going to flourish in the next generations, parishes must dare to do things differently, even if some choices discomfit those who prefer the same old same old. Without compromising the dogma, depth, beauty or demands of orthodox Catholicism (and its liturgy), parish culture itself must be reimagined; the traditional model is not as powerful in the face of the new culture in which we live.
Reading and talking so often to Richard about "Parish Renewal" has led me to see parallels to "Family Renewal". The family is faring just as poorly as the Church, or arguably worse. It's a chicken-and-egg situation, and it behooves the one to invest in the other. I esteem homeschooling as a real possibility for "family renewal" - requiring the same courage in scrutinizing how fruitful the "normal model" has been, and demanding the same levels of prayerfulness, humility, commitment, creativity, ambition, passion, prudence and fortitude to try something new. When I look at the culturally normal and accepted model of family life and child-rearing, I ask myself - I am obligated to ask myself - how successful has this model been in producing close-knit families that are true schools of love, community, character and faith? Which factors might account for the failures of the Normal American Family? How can I do things differently so as to give my family the best possible chance of being genuinely intimate and close-knit for life, of becoming persons of character and sanctity, of investing in Christ and His Church wholeheartedly? Those are profound questions and I have no guarantee that the answers I am finding are correct.
One consideration that has given me much pause in my reading of the life of Karol Wojtyla: when he lived under Communist rule, he noted that Polish families were kept separated for as many hours a day as possible - husband from wife, mother from child, brother from sister - in a successful attempt to undermine the family. That does not sound so entirely different from the de facto segregation occasioned by the crazy pace and chaotic scheduling of the modern American family: two working parents (who may or may not cohabit); kids scattering in every direction for school; hasty dinners eaten solo; and homework, sports and extracurriculars eating up the nights and weekends. If separation undermines the family so successfully, then will more togetherness have the opposite effect? Is homeschooling a good method of fostering togetherness? (or is it too much togetherness?) I don't know. It's an experiment. I don't know the outcome yet. I presume it will depend almost entirely on what I do with all this togetherness.......a grave responsibility and not one to be undertaken lightly. Only in rising to that challenge do I satisfy John Paul the Great's instruction to choose for something good. If I'm keeping my kids home for the good of family life, character formation, etc.... then what I do with them all day better actively serve those goals. Not only must I carefully plan and execute for their academic education, but I must be constantly striving for a home life that is joyful, cheerful, peaceful, orderly and an absolutely compelling school of virtue.
Every young Catholic has a responsibility to truly discern religious life, which the Church recognizes as the highest calling and the most perfect (complete) gift of self. We are not all called to become religious (in fact, few are), but if we truly love God, we at least open our hearts to allow Him to call us completely to Himself, if He so desires. In a similar way, I feel obligated each year to discern whether I am called to continue homeschooling my children, which I see as a vocation within a vocation and the most complete gift of self that I can possibly make to my family. My children have been uniquely entrusted to me and no one else loves them (or knows themselves to be accountable for the persons they will become) as I do. Therefore, as primary educator of my children, if I choose to delegate significant portions of their upbringing to someone else, I am morally obligated to make that decision seriously, after prayerful discernment, well-informed of the personal and cultural influences that will shape my young children outside of our home. Not only what does the school itself purport to do, but who is the teacher who will be in direct authority over my child? do I know of and admire her character & values sufficiently to responsibly entrust a good portion of my child's upbringing to her? is she kind, fair, challenging and just? is she vigilant about the culture of the classroom? what are her deepest attitudes about God and the Church? how much emphasis does she place on these in her private life and in the public life of the classroom? what about the teacher next year? and the year after that? who are the student peers who will tremendously influence my child's tastes and attitudes in nearly every domain? how well has my child internalized our family values and how much maturity does that child possess to lead, rather than be led? These are questions to be dismissed (or answered flippantly) to our collective peril. Adults speak glowingly of the tremendous influence one great teacher had on their lives. Is the reverse true? What is the lesser-noticed impact of mediocre teachers? I don't believe that homeschooling is obligatory for all families, nor that I will certainly homeschool every year of my children's upbringing. Only the discernment seems obligatory to me, given the state of family and culture.
I discerned religious life for two years in my 20's, in a very serious (although very immature) way and determined it was not my calling. I do believe that there are (many!) people who could discern homeschooling and determine it is not for them. Thank goodness there are so many other options! When I first became a parent, I was open to the idea of homeschooling, but had not made a definite decision. Finances seemed to indicate a long term inability to ever afford Catholic schools and our public school district was unappealing. However, our kids were babies and really it was a moot point. A short time later, while living in New Zealand, I found a Montessori preschool near our house that was absolutely "perfect" by every yardstick I held - and tuition was nearly free. At the time, Maria was 3 years old, Bernadette was not quite 1- and I was newly pregnant. Not only pregnant, I was suffering from pregnancy-related depression and overwhelmed with living in a new country, with abundant missionary responsibilities and a home filled with daily visitors who distracted me mightily from interacting properly with my toddler. It was a hard time. Nine months later I was overwhelmed with caring for a seriously ill newborn, on top of everything else. In those particular seasons of my life, I discerned that sending my eldest child to school was the best thing I could do for her and I was tremendously grateful to have the option to entrust her to such a wonderful little school. Having outstanding schools is important and I have immense respect for all those who are involved in ensuring that that option exists. Our parish school and local Catholic high school are both phenomenal, and both are constantly striving to become ever better. It gives me great peace of mind to know that there are wonderful schools in town, if ever I discern that one child, or all the children, ought to be in school. Homeschooling for me is not about "rejecting" traditional school any more than consecrated life is about "rejecting" marriage and family.
I end with a bashful confession. Homeschooling is challenging; it is a constant struggle by this imperfect woman to grow in patience, self-giving, self-control, creativity and the ability to be in a fruitful and sympathetic relationship with each child. It is not perfect. It is often messy. Often I wish my kids had more access to peers and microscopes and fine arts. Like all things, it's a trade-off. The microscopes and kilns and band ensembles help keep firmly in my mind the fact that I am not choosing against traditional school, but for family culture. One of the biggest struggles for me (and here's the confession part): often I feel frustrated by all that I can't do because of the immense time and energy demanded by caring for and educating five kids of disparate ages who are all home all day every day. When I recently thought about what I could do with my time if some/many of my kids went to school..... I thought of the idealistic (more prayer! volunteering! ministry!); the domestic (a cleaner house, more mommy-and-me activities for the baby and toddler); the mundane (a part time job, keeping better in touch with friends); the disappointing, yet very likely (wasting more of my life breath surfing the internet) ...... I realized that, with exception of more prayer time, there is nothing more important, worthwhile, or frankly satisfying than what I am doing, despite all its myriad frustrations. I am possessed of a renewed sense of gratitude that I live in a free country where I am (still) permitted to homeschool, that I have a husband fully supportive of my desire to do so, that I have the education and temperament conducive to succeeding at it, and lastly, that I do have a firm sense of having a God-given vocation to homeschool.
The experiment continues.