In the Beginning
There we stood. Each of us three girls on one of the bottom stairs, dressed in our specially chosen outfits and posing for Mom as she positioned herself at the bottom of the stairs to take our picture. Today was a memorable day – the first day of school. It had always been our tradition to take a picture on the first day of school, but this year it was different. This year, we would be attending a different school. Homeschool.
I’m not sure any of us knew what they meant when Mom and Dad announced that they had decided to withdraw us from our beloved school and homeschool us. It was something akin to a death sentence. We had never heard of such a thing and we certainly didn’t know any one else who did it. School was everything to us. Our little K-6 school was part of our church and we were a close-knit family. Each of our classes was comprised of twelve or so students and made up our network of friends. We went to school together. We went to church together. We went on field trips together. We celebrated birthdays together. We celebrated holidays together. We went through struggles together. We lived life together. But all of that was about to change.
We had cleared out our basement playroom and it had been transformed into a schoolroom. Dad put together Mom’s new desk and placed it at one end of the room, facing her “class.” Her class consisted of us three girls – me – 9, Nicole – 8, and Nadine – 5. Three desks and their accompanying chairs sat facing the “teacher” and were filled with our school books for the year. Around the room, posters had been placed on the walls. At the back of the room, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights adorned the wall above our spare couch. The front wall of the room, behind the teacher’s desk, was lined with bookshelves. Mom and Dad were already booklovers and this new homeschooling endeavor was the perfect excuse to add to their growing library.
The door into the schoolroom sported a little sign announcing the “Field Trip of the Month.” Directly underneath it was a postcard of the local zoo, our first scheduled field trip. And above all of that was the official sign: Welcome to Cornerstone School. Cornerstone School. That was the name Mom and Dad had chosen for our homeschool. It felt so unreal. Like the grown-ups were joining us in our world of play, where we often set up our own classroom and took turns being the teacher. Now Mom was playing the part of the teacher, a role in which she never would have imagined herself. But God knew what He was doing. Long before the doors of Cornerstone School were officially opened, God was directing the steps of our family, preparing us to walk this path.
After being stationed for nine years at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in Rapid City, South Dakota (where he met and married Mom and where Nicole and I were born), Dad received orders to go to Germany. He was to be stationed at Hahn AFB. With their one and two-year old children in tow, along with a fluffy white Great Pyrenees and a black and white Cocker Spaniel, Mom and Dad packed up and made the move overseas to a little village called Schwarzen. Schwarzen was roughly 5 miles from the base and boasted a population of about 120. If they were to spend four years living in another country, Mom and Dad wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to get to know the people, learn the language, and experience the culture.
Two years into our time in Germany, we were blessed with the addition of girl #3 – Nadine, the name inspired and shared by one of our neighbor friends. Once we were old enough, Nicole and I began attending a German Kindergarten. Mom tearfully walked me to the bus stop the day I was to begin school and waved me off, armed with the one essential German phrase she thought I needed to know: Wo ist die Toilette? (Where is the toilet?) Nicole and I quickly learned to speak German fluently and were often mistaken for natives. I remember my Kindergarten teacher calling me over to her desk one day. I nervously complied, wondering what I had done wrong. I was relieved to discover that I was not in trouble, but that an American boy had been enrolled as a new student in our class and she needed me to translate for him.
Nicole and I were employed as translators on more than one occasion. On the weekends, Dad would often take us girls to one of the German towns where a volksmarch was being held. Volkssports (literally “people’s sports” or “sports for all people”) originated in Germany in 1972 as non-competitive sporting events in which all participants could receive awards. The most popular of the sports is volksmarching (“people walking”). It quickly grew in popularity and any given weekend might find several cities holding events with thousands of people participating. Dad faithfully logged every event in our record books and we collected many medals (and an occasional beer stein!) commemorating the location of each event. Walking hundreds of miles of the German countryside and towns gave us an appreciation for God’s magnificent creation and afforded us many opportunities to spend time together and make lasting memories.
Many Americans were introduced to volksmarching while serving overseas and regularly participated in the events. At one walk in which we participated, the Germans at the registration table were having trouble communicating with the Americans and asked Nicole and me to serve as translators. We readily agreed and were even compensated with a coke for each of us at the end of the day.
As we entered our final year of Dad’s assignment at Hahn AFB, Mom was concerned that I would be behind in school when we moved back to the States. She set about to lay an academic foundation for me, but was at a loss to know what to do. This was due, in part, to the fact that she had been part of the failed academic experiment that sought to eliminate phonics training in the classroom. She forged ahead, though, and did her best to prepare me for my years of school in America. Little did she know that God was also preparing her for an aspect of her own life calling that was yet to be revealed. And revealed it was! Dad was transferred to McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas in 1987. Three years later, even in light of the wonderful experience at our little Christian school, Mom and Dad came to the understanding that the Lord had placed on them the responsibility of educating their children.
And so it was that we came to be standing on our basement stairs that first day of school in September of 1990. After the picture-taking was complete, we made our way into the schoolroom to begin our day the only way we knew how. We each stood at attention beside our desk, hands placed reverently over our hearts as we recited the words of the pledge – first to the American flag, then to the Christian flag, and finally to the Bible. That was the way we began each day when we went to “real” school, so if we wanted to do this right we figured we had better follow suit.
We slowly established a routine and became accustomed to the odd-feeling of going to school in our basement. Mom tried her best to plan our daily lessons and the three of us girls tried our best to stay on task. We tried not to get angry and yell at each other. We tried not to make faces at and distract each other while we were supposed to be doing our schoolwork. We tried not to get frustrated because we couldn’t figure out the answers to our math problems and Mom couldn’t explain them and Dad’s explanations were more confusing than helpful. We tried not to answer the phone during school hours. We tried not to divert Mom’s attention so that she would forget to tell us to go back to the schoolroom and do our work…okay, maybe not on that last one. But we tried to be a good homeschool family. Whatever that was. And then, the inevitable happened.
We were all gathered in the family room for a family meeting called by Dad. I don’t remember if he indicated a particular reason at the outset or not. I do remember Dad asking Nadine, who was five at the time, what she might like for her birthday the following July. He seemed quite pleased when she responded that she would like a baby doll. It couldn’t have played out more perfectly if he had planned it himself. “What would you think if you got a real baby instead?” After a moment of letting his question sink in, it hit us! Mom was going to have a baby! We were ecstatic! After six years of naturally preventing the conception of children, Mom and Dad had been enlightened by verses like Psalm 127:3: “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.” They began to view children as God’s blessing and decided to allow Him to determine their family size. Almost immediately, God graciously blessed Mom with the pregnancy of their fourth child. And that’s when our little homeschool began to fall apart. Or at least that’s what it felt like to us.
We said good-bye to the schoolroom. Oh, not officially. It remained tucked away in a corner of the basement. We just found that the kitchen table was a convenient substitute for the desks we had eagerly looked forward to using at the beginning of the year. The reality of our different personalities and weaknesses hit us full-force as we were forced to work together and often erupted in tears. Every phone call prompted spontaneous dismissal for recess and, more often than not, marked the end of school for that day. There were some days that we didn’t do school at all and others when Mom would wearily implore us to please at least do our math lesson for the day. Other times she threatened to send us all back to school if we didn’t get along and do our work. Lunch regularly consisted of a drive across town to McDonald’s, where we were on a first name basis with most of the employees, and was often followed by an excursion to Wal-Mart, where we came up with all sorts of creative reasons to explain to the questioning clerks why we weren’t in school.
In the midst of our struggles and short-comings, God was shifting our paradigm. We had automatically adopted the methods and practices of society’s educational institutions as the model for our own. We were trying to pattern our school after what we had always known school to be…and we were failing miserably. Without realizing it, we had allowed the world to define education for us instead of looking to God and to His Word for a true definition of education. God was determined to break us away from this faulty mold and the sand on which it was founded and lead us to the Rock that would never be moved and from which we could never be shaken. We were beginning to understand that school was not to be our life, but that life would be our school.
Copyright © 2008 by Natalie A. Wickham
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