I grew up wild and free. Homeschooled, unschooled, I read whatever books appealed to me and spent long hours outdoors letting my imagination wander. I had the kind of education many modern parents look at longingly.
I wasn’t in public schools at a desk all day learning how to be a pliant citizen or godless liberal.
I came out as a model test subject: strong-willed, strong faith, strong test scores. Unconstrained by the shackles of what the majority of children had to undergo. I loved my childhood, and in some ways I have my education to thank for who I am today—my love of reading, my desire to continue learning all the days of my life.
But sometimes, when I was a child, I would read books about kids who went to school, and I would wonder:
What would it be like to be surrounded by so many kids?
What would it be like to live in a community?
What would it be like if school wasn’t just about me sitting with a book interacting with an author who died long ago, but was also about learning to be a child in the world full of other, very different children?
Of course, the two values aren’t mutually exclusive, but our values about education are strongly influenced by our beliefs about the importance of autonomy versus community.
As a product of the Christian homeschooling movement, our sense of community was quite small: people who believed just like us, a ragged band of nonconformists. We did not feel a sense of responsibility to the wider world and in fact were encouraged to shun it.
I think my question now remains this:
To what purpose?
What does it mean to be wild and free, to long for that for ourselves and for our children, in a world where so many do not have that option?
I know we are not supposed to have heroes anymore because they always disappoint us in the end. But there remains in my life someone who I am both dazzled and baffled by, someone who was life-changing because he identified a need before anyone else in the world did, and he addressed that need with the entirety of his life and work.
Fred Rogers is a man who has lived out the Christian concept of vocation: using the gifts that God gives us to the fullest extent of our possibility in the world. He was a radical figure, sometimes controversial. He was the gentlest preacher of our lives, dressed in a sweater vest and comfortable sneakers, looking directly into the camera, telling children that they were beloved and accepted just as they were.
Mr. Rogers and his make-believe world was a familiar and soothing presence in my own childhood. But the more I’ve learned about him, the more I admire his laser-like determination to reach all the children he could with tools for social and emotional intelligence. He was on a quest to tell children that their feelings and lives mattered, that who they were at their core was seen and valuable.And he was also determined to think beyond the traditional rubric of education.
In later years his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was held up and criticized against the more popular and energetic Sesame Street, which taught children the ABCs and their numbers.
But Fred Rogers remained firm in his commitment to writing episodes that revolved around the feelings and situations that children find themselves in, especially the ones they find scary.
For all of his meek and mild demeanor, Mr. Rogers was driven by a deep-centered desire for what really mattered:
It’s easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. . . . How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise—his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.Mr. Rogers
He lived his life in light of the reality of the Holocaust and of Jim Crow laws and of children who were abused and neglected by their own hurting parents. He was angry at what television did for children, how it aimed to pacify them and make them consumers, teaching them to long for material things and gain knowledge without any guidance about its purpose.
And so he made his show, and lived a life of ministry, to help children see themselves as God does: as beloved and as people capable of creating a neighborhood where everyone can flourish.
I think about the neighborhood he created, with its trollies and animal puppets finding a home in the trees. It’s a tiny symbol of the kingdom of God, of God’s dream for the world. It makes me ask myself, What is education for? The answer to this question might very well determine how we go about orienting our entire lives and the lives of the people in our care.
For many parents, whatever values they might claim to espouse (character formation, socialization, community building) are eclipsed by their actual motivation: achievement and success as defined by a number of variables: good grades, good test scores, good college, good job. Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, studies what he calls a “rhetoric gap.”
His research suggests that what matters most is not what we say we value to our children but how we act. Out of ten thousand students surveyed, Weissbourd and his colleagues found that almost 80 percent chose achievement or happiness as their highest value, while only 20 percent chose caring for the community.
Around 80 percent of those surveyed said their parents cared more about achievement and personal happiness for their children than caring for others in their community or school.
At some point in my life I realized that I do not want what is best for my children—at least not the way best is defined by the upwardly mobile White middle class. I think about how “wild and free” is currently a new catchphrase of the unschooling movement, this value of autonomy carefully packaged for the next generation in various Instagram-worthy posts.
Sometimes I catch glimpses of these types of images as I scroll through social media: blond-haired children wearing gauzy white dresses gathered at the table in open-concept kitchens, studying Latin or identifying various flora or fauna.
I have to admit there was something inspirational about these pictures, something I wanted for myself and my children. But as I clicked through photo after photo I realized they didn’t reflect the reality of the majority of the world. They didn’t look like many—if any—of the children I knew.
I knew some kids who were having a near-picture-perfect childhood. But I also knew kids who didn’t have food at home in the cupboards. I knew kids who had their entire families taken from them. Kids who had been abused or who watched their pets die of starvation or whose parents took too many drugs and drank too much.
Kids who showed up to school in a taxi cab—a sure sign that they had just entered the system. Kids whose families were trying so hard but simply couldn’t stay afloat. Kids whose parents were doing a better job than what their own parents had given them. Kids who were thriving in situations that would have beaten me down—thriving in places of scarcity and neglect.
Kids who could be loud and brash and silly and defiant and disrespectful and hilarious and studious and curious and kind. Kids who were learning multiple languages, multiple cultures, kids who maintained their childlikeness even as they were forced to grow up so quickly. Kids who translated for their parents in all kinds of situations and languages. Kids who invented games and shared their bikes and tried to make sense of all that they were experiencing, kids who worked hard to self-regulate.
Statistically, my neighborhood has the youngest average age in the state—bursting with families, mostly in a cluster of large apartment complexes. There are kids everywhere, most of them living at or below the poverty line.
The lines have been drawn so that our school takes the kids from three of the largest apartment complexes, which means lower-income families are concentrated there. Because we don’t have community centers and few public parks, the schools are our lifeline to community: the place we interact with each other nearly every day.
Our lives revolve around the rhythms and schedules of school— walking to and from, in rain or shine, kissing our children as they rush off to another chaotic and safe day of learning not just how to read but how to live side by side with one another.
I no longer desire to be wild and free—nor do I want this for my children. In my own heart I hear the Holy Spirit working in the opposite ways, asking me to consider making myself responsible for the flourishing of my neighbors. To see the belovedness of them all— every single child in every single school—and to feel the weight of that love.
The more I walk the streets of my neighborhood, the more people I get to know, the less wild my thoughts become. I am calmed and restrained by a life where my own liberation is bound up in the flourishing of all.
My daughter sometimes watches Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, just like I did. Her body stills while she watches because she knows she is in safe hands. She’s in the presence of someone who knows what it is like to go through life feeling so many conflicting emotions: joy and anger and anxiety and sadness.
Even though she is older now, in the third grade, she still loves this man and the way he carefully explains the world around her. She breathes deep and slow while she watches him. And when she turns off the TV and reenters her world, a world full of differences and delights she is only beginning to experience, she has a little better sense of who she is.
She is the only one of her in the world, she is beloved just as she is, and she is an important part of her neighborhood.
Is there any better education I could hope for?