Monday, September 9, 2013

on the dangers of comparing... [for all those brand-new homeschool moms out there]


I read this post, the day after the day we started “real” homeschooling for the first time.  The artist in me began to ache as I scrolled down through her gorgeous images of perfect green apples, beautiful bunting, full-size world globes, “Nooks” for Science, Reading, Nature, elegant art supplies… I felt ridiculously envious, and like applauding at the same time.  Maybe by the time my eldest graduates from homeschool, my schoolroom will look like that… I caught myself thinking.  If I even have a schoolroom…

In my dreams, maybe.  But in my reality?

I look up from my computer.  I look around, take stock.  Sigh.  At this present moment, we are squatters in a small guest apartment, in a different foreign country to the one our house is in, away from our [borrowed] house in our [borrowed] country, for the third trip this summer.  It's the beginning of September, and as I was preparing for this (hopefully last) trip, I decided I can't put off starting off any longer.  After months of philosophizing, curriculum shopping, ordering books, having my sweet Mom send them thousands of miles and then trying to find time to read them, I still don’t feel ready.  But I'll have to be.  If it's even just to have stuff for them to do every day, we have to start this thing.  

I pack bags of homeschool books into the back of the car, along with a box of teabags, a canister of sugar and a half-finished carton of milk in the cooler bag.  I want to be sure I have the makings of a good cup of tea upon arrival - I’m sure I’ll need one.  

Six hours of driving plus a border crossing later, we arrive at this apartment which is God's gift to us for this trip [our second unwanted visa run in the space of two months].  Reasonably priced, owned by foreigners, meant to be a blessing, the apartment just fits our family (with all three kids in the bedroom and James and I on futons in the living room).  The building is enclosed in a gated compound, and there is a simple playground right outside the front door.  True, all the equipment is sitting on plain dirt - like most of the parks in this part of the world, if there is any grass it’s for looking at, not playing on - so my 11-month-old bottom-shuffler scoots around on a continuously filthy bottom, but I’m thankful I can send the boys outside every day for "Outside Time" without needing supervision.  

I have my cup of tea, allow a day or so to settle in, organize a tentative schedule, stick it on the mirror by the front door.  I ask my gracious husband (valiantly persevering with his work while surrounded by bickering kids) if he can have “Daddy/Ruby time” while I do school work with the boys for half an hour in the mornings.  I pray fervently.  Wrack my brain for things Ben can do while I work with Will.  

[Ok, did you click on that link yet?  Here it is again.  Go click on it.  Now, keep those beautiful photos in your mind while reading the following:]

For Will (almost 6), I have (drumroll please): the Student/Teacher books for MathUSee Alpha, a copy of Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons, a wipe-off whiteboard and a black dry-erase marker.  That’s it.  

For Ben (almost 4), I have a dry-erase Numbers workbook, a fat Alphabet workbook, and a new pack of crayons.  That’s it.  

No frills, no extras - barely the basics. 

We sit at the tiny rectangular table, me on one side, a boy on each end.  I pull out MathUSee and we attempt "Lesson 1: Place Value".  Will catches on quickly despite my stumbling along in the teacher's manual.  Ben gets frustrated, doesn’t want to do his workbooks, doesn’t want to do anything.  He perks up when we put "Decimal Street" on the floor and get out the manipulatives, start building 3-digit numbers.  That lasts about 2 minutes.  When he’s tired of it, I try to engage him with his new number workbook, hoping the novelty will last long enough for me to finish the lesson with Will.  It doesn’t.  He can’t figure out the directions, can’t work page by page, gets frustrated and gives up if his first tracing of a number doesn’t cover the lines exactly…

The second day is better, with Ben enjoying his workbooks a little more and both of them enjoying the number game at the end of Lesson 1…. 

And then, during a tea break on Day 2, I click on that beautiful post.  And I almost feel like giving up.  It takes me two read-throughs (with a session of serious dish-washing-thinking in between), before I catch what her post is really about.  

It’s about GRACE. 

It’s not about the apples, the globes, the books, the trappings, the paraphernalia.  Homeschool - learning at home, wherever home is - is about my. kids. learning.  

And there is grace.

Ann says it right there, halfway down:

“That’s the bottom line: Your sins aren’t enough and your strengths aren’t enough. You are not enough — for this parenting gig, this marriage relationship, this homeschooling year, this work project. 
Write it on the wall, ink it on some skin, because Christ wrote it with His blood: 
Grace is the only thing that is ever enough.”

That is the truth.  And I take a deep breath, and let it sink right in. 
I am not enough, and this life of sojourning may be challenging, but He is always enough.  He can meet every challenge.
The Holy Spirit takes this prime opportunity to replay a few scenes in my brain: 
The way Will’s face lit up when he registered how to read a 3-digit number for the first time.  
Ben’s big happy eyes when he looked up at me after successfully followed the zigzag maze to get the zebra to the zoo.  
The way they both fought over who could pick the units, tens, and hundreds cards in our number game.  
Will’s dawning realization that he. is. Really. Reading!  even after just 25 lessons in his book… 
I am teaching.  I’m actually doing it!  They are learning.  They really are!  And having fun at the same time.  Who cares where we are, or what trappings we don’t have?  Isn’t learning what homeschooling is all about?
Yes.  It is.  Much as my beauty-loving soul would thrill to a spacious schoolroom with lacquered oak furniture, wall-to-wall bookshelves, organizers galore, and fresh bouquets of school supplies, I’m realizing it isn’t where they learn, or what they use to learn, but that they learn that’s important. 
And with Christ in me, and Christ as our Home and our Constant, wherever we go, by God’s grace, they will.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Pearl of great price" {a vignette from our sojourning this summer}

{Thank you for grace for this long silence... we are 5 days into our third trip of over two weeks this summer.  We've been away more than we've been home, and life has been made of lots of waiting and trying to find joy in the moments, despite feeling like wanderers... }

A vignette from our first couple days in our temporary apartment, God planting us each place we go, even if it's only for a short time...

She tells me her name is Pearl.  “Pearl, like the stone, you know?”  She’s wearing a sky-blue spandex T-shirt and denim capris, her dark hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head with a black velvet scrunchie.  I notice her pretty earrings, gold with blue stones, her matching pendant.  She doesn’t look more than 25 or 26.  She introduces me to her kids: the baby she’s swinging, a little boy 14 months old; his sister, 4 years old; and the older brother, 10 years old.  At this point I stop her, kid her.  

“Wait - you have a ten-year-old?  That can’t be possible!”  She breaks into a broad grin.  

“How old are you, anyway?”  I tease.  I offer my own age.  “I’m 31… you must be - “ 

“Thir-ty fife - no, thir-ty ayte, I’m thir-ty ayte!” she carefully corrects her English.  We’re speaking a mixture of English and Russian - she has about as much English as I have Russian.  We’re managing.  

“Thirty-eight!”  I’m incredulous.  She really looks just out of college.  I tell her I should call her my “Tye-tye” (Russian for “aunty”), and we both laugh.  I look at her beautiful children.  We talk about age gaps.  I introduce my kids, Ruby on the ground eating dirt, the boys chasing each other around the jungle gym.  She chuckles when I tell her how tired I am, pantomime pulling out my hair.  We share quiet, maternal pride.  

It’s not until later that she tells me.  This is, after all, only our first conversation.  But in this part of the world, the hard stories often come sooner rather than later.  Because everyone has them.  They are a bridge into intimacy, shared experiences spanning the gulf between strangers.  I often feel a mixture of guilt and relief that I don’t have any tragedies of my own to tell.  

We are talking about our sons, how my eldest is serious and studious, my second-born rowdy and active.  She tells me then.  “I had another son.  My first-born.  He was serious, like yours.”

I want to make sure I’ve heard her correctly.  “Another son?”

“Yes.  He died.  A… cat-a-strof.”  The Russian word is the same as the English one.  Catastrophe.  I want to know, and I don’t want to know.  I’m already bonded with this woman.  “What happened?”  I lean closer, instinctively trying to comfort her with some kind of nearness.  

“I was driving, we were going to the lake.”

“You were by yourself?”

“Yes.”  The details are few, the language barrier frustrates now more than intrigues. “My two sons were - “ she waves behind her.  I fill in, “Behind you.”  

“Yes, behind me.  My son, the oldest, he was crying about something, I don’t know what.”  At this point, her ten-year-old comes up on rollerblades, and she stops.  Asks me if my children can have ice cream, gets out money, sends her son off with a stream of instructions.  I, too, get out money and offer to pay, but she waves me off with a mock-serious frown - “No. No!”  Unthinkable, to let guests in your country pay for their own ice cream.  I give in, smile at her son as he rolls away.

When he’s out of earshot, I ask, “So, what happened?”

“I was asking my son, ‘Why? Why? Why are you crying?’  I was - “ she motions with her hand again, whacks at an invisible child “ - like this, behind the seat, trying to get him to be quiet.”  Her youngest is tugging at her T-shirt, so she  blandly whips out her breast and he begins to nurse.  She cradles him across her body, continues her story.  

“And then, the car - “ she makes a twirling motion in the air with her hand. 

“You - you rolled the car.” 

“Yes, yes, I rolled the car.  Two times.” She tells me this with an almost immovable face. Only her eyes betray her pain.

“You rolled the car twice - “ my hands are over my mouth, I can’t breathe.  I shake my head wordlessly at her.  Finally I ask, “Was he wearing his seatbelt?”

“I told him to put it on,” she says, making a helpless motion with her hand.  “I told him, but… he didn’t listen.  I was stupid.”  The English word sounds abrupt and harsh, bursting from her mouth.  Chastising herself in a foreign language.  She says it again, and again.  “I was stupid.  Stupid.  I should have stopped the car.  I should have wiped his face, cleaned his face, comforted him - “  By now, my eyes are watering.  I’m looking wordlessly at her, both hands over my mouth.  I still can’t breathe.  The noise of the playground swirls around us.  

“I should have said, ‘Quiet, quiet, my son, what’s wrong?’”  I think, if it were me telling this story, I’d be crying so hard I couldn’t get the words out.  

Finally I ask, “What happened?”

“He was sitting beside the window, he was thrown out of the car…”  Her son returns with the ice creams, hands them out.  I get out wet wipes, call the boys over, scrub the palms of Will and Ben’s hands, open the ice cream wrappers.  I do this automatically, numbly.  My mind is with Pearl, in the car, on that horrible day.  

“How long ago?  When did it happen?”

“Five years ago.  And five years have - “ she makes a stroking motion over her heart. 

I fill in. “...done a lot to heal your pain.”

“Yes.  I have two more children, a daughter, and now another son.”  She pats the baby at her breast, looks fondly at her four-year-old, pigtails bouncing as she bounds up the slide with her ice cream.  

“But…” I stop, feeble.  I want to say, But there is no one in the world like your son.  No matter how many more children you have, you can never replace him.

“He would be thirteen,” she says this softly.  Almost apologetically.  As if she’s not supposed to allow herself to imagine him as though he were still living.  

I try to say my thought, try to express my sorrow for her loss.  She nods, only partially understanding my broken sentences.  Our eyes meet.  Impulsively, I lean in.  I reach an awkward arm around her shoulders, around the nursing baby.  I plant a quick, clumsy kiss on her broad, brown cheek.  Her skin feels moist.  My heart leaps towards hers.  I pull back, and our eyes meet again.  There seems nothing more to be said.  

We enjoy our children enjoying their ice cream.  Ruby screams for licks from Will’s stick, mouths little bits of chocolate.  She tilts her head up, gives a cheeky grin, displaying all six of her tiny teeth.  I make a joke, try to crack the sadness with mother-empathy: “With my first, I didn’t give him any sugar for two year.  With my second, I think he was maybe a year old before he had sugar.  With the third…” I trail off, and motion to Ruby sucking on the ice cream.  We both crack up laughing, she knowing exactly how the standards go out the window.  

Later, when it’s time to go, I tell her: “I prayed and asked God for a friend, for these two weeks we will be staying here...” 

“Really?” She seems surprised one would pray about that.  “Well, I’m new too,” she admits.  “We just moved in a week ago.”

“Only one week!  But you seem so natural, so at home!”  Suddenly all the pieces click: her desire to strike up a conversation with a stranger, wanting to practice her English, buying my kids ice cream, impulsively telling me her story… she needs a friend as much as I do.

She’s a sojourner too.  Even though this is her home.  

Before, she had described their house in the country, how they want to find tenants for it, and I thought it was just another property they owned.  But no, that was the home they just left behind, so their children can go to a good school in the city.  And here she is, sharing her pain, in a foreign language with a foreigner on the playground… I like this woman.  I like that she shared herself with me, risked something on a friendship that can only last two weeks at most.  It could be just callousness, that she’s numbed to her own pain.  Maybe she tells everybody her story.

I don’t think so.  

I tell her what I think.  “I think God arranged this, our meeting.”  

Light breaks over her face.  “Yes!  I think so too.”