In Eudora Welty’s short story “Worn Path,” the elderly African-American grandmother protagonist, Phoenix, has come to the doctor to obtain medicine for her grandson. But, because of senility, she cannot remember why she came!
The nurse tries to tease out of Phoenix her reason for coming.
“You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,” the nurse said. “Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?’
At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
“My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.”
“Forgot?” The nurse frowned. “After you came so far?”
After coming so far, after working so hard, have we home schoolers forgotten why we came? Do you know why you are starting? Are we at the place where we can get the solution to our problems, but have we forgotten why we came?
My wife Karen and I, while we were home schooling our four children, rarely thought of grand things. We wanted to teach math and English and maybe science (every other day?) and still get to soccer practice on time! We always wanted to teach Spanish too, but, I confess, that “Spanish” was more a kiss and a promise than a reality. I am not extolling my failure, nor am I making excuses, the thing is, we had too many good things to do!
The truth is, our success in home schooling will be more about what we don’t do, than what we do. Our bookshelves are full of curricula, nature kits, and thinking games that we did not have time to do. I am glad we bought them though. A fleeting memory teases my psyche when I look at them, for they are still grace our bookshelves. We hope to use them yet with our grandchildren.
I have some regrets.
I would have climbed more hills with my children.
I live on a farm nestled in the foothills of the Laurel Highlands. The Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands go north up to Lake Erie, South to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. My farm lies halfway between both.
My farm is one of the few in the area that still uses spring water. Seven springs feed a generous cauldron of water above my rambling 1880 Pennsylvania farmhouse, built by practical Mennonites who had no use for inefficient fireplaces and ornate porches.
Next to my springhouse is a hill. I started to climb that hill yesterday. I turned back.
On this hill twenty years ago my children danced up this hill pulling their scratched, plastic sleds behind them. I would join them on top. On that hill we would welcome the moon, say good-bye to the sun. We dodged barbed wire and the angry stares of my wife Karen as we flew down the hill on plastic chariots. We defied fate, relying on gravity and our unmoved neighbor’s pasture to stop us before we crashed into a diminutive pond.
I looked at that hill today but I did not climb it. My children are gone and the springhouse is secure in concrete. Why should I climb that hill?
In our home school we could read about West Virginia. From that hill we could see West Virginia. From that hill, farmers allegedly saw the Flight 93 Crash. It is a place of discovery, wonder, and to me memory. But I have no reason to see West Virginia, 9-11 is in the ancient past. I will not climb that hill. I have no children, no laughter, no unsecured flights into chaos.
I will not climb that hill today.
My children loved that hill. It was a respite from Shakespeare and Milton. They thought it was a ticket to everywhere. Our hill promised unlimited possibility. It was the abode of trophy bucks, soaring bald eagles, and my children’s dreams. In their dreams I found my own. It was Mount Olympus, the home of the gods.
Homeschooling is over at my house. The hill is quiet and serene. And lonely. As I am. It provides a look at what was, what is no more. What will not be again. I will not climb that hill again. Not as long as I live.
This Christmas I will urge my grandchildren to climb that hill. It is time. They are old enough to pull the same sleds as their parents, to the top of that hill, to believe that all is possible, to defy fate and zoom down the hill, into the brush piles that nurture and protect the intrepid and foolish alike.
But I will not join them. Not this year. Never. I no longer believe in unlimited possibilities. But I am glad that there are those who do. I want them to climb the hill, for me, this year. New home schooling families, I want you to climb that hill.
Home schooling is unlimited possibility. Do not lose the joy, the possibilities, that home schooling will unleash. Do not neglect to take a break from calculus to climb that hill.
We often forget why we started doing this thing called home schooling: we wanted to raise a generation of offspring that would advance the Kingdom of God in this time and in this place. Like Granny Phoenix we must not arrive at our destination but forget why we came!
Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night. “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender,” she said in a soft voice. “I’m an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming.”
As I reflect on those years, I wonder how often I forgot about why I came. Oh, God, how I wish I had more hills to climb with my children.
It is in the coming that we release our children to go. Do not forget your purpose of this great calling.
We need to remind ourselves about why we are doing what we are doing, why we will do what we will do, in the years ahead. It is a noble and grand vocation, this home schooling of our kids. Too sacred to trust to anyone else. Let’s do it! Let’s gather around our kitchen tables, in our dingy basements, and let us pause to remember where we are going and why we are doing.
“This is what come to me to do,” she said. “I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I’ll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand.”
And while you are remembering why you are doing what you are doing, don’t forget to build a few windmills with the kids. Climb those hills and look at West Virginia. While you can. And when you do, think of me, and the thousands of home school friends who have come before you. Know that we pray for you, we believe in you. Find your way to those hills again. And climb them for all of us.