Ms. Baker passed me the bag with the wet shirt at school pick-up. My shirt-sucking 6-year-old ran to me with a big smile and latched onto my leg. Since my husband lost his job last summer, our house had become all hills and valleys—mostly valleys. It was starting to show in the kids.
At our kindergarten parent-teacher conference, Ms. Baker told us what we could not see for ourselves: Joshua had been exhibiting some anxiety. "He is fine with the academics. Our goal for Joshua right now is for him to learn that he is loved. We want him to trust that we have a plan for him each moment of school, even if he doesn't know the plan. If sucking on his shirt helps him right now, we'll change his shirt when it gets too wet." Joshua doesn't know that his teacher has a deep impact on the person he will become, that her care for him matters in his academic work. He feels safe. And he doesn't know that in Jersey City, the quality of the education he receives is a privilege denied to the majority of children.
I did not set out to put Joshua and his brother, Isaiah, in an independent Christian school. I value public education and as a Christian, I want my family to be the presence of Christ in our neighborhood. School is a natural place to do that. But while the national conversation flounders around test scores, public school choice, bullying, leaving children behind and who is to blame, Joshua and Isaiah need an education. My husband and I chose Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, New Jersey, because the school lives out the gospel dynamic of putting the "last first" and "caring for the least" among us. Some 50 percent of students receive need-based financial aid. And students are not handpicked to be the highest performers. The school intentionally seeks to mirror the diversity of the kingdom of God in all its beauty and messiness.
Isaiah reading at school
And it can be messy. This week is my week to provide "community snack" for the kindergarten. Through eating a common snack with the guidance of teachers, Joshua learns to serve his classmates, take only what he needs from the bowl, ask for what he needs, and think about the needs of others. I am learning to let go of control of snack for the sake of community. On one end of the spectrum is the parent who wants to serve only organic food. On another end of the spectrum is the parent who provides their week of community snack from stretching food stamps. Over the years, the parent community has wrestled a lot over the simple act of eating from the common bowl. It is important work. Lessons learned at the snack table apply to life in the classroom. Kindergarten snack is part of a well-planned, school-wide social curriculum that teaches serving one another, enacting reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Students learn in different ways and have different strengths and weaknesses. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a school environment where there is socioeconomic diversity. (Think of the student who has been to every Mommy and Me class learning beside a student who has never been inside a library or who has rarely been read to.) Mustard Seed School uses daily experiences in the arts to address different abilities and ways of learning. For example, Isaiah is a high-flying reader, but he struggles to share his voice with his class. He and his classmates go to the Shared Space every day, where they use artistic media and project work to deepen and express their learning. In drama, Isaiah has to use his voice. He can lean on the strength of his friend who is a great storyteller but a struggling reader.
At bedtime last night, I asked Joshua and Isaiah what I should tell you about school. Their answer surprised me. They both said, "It is a God place." It's true. But more than the lovely, daily worship, faith is lived out in the classroom. And you don't have to be a Christian to attend the school. In fact, many families are not.
As for me, I love commencement. Each student is recognized for a character quality that he brings to the class. Before the end of the night, I am surrounded by "math lover," "musician," "truth-teller," "diligent," "researcher"—a host of children who are affirmed for who they are as they pursue academic excellence.
My husband has found a job. Joshua no longer comes home with a wet shirt. When we applied to Mustard Seed, I never expected that, for a time, the school would be the source of stability for our family. And I am grateful that our experience is not exclusive to those who can afford it, but available to many children in our community who cannot.
Abigail Liu is a part-time communications coordinator for Mustard Seed School and a full-time mother and wife. She blogs at www.steadyonmama.com.
This post is one of a series of guest posts about different choices Christians make in sending their children to school. All of them are in reference to an article I wrote for Christianity Today: The New School Choice, and you can find out more through Christianity Today's This Is Our City project.