Friday, June 13, 2014

Christian Education

Today marked the last day of school at the place where I spent most of my early life.  St. Matthew Lutheran School, where I spent my Kindergarten through eighth grade years, closed its doors today after 57 years.  That makes me so incredibly sad.  I know in recent years it's been a far cry from what it once was, but that descent alone was tragic enough.  Once upon a time it was probably the biggest Lutheran school in Western New York.  Here in Rochester there are maybe a couple, but back then, the Buffalo area had quite a few.  We played sports against at least seven other schools in the area, plus two more here in Rochester.  Now I think there's probably about half that.  I know the same trend happens with Catholic schools, where they close some to make the others stronger, and I get that.  But what kills me here is that the school was once a powerhouse, and now it's gone. 

Not only am I a product of the Lutheran school system, but so were all 11 of my cousins on my dad's side, as well as my parents and most of my aunts and uncles.  My grandfather was instrumental in getting the school back up and running after it closed somewhere around the Depression/war era.  When I went there, one of my uncles was once the principal, one aunt was the music teacher, another was the librarian and go-to substitute teacher, and yet another was the church and school secretary.  My younger cousin Jamie has been a teacher there for the last few years, too.  Heck, I myself worked there a few times--two summers as a janitor, and one winter break as a preschool/Kindergarten aide.  I loved most of my teachers (and generally learned to respect the ones I didn't), got a fantastic education, and made some lifelong friendships (well, one lifelong friendship (hi Heather!) and a few that Facebook has nurtured in recent years).  I have more memories than I can count--events, projects, plays, funny classroom moments, first crushes, field trips, sporting events...the list goes on.

I know that I wouldn't be the person I am today without that experience.  Some people would probably say that kids that go to religiously-based schools are sheltered, but I'd venture that at the very least we were somewhat protected until we were old enough to make better decisions.  It didn't work for everyone--many kids went off on their own paths regardless, and I know a lot plays into that--but I'd have to think that even after the worst of decisions, some part of each of those kids' lives somehow comes back to the experience they had at that school, even if it's the tiniest bit of guilt for those decisions or the slightest inkling that at some point they should go back to church.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think you could spend nine years in one place and not have it touch your life in some profound way.  But for those of us who totally bought in, it was a godsend.  I always found it amazing how in public high school classes of 300-400 students, inevitably there were at least a couple of Lutheran school products each year in the top ten.  My year, there were three, me included.

My cousin put up a Facebook status this morning about the closing as well, and he hit the nail on the head when he referred to it as a family tradition and said that it helped all of us cousins stay close and turn out pretty darn well.  Truer words have never been spoken.  It's pretty rare for there to be 13 grandchildren in one family and for none of us to have had more than minor hiccups in life.  Life happens sometimes, yes, but I'd say that for the most part we've all stayed on the straight and narrow...no real scandalous stuff, at least.  We always knew in school that if we screwed up, it wouldn't be long before it made it back to our parents.  When your uncle is the principal and your parents are generally friendly with many of your teachers, it's a given.  It was pretty good motivation, for sure.  Kids may have thought I was a brown-noser, but when you're well aware of the consequences, it's easier to just behave!  All of us cousins did so many things together--sang in the choir, performed in plays and Christmas programs, played sports, had the same teachers, you name it.  We still tell stories and laugh about old teachers and classmates.  I can't quite describe the impact it had on all of us.

The two summers I spent as the janitor there were so interesting to me.  I spent four hours a day cleaning classrooms from top to bottom--scrubbing desks, washing walls, stripping and waxing floors (that part with the main janitor)--and reminiscing about my years spent in those same rooms.  A handful of my teachers still worked there at the time, and I loved when August arrived and the teachers started trickling back into their rooms.  It was fun talking to them as an (almost) adult.  Some of them were there long enough to teach the children of former students, and I think that is a rare and wonderful thing in this day and age.  There was something truly special in that school for so many years, and it's so sad that it slipped away. 

In case you're wondering, at least part of the trigger was discord within the church.  At one point half the church sided with the older, conservative pastor who'd been there over 50 years, and the other half sided with the younger, newer assistant pastor who was trying to shake things up.  Quite frankly, I am convinced that guy was Satan incarnate because of how he brought so much animosity into the church in such a short period of time.  The other pastor wasn't innocent in the mess, either, as his resistance to change made the other side fight even harder.  What a mess it became.  The division led a large portion of the church to leave (my parents among them), and without the large church population to support the school (both financially and with student population), it set the wheels in motion that brought them to this day.  Like I said, I know that Christian education in general isn't what it once was, but I do think that had the church not had such a major blowup, this wouldn't have happened quite so soon.

Given our educational experiences, we both agonized quite a bit last year about what to do with Jacob.  Should we spend the money to send him to a private school, or go the safe route and see what public school had to offer first?  There was really only one school we were looking at, but when I called in the early spring to see if they had openings, their Kindergarten was booked.  I took that as our sign that Jacob should give public school a shot.  Last summer we did hear about a good Catholic school just up the road, but by that point we were pretty much set to give public school a shot. 

It's hard to say if it was the right decision.  On one hand, public school probably offers more options for him.  There are a handful of available teachers in each grade, so if one ended up being a terrible fit, there are other possibilities.  The public schools are equipped with counselors and psychologists that were a huge help to Jacob this year.  They have a lot of experience with kids from all walks of life, and it's a good opportunity to expose Jacob to a variety of kids (which, I, quite honestly, never had).  I cringe at the thought of spending $10,000 or more to send Jacob to Catholic high school, so perhaps it's just better to have him used to public schools now.  I don't mind saving the $4,000 a year now, either.

On the other hand, private schools have a lot of upsides, too.  Both that we'd consider wear uniforms, which would potentially eliminate a major battle each morning.  Also, I'd say that in general, most teachers are going to be more caring.  Not that public school teachers don't care, but the simple fact that Christian school teachers are Christian could indicate an extra motivation to care.  I'm sure there are wonderfully caring public school teachers out there, just as there are really crappy Christian teachers, but you get what I'm saying, right?  Everyone needs to maintain some sort of Christian demeanor, so I can see there being better odds of having a really sweet, understanding teacher.  He'd learn more about Jesus, too, which would be great.  He gets it at Sunday school, and we do our best at home, but I don't know how much sticks.  I'd like him to have that extra Jesus boost at Christmas and Easter, too, and to start seeing the world from that Christian perspective the rest of the year.  He's really lacking in general respect and empathy, and I feel like the kids he's with right now aren't helping matters.  The other day he came home and said that his good friend said that his dad is in jail.  Now, kids are weird and say a lot of odd stuff, but if that's really the case...well, I can't say I really want Jacob hanging out with that kid if the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

I worry, though, that a private school might not have the resources to deal with him.  They may not have the same support staff like the public schools have, and I worry that he'll sort of fall off the radar, so to speak, if he's out of the public system.  I don't know if that's truly the case, but it scares me nonetheless.  We do know a couple kids from baseball that would be in his class at the Catholic school, and I know one of the teachers at the Christian school from college.  Also, it's not helping matters that I'm annoyed that a) Jacob's class hasn't done any field trips this spring (which I feel like were the highlight of June when I was a kid); and b) it doesn't appear there will be any sort of formal Kindergarten graduation (which is a major contrast to my experience, where we did a full performance of "The Ugly Duckling" at our ceremony).  I don't know, I just feel like there might be a different attitude at a Christian school, and it might rub off on him in a positive way.  But, it's a major investment, particularly when you consider we've got Carter coming up in the next few years, too.  Could it be worth the money?  Absolutely.  But what if we make this major change and it's not a good fit?  How disruptive would it be to switch him again, particularly as he gets older?

It's probably a good thing we didn't end up living in Buffalo, because I probably would have wanted to send him to St. Matthew, and now we'd be in this terrible situation.  As much as things were different, it still would have been familiar, and that would have been a tough feeling to ignore.  I don't have a solid connection to either of the schools here, so it's a little harder to jump right in.  But I know the value of Christian education, and I'm thankful my parents encouraged it.  Craig enjoyed his Catholic education, as well, so it seems like it should be a no-brainer for us.  But Jacob isn't your average kid, and there's a lot to consider as a result.  We don't have a lot of time at this point, but it's crossed my mind a lot lately...and even more so today once this news came across my Facebook feed.  It was a sad day for Christian education in Western New York, and I pray that someday the church will right itself and the school will once again share the love of Christ with generations of children.

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