Irrigating Deserts

“What!?!  I love you guys!!”

The seniors were clustered together in the shadow of the Basilica of Santa Croce, and the local guide in Florence, Italy, could not contain his enthusiasm for our students.  I was afraid he might hug me.

What would be so amazing that a total stranger in a city 5,000 miles away would profess his love so openly for our students?  Simply this: our students were the guide’s first group ever who not only knew who Dante was but had read The Divine Comedy, and our seniors were interested in learning more about Dante and seeing the site of his home.

IMG_0632As our guide in Florence this year made clear, literacy, intellectual curiosity, and a refined aesthetic are exceedingly rare qualities in modern teenagers. It was the kind of comment I have heard from guides countless times now.

For example, our tour director, the guy who spends two solid weeks with our group leading us around Europe — a brilliant Englishman who has been leading student tours for 25 years, is a dual citizen in France and England, and speaks 3 languages fluently — has given up doing student tours with the exception of two schools: a private, catholic school from Nebraska and The Ambrose School. He refuses to lead other student tours simply because he grew tired and exasperated from dealing with apathetic and ignorant teenagers who could not stand to have Michelangelo’s Pieta or Brunelleschi’s Duomo come between them and their Wi-Fi.

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We have had a London guide, accustomed to American students, apologize that our group might be bored to tears while touring through Westminister Abbey, only to be shocked when our students were excited to  see Wilberforce’s tomb and Poets Corner.

I have seen a Rome guide joke that he took it as a personal challenge to find stories or bits of information that our students did not already know, and then rejoice when at last he found something.

Our Paris guide found our students so warm and engaging that she jumped in and joined them as they sang a beautiful rendition of the Les Champs-Elysees while driving down the actual Champs-Elysees in the rain.

 

IMG_0564Our students affections are dramatically different than most teenagers, and it is never more apparent than when we are out on tour with people who have made a career out of working with young people. The local guides quickly recognize in our students something rare and refreshing: our students appreciate and feel inspired by good and beautiful things whenever they encounter them.

Drawing on his own experience as a teacher, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s point is this: the challenge of the modern educator is not to tame wild and erratic interests or loves in students, or what he called “a weak excess of sensibility;” instead, the challenge is to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity,” brought on by the world that numbs them with intoxicating effect from loving the Good, True, and Beautiful.

Lewis wrote those words almost 75 years ago. With the rise of the Digital Age and the destructive influence of social media and video games, and all the distractions that accompany them, the situation has not improved. But all is not lost. Much of what we do at The Ambrose School is done to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity” that Lewis spoke of. There is an intellectual curiosity latent within Man as created in the Imago Dei, a love of learning, and an affection for things beautiful and praiseworthy that simply needs inspiration to awaken.  We hire life long-learners with a passion for the liberal arts to teach, we read great books and guide our students into deep discussions, our classrooms are full of beautiful art and music, exposed wood and wrought iron, and we take our seniors on a 12 day tour of Europe, all with the express goal of inspiring within students a love for the goodness and beauty in God’s creation.

The comments of local guides on our Senior Trip — strangers from far-distant lands who know a thing or two about teens in the 21stcentury — are evidence that irrigating deserts still yields a rich harvest.

Great Conversations

It is a conversation I feel like I’ve had a thousand times: a junior high boy is sent to my office for doing something inappropriate in class, and I get to help them figure out where they went wrong.  Our conversation typically goes like this:

Me: “Why did Mr. Tucker send you to see me?”

Jr. High Boy: “I sprayed Sam with my water bottle.”

Me: “You did? Why would you do that? Was it Waterfight Wednesday in Mr. Tucker’s class?”

Jr. High Boy: “No. I guess I wasn’t thinking….”

Me: “That may be the case, but let’s look deeper: how’d the rest of your class react when you sprayed Sam with your water bottle?”

Jr. High Boy (usually grinning): “They laughed. They thought it was pretty funny….”

Me (trying to pretend I’ve come upon some new wonderful insight… remember I’ve had this conversation a thousand times): “Ah…. They laughed. They thought it was pretty funny….”

Jr. High Boy (sheepishly silent): “….”

Me: “Do you suppose THAT might be why you sprayed Sam with your water bottle?  To make your buddies laugh? To make them think you were pretty funny?”

(I like to mix in air quotes here on laugh and pretty funny, just to emphasize my point. It works wonders.)

Jr. High Boy: “Yea. Now that I think about it, I guess I did.”

Me: “What’s wrong with that?”

Jr. High Boy: “It’s selfish. I’m taking the class’s attention from Mr. Tucker and focusing on myself.”

At this profound discovery, I usually take over and explain that people who find themselves in trouble invariably do so because of this same problem: without exception, people are innately selfish. Our natural inclination is to do what we want to do. It is why the Apostle Paul used such strong language as “dying to self daily” and “crucify[ing] the flesh.”  I walk the students through the confession/repentance/forgiveness/restoration process and send them back to class to see Mr. Tucker.

This is where the conversation usually ends. But not always.

I had a 7thgrade boy in my office a few weeks back and had this very same talk with him. The next day I was in the Providence Room, sitting at a bistro table after school, when the student came walking in.

Jr. High Boy: “Mr. Browne, can I talk to you for a minute.”

Before waiting for an answer, he took up his place on the stool across from me.

Me: “Sure.  Have a seat.” I directed him towards the stool he was already sitting in.

Jr. High Boy: “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday about selfishness being the cause of all sin. I think you’re right, but I mentioned it to some of my friends, and we got into a really good discussion about it.  A few of them thought that pride was the root of evil, and they made some really good points.”

(Pause and imagine that for a moment: a group of 13 year-old boys – not mindlessly huddled around screens playing Fortnite until their eyes bleed – but instead enjoying one another’s fellowship in deep discussion over a meaningful topic; this – more than dry textbooks, menial worksheets, or Scantron bubble forms – is education.)

Great ConversationsThe 7thgrade boy and I then spent half an hour in deep conversation kicking the ideas around and talking about Bible verses and orthodox doctrines that would make sense of their discussion. He thanked me for my time and went away.

Proverbs 10: 11 and 13 read in part: “The mouth of the righteous is a well of life…” and “Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has understanding….” Both of these verses speak to something that exists at the core of our school in particular and classical Christian education in general:  deep and meaningful conversation.  It is so often by engaging ideas with others and talking through them that God leads us to truth. A group of junior high boys in the corner of a classroom discussing the root cause of sin isn’t a rare occurrence at our school. Our teachers will tell you that the highest and best moments they have in teaching involve conversations like this with our students.

Grab a friend or two and let your mouth be “a well of life” to them, and vice versa; alternatively, you could hang out in the Providence Room and wait for a group of students to wander in and join them in their great conversation. You will thank me later.

A Grateful Heart

I’ve worked with teens virtually my entire adult life, and I’ve come to recognize a small handful of situations that are ripe for disaster: a group of boys left unsupervised nearly anywhere, but especially in a gym with a ball; a group of girls at the Village with a credit card; and a mixed gender group asked to be a little vulnerable.

You can imagine my apprehension then when during a chapel service at the 4thannual Monastic Conventiculum, or “MonCon” as it is popularly known, the chaplain opened the service to students to express to God openly something they are thankful for.  The Rev. Dr. Davies Owens – or “Father Owens” as he is called on this one, special night – talked briefly on the importance of thanksgiving and gratitude in the Christian’s heart and asked students, one by one, to profess aloud the things they are thankful for.

I cringed. 52 sweaty 8thgraders, freshly returned from playing games out on the field, sat in the sun-soaked, makeshift “chapel” in the school foyer. It was Friday night: surely their minds were a million miles away on Fortnite battles and missed text messages and weekend plans. Would even one dare to put themself out there and vocalize a feeling of gratitude?

I waited.  “Father Owens” waited. Mrs. Francis, Mrs. Westom, and Mr. Moore waited. Silence reigned supreme.IMG_1390

And then someone took a step of faith:

“Lord, I am thankful for my teachers, who work so hard for me.”

(This is good, I thought. Maybe 3 or 4 other students will join in….)

A slight pause, and then another:

“God, I am grateful for my parents, who love me and sacrifice so much for me.”

Another. And another.

“Dear Lord, I am thankful for this class of friends, who love me and are always there to encourage me.”

“God, I am thankful for trials, that test me and help me to grow.”

“Dear Lord Jesus, I am grateful for Your work on the Cross that has delivered me from sin and death.”

“Lord, I am thankful for this school, where we get to learn about You and Your Word.”

5 minutes passed. 10 minutes passed. 15 minutes passed. On and on it went. For a full 20 minutes, 13 year-old students, one immediately after another, made public expressions of gratitude to God in a room full of their peers.

And then the kicker came. A student who recently lost someone very dear to him said: “Dear Lord, I am grateful for death. Even though I may not understand it, I know it is all part of Your perfect plan.”

Even Mr. Moore, stoic as he is, was more than a little misty-eyed.

MonCon 2018Psalm 107:1 reads: “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!  For His mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy….” I hear a lot in the national discourse about young people suffering from narcissism and an entitlement mentality that has even made its way into the hard-working world of professional sports. There seems to be an epidemic of ungratefulness. I admit that I am horribly biased, but I don’t have the same sense of impending doom when I interact with our students. They seem different.

If you don’t believe me, join me next year at this time for MonCon. Where else in the valley will you find junior high kids joyfully sacrificing a Friday night away from text messages and Fortnite battles to sit in a quiet chapel service and express gratitude to God for things ranging from their friends and parents to trials and even death?

Soli Deo Gloria.

I Am With You

Mr. Hosier had carefully planned the lab. Emails had been going back and forth for weeks. Cameras and the news crew were scheduled to arrive. We were excited to showcase our Physics students and Mr. Hosier’s class on KBOI’s special segment “Leaders in Learning.”

(As an aside, whenever we engage the broader community in this way, we work really hard to put out best foot forward; for a random family sitting in Middleton, ID, the KBOI segment might be the first and only time they not only hear about our school, but actually get a window into one of our classrooms. What a huge opportunity!)

To that end, Mr. Hosier and I – weeks prior to the news crew actually arriving – had agreed to ask our juniors to wear their formal uniforms on the day of the filming even though it was a Thursday, typically a non-uniform day.  We expected a little grumbling, but it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

And then it became a much bigger deal.

Our varsity boys basketball team made the state tournament, and the administrative team declared the filming day to be Spirit Day: the one day of the whole year when the entire student body can wear jeans and logo t-shirts to school.

Except our Physics students. Who were expected to be in their formal uniforms: shirts, ties, blazers, kilts, and all.

I expected the pushback from students to be significant.  Despite that, Mr. Hosier and I decided to hold the line. We thought it was important to represent our school to the community audience as best we could.

Mr. Hosier made the announcement to his students and I braced for impact. I waited.Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 6.58.07 AM

And waited.

And waited.

The weeks leading up to the filming day were strangely quiet. The week of the event was similarly quiet. The day arrived, and the Physics students did too, looking like champs in their formal uniforms, despite the fact the entire rest of the K-12 student body was wearing jeans and t-shirts! Mr. Hosier and I heard nary a word: there was no petition, walk out, sit in, or anything similar. Our students quietly and respectfully did what we asked of them.

1 Samuel 14 tells the story of Jonathan and his armor-bearer. The two were scouting a Philistine garrison when Jonathan had what would seem an unwise idea: the two Israelites would show themselves to the garrison, and if the Philistines came out, just the two of them would attempt the impossible: they would fight the entire Philistine garrison. It is the armor-bearer’s response that has always captured my imagination:  “Do all that is in your heart. Go then; here I am with you….” The young man was ready to follow Jonathan into an almost certain death because he completely, whole-heartedly trusted his leadership.

The dominant culture talks a lot about leadership, especially as it pertains to activism; however, we as Christians by necessity must be different. We should be equally thoughtful when we talk about being led, submitting to those authorities who God has placed over us. How many leaders do we have in our own lives that we trust enough to tell, “Go and do all that is in your heart.  I am with you!”?

Our Physics class didn’t say it exactly that way, but if their respectful silence could speak, it surely would have said, “Go and do all that is in your heart, for we are with you!”

The Fruits of Classical Christian Education

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

The ivory-white words flashed across the dark screen. I sat and watched. The words seemed vaguely familiar, but I searched vainly through every recess of my mind to cite the source.

Absentmindedly, I read them aloud: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones….”

My daughter who sat next to me continued from memory “… So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it….”  She proceeded to recite from memory Antony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, flawlessly and in its entirety. I couldn’t even find the reference in my mind; she found the entire speech.

My daughter is thirteen. She’s in eighth grade.

great-books-2At a time when many teens bury their noses in Twilight novels and the mindless entertainment of digital devices, classically educated students are brought into contact with the highest and best minds that the world has produced. Engaging with those minds and the ideas they generated and refined, and the literature they produced, shapes and informs our students.

For example, the same daughter was recently reading a poem she wrote in her composition class. One of the lines read, “Green is the light that filters through the leaves.” That is a beautiful line of poetry, written by an eighth grader. She could produce such beauty in part because she’s been immersed in the great works of the classical Christian canon: the Psalms and Proverbs, the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, et al.

In Matthew 12, Jesus said, ““Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.” Though Jesus was addressing the evil hearts of Pharisees  the same principle applies in the world of education. One should be able to tell the quality and character of education a student is receiving based on the fruit it produces: bad education will produce bad fruit, while good education will produce good fruit.

Students possessing a love for the most powerful literature the world has produced, having the best lines from that literature at their fingertips, and being able to craft their own beautifully worded sentences are all fruits for which I am thankful.

(By way of an apology, I have tried really hard to avoid bragging about my own kids in this blog. Please forgive this indulgence of a really proud dad. I promise it won’t happen again …. for a while.)