I am a product of the public school system. I had a great experience growing up. I played varsity tennis. I was in national honor society. I was even the student body president. And I was a radical Christian. Honestly in hindsight, I’m not sure how I had so many friends. I would boldly profess my faith. I led people to Christ in the hallway. I made some pretty radical decisions my senior year of high school and when I was asked “why,” I gave the only answer I had… “God told me to.”
Even though I had a great experience myself, I didn’t really fall in love with public schools until I was signing my kids up for preschool. The decision at the time was not all that thoughtful. As a young mom I didn’t realize that in order to get into most preschools you have to sign your kids up for preschool at least 6 months ahead of time. We had decided to hold Piper back and start kindergarten when she was 6, but I knew that she was ready for at least 3 days a week. My options were limited, so without too much thought, I signed Piper up for our local ECFE preschool. Without realizing it, I had signed Piper up for a side-by-side class. It is an integrated class where special needs students and mainstream students are in the same class, working side-by-side (hence the name). Piper had no idea. There was a mainstream teacher and a special ed teacher in each class, both were equally Piper’s teachers. It didn’t matter to her that the girl next to her had a “friend” (para) with her half of the afternoon or that the boy in front of her had special accommodations. Her classmates were her friends. Plain and simple. Each student was provided with what they needed to succeed.
The more I learned about the program, the more my passion grew. I loved that kids with unique needs were provided the services they needed. I loved that kids who couldn’t afford to go to preschool could get scholarships so that they could attend. I loved that they would send home food to families who were in need. I loved that my kids rubbed shoulders with kids who are different than them. I loved that I got to meet parents that lived in my community. I loved that each family had a different story, yet shared the common passion to raise their kids well. I began to see public schools as the center of the community. And not only that, but as a microcosm of the community at large. What we see in the schools closely mirrors what is going on outside of those sturdy walls.
I must pause to address the elephant in the room. Most of what I share about on my blog does not stir up controversy. This post could. I recognize that if you are a Christian, this passion of mine could rub you the wrong way. I get it. Both of my sisters home school their children. I have a ton of friends who have decided to send their kids to private schools or charter schools. I also know that many people reading this have had really painful experiences in public schools. As I share my passions, I am not judging your decisions nor am I minimizing your experience. Take what is good. Leave behind the rest.
I mention that because the older I get, the fewer Christians I know share my passion for public schools. School is a lot more complicated than it was when we all went to school. I get it. It is our job to keep our kids safe. Elementary schools have to conduct drills in case someone comes into their school firing a weapon. My nephew bought a bulletproof backpack for school this year. It is designed to serve as both a backpack and a shield – what!?!?!?! Kids are caught with drugs in middle school. Kids are bullied daily because they are different. Kids are questioning their sexuality before they enter puberty. I…GET…IT. Public school feels scary.
But here’s the rub, Jesus calls us to scary places. Places that make us a bit nervous, make us squirm a little, places that make us uncomfortable. Most of Jesus’ ministry was spent in these places. It started at his birth, he was born in a stable surrounded by animals (Luke 2). He touched people with Leprosy (Matthew 8). He cast out evil spirits (Mark 9). He clears the temple (Mark 11). He ate with the pharisee’s (Luke 14). He did not come for the healthy, he came for the sick (Mark 2:17)
And not only that, he instructed us to do the same.
Mark 16:15 tell us “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
Matthew 28:19-20 says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
He gives us no room for exceptions. He tells us to go to all of creation, to all the nations. To the scary, uncomfortable places – even the public schools.
So what if instead of looking at public schools as dark, scary places, that are void of faith, what if we looked at them as a mission field? And what if we taught our kids to look at it the same way?
As adults it’s easy to assume things about students based on their behaviors. I realize that at a certain point kids do need to become accountable for their actions. But we also need to remember that they are kids; they are the products of their environments. In a lot of cases, they truly don’t know how to behave any other way. School is their safe place. It is the place where they are loved, cared for, and fed. Roaming the hallways are literally “the least of these.” It would be easy to try to steer your kids away from them. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to something different. We don’t get to walk away, we get to dig in.
I am not saying that you put your kids in danger or surround them with bad influences. But I am asking that we put our assumptions aside and dig in. Maybe you start by showing up for your kids lunch and meet her friends. Learn how to say kids names no matter how hard they are to pronounce. Introduce yourself to parents who don’t speak english. Send an extra snack with your kid to school to share with a friend in need. Adopt a family for Christmas. Ask the principal how you can help. Vote for Levy’s and Referendums. Invite the kids over that your kid talks about all day.
Lead by example, befriend a variety of different people. Pray with your kids for their friends who don’t know Jesus. Invite your kid’s friends to church. I love “bring a friend” night at church. Elementary kids are always so open and eager to invite their friends to church. Create a safe place for kids to hang out. Teach them about the power of the Holy Spirit, that he can make us bold. Remind them each morning that they are entering their mission field.
Bryan and I were asked to practice what we preach last spring. Piper was invited to a friend’s house that we had never met. She lived in a trailer park. That wasn’t the struggle. I was struggling with the fact that Piper’s friends mom didn’t speak English. All our communication was through the girls. We went back and forth about what we should do. We suggested that Piper invited the girl over to our house, she really wanted to go to this friend’s house. We had no reason to say no. We knew there would be a few adults home. So we arranged the play date. Thanks to google translator, we got the details worked out and they had a great time. We all won. I learned to use google translator (kind of). Piper got to experience a different way of life, and we were again reminded that most people share more commonalities than differences.
I’ve heard so many people talk about how awful it is that we have taken religion out of the schools. People get up in arms about how The Ten Commandments can no longer be displayed or how kids no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance. People get angry at how the teachers talk about evolution without mentioning creation.
But here is the thing, a poster of the Ten Commandments is not going to lead someone to the Lord. But you know what might? Living a life that is full of contagious grace and joy. A life that is so different that people begin to ask you what brings you so much hope. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t going to draw someone to church. But you know what might? Inviting a friend to youth group for the first time. Talking about creation in science class may spike some curiosity. I don’t know that it will convince someone of the inerrancy of the scriptures. But you know what might? Inviting a friend to church on a Wednesday night or giving them a Bible may.
Friends I am with you. Public schools can be scary places. Our kids are exposed to things at younger and younger ages. As parents, we want to protect our kids. But can I be bold? Do you think maybe as Christians we have played a part in taking Jesus out of the schools? I know there is not one simple explanation. But I’m convinced that one of the reasons our schools are getting darker and darker is those of us that carry the light have given up. We have brought our light elsewhere, in some cases a room that’s already lit.
So let’s not fight to display The Ten Commandments or rally to say The pledge of allegiance. Let’s shine our light. Let’s follow Jesus’ lead, let’s go to the scary places.
Let’s bring a little bit of Jesus back into the public schools.