Years ago, I had a dream, back when I was debating whether to send my oldest son, Jackson, to a public school or educate him at home.
I dreamed that we went snorkeling in a vast ocean. As we swam along, I watched Jackson struggle to tread water. I had to continually prop him up just to keep his head above the waves.
Along came a group of friends who invited Jackson to go exploring in deeper waters. Jackson could hardly swim, but for some reason I let him go. After he swam away I panicked. What had I done, sending him off with so few skills? Hours passed. Finally the group returned and Jackson, miracle of miracles, was safe. Not only that, but he was filled with exciting stories of what he had seen on his adventure.
When I awoke from this dream (and I will tell you, lest you think I am a visionary, that it is the only dream I’ve ever had that contained any meaning), I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let Jackson go to school and trust that on so many levels he would be fine.
In the cartoon movie “Finding Nemo,” Nemo’s father, who is searching the ocean to find his son, gets ready to jump into the East Australian Current. Climbing onto the back of a sea turtle, he dives in and whoosh, off he goes, swept away at lightning speed, hurtling past hundreds of other fish.
The beginning of a school year can be a bit like that. You watch your children on that first day of school as they enter the stream of kids sporting their new sneakers. As they step in line with friends, you crane to hear what they're talking about. It might be about "Star Wars" or Justin Bieber's new haircut. It could be about the latest viral video on YouTube. You are no longer a part of their world. They get swept along without a backward glance. Part of you wants to hold them back because they might not be the best swimmers in this type of sea.
Yet as untidy and chaotic as public school can be, there’s a reason to send our kids there. Here’s why:
1. The world needs our kids.
Our kids may not need the world, but the world needs our kids. It needs our kids with their shiny faces and capped sleeves, the kids who read scriptures every night and sing funny songs about popcorn trees.
If we retreat from the world of public education, then we can’t help to improve schools. We miss an opportunity to do good in the community. How do we expect to make changes unless we’re the ones at the forefront, demanding improvements? LDS kids are the ones leading the band, captaining the football team, standing up against cheating in the classroom and making lunchroom loners feel included.
I had a high school teacher who once shook her head and said, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you Mormon kids.” Yes, we were quirky, but we were also good kids. Teachers and peers notice this.
2. Teaching moments come from opposition.
Some of the best talks with kids start with, “Hey, Mom, I heard this word at school today. What does it mean?” or “All the kids in my first-grade class saw ‘Transformers.’ Why can’t I?” Most days the post-school discussion revolves around the choices other kids are making and whether those are good or bad choices. I count those talks as some of the most valuable as a parent.
3. Good missionaries get out.
In my high school American history class, we studied Joseph Smith and the migration of the Mormon pioneers. My teacher asked if anyone in the class was Mormon. I raised my hand. I was invited to stand in front of the class and talk about my faith. I don't remember what I said, but it was something akin to a testimony. That experience empowered me. I knew what I believed, and I had the courage to say it in front of my peers!
We are a church of missionaries, and our job is to get out and teach the gospel. It would be silly if our full-time missionaries stayed in their apartments to avoid the world's evil influences. We teach the gospel by being out in the world, and we teach it best by living it every day and allowing others to witness how we live.
I attended girls camp this summer. What surprised me most was how many new converts and non-LDS girls we had in attendance. The youths of today are sharing the gospel with their friends, and their friends are listening.
So here we are, at the beginning of a new school year, with some of the same misgivings. Will my kids lose their footing in a current that goes so fast? Will they keep their heads above water? Will they be able to hear our voices in the crowd of constant noise?
The answer is yes. Our children know where they're going, and the world is taking note.