Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reality cheque

At my friend Debbie's request, I am writing a post about one of the many realities of homeschooling. I've always written about real things that happen, but one of my modest talents is to be able to turn even the most un-funny episode into something humorous, but it isn't always possible to do that. Sometimes the bright side can be kind of dim.

Part 1: Debbie pleads her case

Debbie is the mother of six children, all under the age of 10. She and her husband and family attend Our Lady of Perpetual Motion parish and she, like many other homeschooling mothers, has been known to lock herself in the bathroom and claim to be suffering from a bad case of constipation. At a recent homeschool event, she said to me in her decisive way, "I think you should write a book."

"Oh, okay," I teased her. "I'll get started on that right away. Any suggestions on what this book should be about?"

"Oh, yeah," she said, leaning toward me across the table at which we were sitting. "You need to write a real homeschooling book. About how hard it is. And how you want to kill your kids sometimes. And what a crushing responsibility it is -- how you wonder if you're a total failure and if your kids are going to grow up to be panhandlers at a freeway exit."

"If I wrote a book like that, every single homeschooler would hate my guts," I protested.

"No, they wouldn't," she insisted. "They would totally get it. There are already enough of those books out there that tell those full-of-crap stories about how some mother has every aspect of homeschooling sewn up into some little package with pink peonies hand-embroidered on it. You know what I'm talking about: how Mommy has time to devote two hours to prayer each morning before getting up to take the kiddies to Mass and then come home to a nourishing family breakfast of coddled eggs gathered from their flock of chickens out back that the nine-year-old is raising for a 4-H project and whole-grain muffins their five-ear-old baked with one hand while she played a Beethoven sonata on the piano with another. And then the kids learn multiplication by sorting socks, and then early in the afternoon, she retires to her bedroom with the midwife and has her fourteenth child while she writes up the family school-and-chores schedule for the next six months."

"Oh, yeah," I said bleakly. "Those books. I hate those books."

"Tell me about it."

"They make me feel like a big, inadequate lump of dough."

"You think?"

"Sometimes, my one prayer of the day is, 'Holy Mother of Jesus Our Lord and Savior, please hold me back from hurting somebody.'"

"Uh-huh. That's what I mean. Like, the other day, there was only enough ice cream left in the house for one person, so I purposely sent the kids outside to play and I ate it myself. And I enjoyed every bite and I didn't feel guilty."

"You mean everybody doesn't do that?"

Debbie snorted. "Not from what you'd read in just about every homeschooling book out there. All those mothers would have made a project with the ice cream and some phyllo pastry and created little miniature Baked Alaskas to serve Daddy when he got home from work. And ev-ree-one would have had their fair share."

I sat with my chin in my hand, thinking. "Reality?" I asked her.

"Ab-so-freakin'-lutely," she said firmly.

Part 2: Reality according to us

We began homeschooling when Meeyln finished her second year in public school. She had wonderful teachers and the school was great. The problem lay in the fact that education being offered was what you could expect from teachers with a whole bunch of students working at differing levels and only one self.

Believe me, I am not one to naggity-nag-nag at public school teachers for the abysmal test scores and illiterate students that are endlessly cranked out of our public school system. I've been a public school teacher, and if there's any job that could suck the will to live right out of you, being a public school teacher is the one. Don't get me started on overcrowded classrooms. Or on how students show up on your roster that should have been held back years ago for non-mastery of basics, like, just for an example, knowing how to read.

I don't want to go to that dark place where most teachers spend a portion of their weak and spindly salaries on supplemental materials for their classes, or even on decor to cheer up their Cell Block B-style surroundings. And it would be too depressing to dwell on the endless discipline problems and the "necessity" of having the kids out of the class to go to this convocation and that pep rally and Story Time in the library...and people wonder why kids can't do math.

So. I am very pro-public school teacher. They have a sucky, demanding job and most of them are relentlessly optimistic at the beginning of each new school year.

But still, Meelyn was not doing well. She was reading at about the fifth-grade level and doing math at first-grade level. That, and the fact that the school system had just adopted a stupid and ridiculous whole-language program to replace the solid but "boring" Saxon phonics program they'd adopted five years earlier. Saxon phonics, I was told as a member of the textbook selection committee, was just too dull. Not enough colored pictures. Not enough flip charts, for heaven's sake! Not enough razzmatazz!!! We need full-page illustrations, people!

And no, I am not kidding about this.

I talked to my teacher friends in the building, teacher for whom I had served as a volunteer to listen to children read. "What is the deal with the flip charts-colored pictures-more razzmatazz sector out there?" I asked incredulously.

"I don't know," one said grimly. "But I'm already saving whatever Saxon materials I can so that my second-graders can learn how to read. I may get hauled away for copyright infringement, but at least I'll be doing my job."

The state of California used whole-language based "reading programs" for a number of years, resulting in the lowest reading scores nationwide during that time, an infamous experiment in throwing out the tried-and-true and replacing it with razzmatazz, with disasterous results. And now that same failed methodology was being brought to our local public schools where it could be inflicted on kindergarten-aged Aisling?

My husband said no way. "You already spend hours helping Meelyn with her math," he said. "Now you're supposed to teach Aisling how to read? Why are you doing the school's job after they've already been there all day long?"

I had no answer for this. Well, except for homeschooling. Which was actually my husband's suggestion initially. I had always been very interested in homeschooling and I had a big shelf full of books that I'd digested; my own plan was to have the girls go to public school for grades K-6 and bring them home for grades 7-12. It took a while for me to become convinced that we should start now. We devoted a lot of time to prayer, seeking God's opinion for what was a pretty big step. Neither of us could deny the peace we felt, which for Christians is the hallmark of God's will.

Once I was on board, there was one thing my husband and I both agreed on. We said: If we started homeschooling, it was going to be for always. There was going to be none of this school-for-a-year-then-home-for-a-year-then-back-to-school-for-a-year. My husband was bounced around like this in his childhood, only it was between public schools and Christian schools. He went to something like nine different schools in twelve years. Without going into a lot of personal stuff, he feels this damaged him and he didn't want to do the same to our kids.

So, there we were, living our own slightly counter-culture reality: Homeschoolers several years before we'd planned, charting our course through waters that were initially as smooth as glass.

Part 3: High winds and choppy seas

In our culture, it is hard to be a one-income family. Especially when the main breadwinner works on commission. We know other families where Dad or Mom is self-employed and they go through a lot of the same things we do.

As Christians, we're told to have faith. "Pray, hope and don't worry," as Padre Pio famously said. In spite of the fact that our finances have been freakishly nerve-wracking from time to time, we've always pulled through. Here's the reality: there have been disconnect notices. There have been increasingly irritated calls from collection agents. Due to a manufacturing economy that has gone belly up in the past few years (taking a lot of factory workers, and, incidentally, car salesmen) with it, we declared bankruptcy several years ago. There simply weren't customers buying cars. And then there was the small matter of September 11, 2001. And rising gas prices.

Through all of that, we continued on doggedly. It was strongly suggested by people we knew that we should just give. It. Up, already. The girls could go to public school; I could get a teaching job. Everything would be peachy.

Except for the fact that every time we considered that option, the feeling both of us had was one of jangling, screeching, jarring dissonance in our inner selves. No peace whatsoever. Trust me when I say that we weren't unaware of the seeming stupidity of continuing to be a one-income family when it was perfectly obvious to any sane person that two incomes would be the expedient way to go. My husband works with some people who have politely suggested that he tell me to get off my a** and get a job.

"I can't believe you don't make her get a job," one person said to him witheringly. "She's taking advantage of you, letting you slave away while she sits at home. There's no way I'd let my wife stay at home with the kids. She needs to do her share and bring in some money."

What can you say to a person like this? Other than, "I thank God every night that out of the eight hundred fifty-nine men anxious to marry me, you weren't one of them, my friend." It must be a lot of fun running your own little gulag. Sheesh.

But then there are fellow Christians -- and I have to tread very carefully, here -- who have told us that if what we're doing is God's will, then we would be blessed with prosperity. Things wouldn't be so hard, if we were in God's will. Sure, we would be dealing with the consequences of being a one income family in a two income society, but we sure as heck wouldn't be getting disconnect notices from the gas company, because God would be abundantly providing, "pressed down, shaken together and running over."

What is the answer to that? Other than a dumb look, I mean. Because this mindset is one that has ridden me like a rented mule through most of my life. And I have found that even though I am still working it out of my system with the help of God's grace, it is more difficult to explain the truth to the Christians who believe this than it is to explain quantum physics to a seven-year-old.

Part 4: Insomnimom: philosopher and theologian

Before I start on this section, I think it is important to mention that I am not stating my own personal beliefs. I am stating the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, the only congregation of Christians that has the historical, Biblical and authoritative claim of being the Church established by Jesus Christ, directly before and after the time of his death and resurrection.

First of all, it isn't true that God has promised Christians wealth and health during this lifetime. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. This life is one of lessons to be learned and crosses to be carried. That has been Christian belief for the past two thousand years; that life is often hard and the walk on the path of life is frequently weary, but that our hope of heaven brings us peace and joy.

I can personally attest to that.

The idea of God's favor granting Christians financial prosperity and good health began in the United States with a preacher named E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948), a New York native, who wrote numerous books on the subject of word-faith confession. In his book Hidden Man, Kenyon wrote a short phrase that serves as the catchphrase of his movement: "What I confess, I possess." Unfortunately for him and the people his teachings have deceived, this statement is false.

It may have been false, but it sure was beguiling. Kenyon's new teaching began to tickle ears all over the United States as people eagerly read his books. Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland were among the first purveyors of this false teaching. It was enthusiastically picked up by popular televangelists like Jim and Tammy Bakker and Kenneth Hagin. Kenyon's teaching is called by several different names: the "health and wealth gospel", the "prosperity gospel", "word-faith theology" and the "name-it-and-claim-it movement."

You could go to any Christian book store and glance at the rack of best-sellers and see a lineup of the current authors promoting the word-faith concept, smiling at you from the covers of their books. Some of them are the pastors of mega-churches and some of them have television programs; several of them have come under investigation in a United States Senate probe headed by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley for abuse of their tax-exempt status.

It's really important to know why this is a false teaching. Why is it wrong for Christians to preach a message of God's abundant blessings on the physical and financial health of His children? There are, after all, plenty of verses and passages throughout scripture that mention good health, long life and prosperity. And if God doesn't lie, how could those verses be wrong?

Like virtually all false teaching from the Gnostics on down, the problem is that a lie that has a little bit of truth in it is still a lie. This, I have been told from my Protestant childhood to my Catholic adulthood, is the classic ploy of Satan to confuse, disarm and deceive God's people. His specialty seems to be convincing people that they can pick and choose a verse here and a passage there and form them into a "belief" or a "scriptural promise" when they're really nothing of the kind. Anyone with a mind to do so can make the Bible say just about anything they want it to say.

This is how we know with certainty that Martin Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura ("through Scripture alone") is a false teaching. Complete misinterpretations of scripture are possible, which can lead to some devastating problems within the Christian brethren. Like, for instance, the matter of 30,000+ different Protestant denominations, all started by men (or even women) who had their own ideas of what the Bible was teaching. Whether or not that idea was backed up -- historically and spiritually -- with what Christianity has actually taught down through the generations from the time of Jesus and the disciples is another story.

Something I have learned from both Protestant and Catholic teaching is that divine revelation stopped when St. John the Apostle finished writing his revelation from the Holy Spirit. The Early Church Fathers explained the traditional beliefs of Christianity still further in their own writings, but their works have never been considered inspired by the Holy Spirit because there was nothing new in them - they were just a continuation of what had already been taught. Quite a few of the Early Church Fathers were disciples of the Apostles and learned directly from them.

There have also been Church councils and papal writings through the ages, all defining and solidifying what Jesus and the Apostles taught. Historically, spiritually and Biblically, we only can know the truth if we're seeking the beliefs of the early Church. They haven't changed over the years; as the scripture says: "Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday and as he will be forever." (Heb. 13:8, NJB)

If He doesn't change His beliefs, then how can we? How can my husband and I use a teaching that was invented somewhere in the 20th century -- "If it is God's will that you homeschool, He will provide and if His provision is gone, you must not be in His will" -- as a litmus test of our decision to homeschool?

If you think of God's will for a person's life to be equal with His abundant provision, how can a Christian explain the lives of Job and Jesus? When Jesus was in Gethsemane praying before His Passion began, He pleaded with His Father to make some provision for Him -- Plan B -- so that He wouldn't have to undergo the torment. The provision didn't come; Jesus still suffered. The provision did come later in His victory over death, so Jesus was not ignored or forgotten. Likewise, the apostles suffered the death of martyrs, all except for St. John. God's plan for their lives didn't include health or wealth.

If it didn't happen for these early saints, champions and heroes of the Christian faith, how could we possibly convince ourselves that it will happen for us?

Part 5: So where are we now?

Right now, we're slap in the middle of one of the most alarming financial crises in our marriage. Wow, has it ever tested our faith.

In a discussion I had recently on the subject of the word-faith movement, Father, who is wise and good, said, "It's easy to be a Christian when things are good. When you and your family are in the pink of health and you have a big, fat wad of money in the bank and you have a great job and the market is bullish, your Christian experience is largely theoretical. It's when the hard times come that you get a chance to find out how deep your roots are."

"I hate it," I said sulkily, wiping tears off my cheeks with the tissue he proffered.

"Well, St. Paul says that you should be counting it as joy," he responded, smiling.

"I hardly feel like smiling. Not having money scares me," I elaborated, just in case he didn't understand the first time.

He sighed and patiently began again. "Do you remember Jesus's parable about the sower and the seed?"

"Well, yeah..."

"So you know that the sower in the story threw some of the seed onto stony ground, so that the plants sprang up quickly. But when the harsh sun shone on them, they withered and died because they hadn't developed a root system."

"You're saying, then, that this whole health-and-wealth thing is like the stony soil?"

I pictured the huge mega-churches that have sprung up everywhere nowadays, it seems, with their coffee bars and their "living rooms" designed for people who'd rather lounge on a sofa and watch the preacher on a plasma screen television than sit on a pew upstairs and see him live; these churches with their constant focus on entertaining feel good-ism that doesn't really press too hard on unpleasant issues like sin and our duty to God.

One preacher I read about, the pastor of the country's largest mega-church and the author of several super-dooper best selling healthy-wealthy books, confides that he never talks about sin or judgment in any of his sermons because people don't want to be brought down by a negative message. He wants to focus on the positive, which in his case means preaching about how God wants all of us to be prosperous and in blooming health; anything less is simply not the abundant Christianity that all followers should be working to achieve. He claims that talking about overcoming sin and working to achieve holiness and picking up one's cross -- all that stuff Jesus talked about -- is just not his "gifting."

"This prosperity thing," Father said, interrupting my thoughts, "is bound to create a generation of Christians with shallow roots. These folks will be required to carry some crosses in life and what's going to happen when their faith is tested with a cross? What's going to happen when they claim a healing that never happens? They don't think that crosses bear any relation to their walk with Jesus. Their roots are shallow; they'll burn out. What they're being taught to keep them coming to those churches is a lie and nothing good will come of it. The Church teaches that the end never justifies the means."

I left the church that day feeling somewhat better. My husband and I had a very long talk that went far into the night about money and homeschooling and God's will for our lives. This was our conclusion:

1) We began homeschooling after months of prayer. Our prayers led us to this conclusion: We would homeschool the girls all the way through high school. If it was right for them as elementary students, it would most assuredly be right for them as middle- and high-school students.

2) The Bible tells us -- backed up by Christian belief for the past 2,000 years -- that this life is one that has its great moments of happiness and a profound sense of joy as we hope for heaven, but it also offers a number of trials: health problems, financial messes, lonely times when it seems like prayers bounce right off the ceiling and fall with a thud onto the floor. These are things that should be expected by mature Christians; no one should feel exempt from trouble or feel that God is there to whisk problems away.

3) God tests our faith through trials. Without trials that we suffer though, our faith would be weak and our roots would be shallow. Our relationship with Jesus would be superficial.

4) Sometimes God removes our trials and changes our circumstances. Sometimes He doesn't.

5) Money may well be a trial that my husband and I suffer through for years. There are trade-offs, as there are with every circumstance in life.

On the downside, we may be as poor as churchmice and the girls may never get to have another piano lesson and the electric company may continue to send us letters that begin "We're sure through some oversight you have neglected..."

On the upside, we get to be with our kids. We get to guide and direct their education. We get to make them happy, because homeschooling is what they want to do. When they're grown, we'll never wistfully think that it all went so fast, what with careers and school and all, that we never really had time to truly know them before they were gone.

6) Money problems can be very scary and depressing. There's nothing like a good, solid bank account to make me feel a sunshiny blissfulness. Which possibly indicates one of the weaknesses in my faith that God is working on: I should be feeling a sunshiny blissfulness that God does provide, even if He doesn't provide in the abundance that we'd prefer.

But no. Me, I'd much rather have a whole great big bunch of stuff and then I'd like to get new stuff, more stuff than I had before. And I'd like a big house to put all my stuff in, too. And when I got bored with stuff, I'd like to go on vacations, either flying on planes or by driving in my black Hummer. With tinted windows.

Never mind that this attitude is pretty much the antithesis of Christian life. And I don't want to hear any of that silly business about how rich the Pope is, either. Everybody knows that the popes don't own any of that stuff in the Vatican: Benedict XVI cannot hold a rummage sale out there on the piazza. Not even his bed, his desk and his prie-dieu belong to him.

7) We have friends who have money. We have family that has money. But it isn't the responsibility of any of these people to look after us or tend to our wants. It is true that a certain friend who is mentioned frequently on this blog is very, very sweet about picking up the tab for occasional Mom's Night Outs or Book-It pizza lunches, but friendships and family relationships will never be exploited by our begging. If the Holy Spirit nudges someone and they offer a lunch or a check, that's one thing. But our sad, pleading spaniel faces will never beg from the people we love. It just isn't the right thing for mature Christians to do.

That's where we are as of this day, the day I am posting.

This is our homeschooling reality, filed under Bad News: our cell phones have been turned off because we can't pay the bill. Our gas is due to be shut off on January 7. We're behind on the rent. We almost lost the regular phones and the internet last week, but managed to squeak in with a Western Union payment before those services were canceled. We managed to spend about $25 on each girl for Christmas.

This is our homeschooling reality, filed under Glad Tidings: We remain debt free, in spite of the credit card offers that come to us daily. We shred those things up immediately. The temptation to give in has been enormous: it would be so nice to know that we have a little cushion. It's so much easier to trust on the immediacy of BankAmerica that it is on God, Whose ways are sometimes so slow and unknowable. This is, I think, one of the greatest achievements of our marriage. We are, if I may be so bold to say so, awesome. I am really proud of us. This test is one we've been passing with triumph.

This is our homeschooling reality, filed under Mysterious Ways: Just yesterday, my husband sold two trucks, completely out of the blue: Customers that had never been seen at the dealership before wandered onto the lot, pointed, and said, "I want to buy that truck and here's the money." My husband even has a couple more pending deals that just need to be closed. Next Friday, he'll have a superb paycheck that will catch us up almost completely. It won't be enough to bring back piano lessons and art classes just yet, but we're moving forward. This is how God comes through for us, showing us that He is always in control.

Part 6: And now, back to Debbie

So, there's some homeschooling reality for you, Debbie. The day we talked about what is r-e-a-l about homeschooling, I was so broke that the girls and I couldn't eat pizza with everyone else -- we ate sandwiches at home and asked for ice water when we got to Pizza Hut. It was a blue, blue day and I've been turning this non-fiction version of the book you said I should write over and over in my mind ever since we spoke that day.

Maybe I can get started on that partially-autobiographical novel next.

1 comment:

Kbg said...

I am in deep awe of your commitment. I am also feeling deep guilt over having so much and doing so little. Thanks for the reality check...I am very grateful that you have shared what you are going through...I thought I knew, but apparently was fairly clueless as to the extent of it all. Prayers, prayers, and more prayers. And anything else you need.

Oh, and write the book. Homeschooling is great, but it is not the cake walk a lot of people make it out to be. Like everything else, it is challenging and sometimes you want to throw in the towel and go to lunch and the museum and just get lost in everything not school...LOL. I would not have traded any of those years, however, and am really missing it a lot. (That's why I am up at Guerin everyday doing volunteer work or substitute keeps me connected at least a little.)

Your children are lovely examples of what you are attempting and being so successful at with your commitment. You are doing a great job.