Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Schooling and Home-Schooling in Phnom Penh

We’re reading Hawking’s Brief History of Time sprawled out on the living room floor in beds made from the seat cushions under our fan. Tika and Puck are the first to fall asleep, but Ernest sits alert at my side. His constant interruptions are like the seams on a concrete roadway, another bump at every interval. We were moving along pretty well on debunking Ptolemy, Galileo dropping the weights, and Newton figuring out gravity. We even made sense out of Roemer, the Danish physicist who observed the moons of Jupiter disappearing behind the planet on a changing rhythm throughout the Earthly observer’s year, decided that the light was taking longer to travel farther to his eyes, and reasoned backwards that light travels at a finite speed, which he then calculated. That one took a lot of positioning kids about the room and spinning pens around their heads, and then me racing back and forth from one position to another. Seemed to make sense. But Michelson and Morley’s discovery that light moves at the same speed no matter how you fast you are moving (not like the changing sound of an ambulance siren going by, not like the apparently faster train racing toward you on the opposite side of the tracks) was an impossible thing for Ernie. And then added to it that Einstein said there can’t be any absolute time, and Ernie was almost in tears. He wanted to conquer this book, to unbundle it and pack it up in his brain, and that part just knocked the wind out of him. Stuttering, stumbling, he kept cutting me off and asking me to re-read, then indignant, Why couldn’t I explain it better? We had got past what I could try to demonstrate with props and hand gestures. Even race cars don’t go fast enough to slow time down. And why do things have to turn more massive from going super-fast? Our bedtime physics lessons sputtered and limped to an end, and three kids were asleep. I could start to see the ridiculousness of my position. Mom wanted to push through and cover more pages, Ernest kept throwing on the brakes and demanding clarifications, the rest were unconscious.
Aside from the feeble ending, this has been a proud day. The kids are bursting their buttons, and I’m feeling like a lucky mom again. Graduation time at school! I had been invited to the all-school sing-a-along in the school chapel this morning, and I happily played hooky from work to join the parents along the back wall of the large room, dabbing away tears, standing on chairs to take pictures, and waving to my beaming kids. I watched each child led into the room in the long chain of his class, smiling, then ducking down awkwardly among his friends. Puck lit up when he saw me and smiled and waved a hundred times. I laughed and cried watching him with his class and his super-energized teacher, forgetting all the hand gestures and words for “Baby Beluga” while he fixed his eyes on his mom.
Watching Puck watching me, over all the heads, and Yoshi and Tika and Ernest all under the same roof, I thought, I’m lucky to be in this little chapel today. I also thought, this is so painfully temporary! They don’t realize how quickly this moment comes and goes for us! And I thought, we’ve come all the way around the world and here we are nestled into something like a family—a safe, warm, good-intentioned family of believers in this funny place down a long dirt road.
The event ended with a farewell to the principal and his wife. Their family is moving on to another missionary assignment after three years in Cambodia. Teachers, parents, and students were crying, and then the group laid hands on the couple and said a prayer for their onward journey. The principal’s wife shared the story of her childhood, finding Jesus, and discovering her calling to teach music. Her voice cracked when she said that she heard God tell her to teach in Cambodia, and then she told us all to invite Jesus to guide our paths and purposes in life. My kids were watching her thoughtfully, and I was wiping more tears off my face.
To be honest with you, I’ve had mixed feelings about evangelical Christianity ever since we got here and the kids started at Logos. I have put evangelicals in a few different groups, and none of them too flattering. There are the spit-and-hellfire evangelicals, like Ernie’s teacher, Mr. Walker. These kind dispense the sort of fear and guilt and mind-games that no eleven-year-old deserves to carry around on his shoulders. Then there are the cum-ba-ya evangelicals—I’m sure it comes with an acoustic guitar—and I think of Yoshi’s teacher this way. She sends home weekly inspirational Bible verses, brings in baked goodies, and reminds the kids in colorings and hand-outs that Jesus loves them. But no math homework from her since we got here. Yosh and I had a frustrated, then teary discussion about fractions last night.
Is Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know OK for 3-year-olds, but not OK for 9-year-olds? Do I look at these folks as intellectual light-weights? Maybe I did, and that has been driving the late-night math sessions and the cramming, even to unconscious children, of bedtime Hawking and Shakespeare. In my crankier moments with Ernest, I’ve tried to deflate his notion of the evangelical Christian, maybe a quiet comeuppance against his teacher. The Bible is not your four food-groups! I told him. It’s an important book, and it can guide your life, but it only makes sense when you read the other great works alongside it. We had a talk the other day about Jesuits, because I thought he should see that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The Jesuits founded universities and promote the sciences, you can study Islam and evolution at Georgetown. We even took at dig at Mr. Walker’s recent letter to parents—a warning that the end-of-year celebration would involve co-ed swimming in the school pool! Did he really think his students hadn’t seen bodies before? This is certainly not the country to lobby for child modesty.
But then I have days like today at the chapel, and I think again. Evangelical Christianity is a force to be reckoned with, both for the world, because it really is a super-power, and for me, because a lot of what these folks are about speaks straight to my heart. Evangelical Christianity is changing the landscape of the world—and particularly the poor and post-conflict world—with gung-ho purpose, remarkable geographic reach, and incredible mobilization of resources (an interesting read on this topic from the Carnegie Council). Maybe they are second to China for investing in the poor. You can’t discredit that as a lot of cum-ba-ya. For myself, when I saw my kids in this community today and listened to their music teacher’s message, it reminded me of what I wanted for them here in the first place.
Back in Arlington, the parent culture seems to say “The most important thing for my child is that he understand himself and appreciate his unique [and, for 2nd grade and up, “gifted”] abilities and talents.” The Zainy-Brainy, nurse-your-kid-til-he’s-8, and get-him-into-the-GT-program crowd elevates this credo to religious status. But it bothers me, not least because, if you put that same statement into first-person past-tense, it just sounds awful.
In evangelical mission schools, test scores don’t feature in the mission statement, and kids aren’t competing for precocious claims to genius. Instead, they’re taught to aim for humility and service. They are lined up behind the missionary parents who brought them—pioneering folks who show up in Burundi after a civil war and Liberia after Charles Taylor. These are groups that install wells and clinics, that drum up $500 here and there—they are human instruments of good-will. And it seems right to me that at an age when they can take themselves to the bathroom and drink from a cup, my kids should start seeing themselves this way. They are instruments through which God wants good things to be done.
That’s a wholesome, heart-felt message for kids to sing about in chapel, no matter what grade they’re in. For me as the mom, though, the day-to-day challenge is, what am I supposed to do to make that happen? I’m kind of on the fence on that one. For the past few months, I’ve been pounding the nightly violin lessons, hammering my own math and grammar drills, I fidget around at work from time to time looking up one tutor or another online. Why don’t I home school them? I think I’d strangle them, and then they’d hate me after the first day. I’m embarrassed to say, there’s a little too much in the now-much-maligned Tiger Mother that rings true to me (and here all the backlash against her).
No, if there’s anything I should be taking from Stephen Hawking, it’s that grand, unified theories of everything are hard to come by in one lifetime. He’s an amazing super-brain. Tika thinks he looks like James Bond in a wheel-chair. (If he didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease, he’d probably be a real cocky ass. Even withstanding his handicap, he has dumped and replaced several wives.) And yet his quest to fit everything logically into one mega-theory in his own lifetime is dogged by the limits of the everyday. He is getting weaker and suffers from pneumonia, he can’t travel like he used to. Much as he doesn’t like it, he may die in a universe that’s only understood by partial theories.

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