Last week I heard my four-year-old daughter Madeline sitting on the toilet singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" with an exaggerated vibrato. My first instinct was to laugh. My second response was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. My kid knows the words to a timeless hymn proclaiming the sacredness of God's triune nature. She knows the words—and will soon learn the attending theology—because of a hard decision that my husband and I made a year ago: to send her to a Christian private school.
To public school advocates, I'm one of those people destroying the educational infrastructure of America, complicit in wrecking the hard-earned egalitarianism of a public classroom where kids of all creeds and colors can meet together in unity to learn about everything from planets to caterpillars. (Slate writer Allison Benedikt was bold enough to write a manifesto to this effect, declaring in no uncertain terms that I'm a bad person for bailing on the public education system.)
To certain Christians, I'm a gutless parent who rushed my kid into a windowless safe house. My decision reflects a misguided impulse to isolate my family from the "world" at the precise moment in American cultural history when I should be bridging all kinds of unhealthy, factious divides—the churched and unchurched, the rich and poor—by sending my kid to the local public school.
Even without other voices, I generate my own internal criticism. I read about parents who send their kids to the poorest school in town and wonder if I've betrayed my own values. I ask the same questions most Christian parents ask: How do I look after my child's long-term wellbeing? How do I introduce her to God's world, both its elegance and peril? And finally, how do I teach her to embrace the particular place where God has her?
My family and I live in a middle lower-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Every week we visit Grandma Jesusa, the 86-year-old widow who lives down the street. We're friends with Martha, the immigrant from Guatemala who cleans houses for a living, Arlene, the domestic abuse survivor from Trinidad who called one night to ask if I could run her pregnant daughter home—"I hope she doesn't puke in your car," she said—and John, the community organizer who last year went door to door with me collecting signatures for a traffic safety petition . By all signs, I'm the kind of person who would send my kid to the local public school.
After Madeline was born, my husband Steve and I had no intention of considering private education until we started visiting the playground at our local elementary school. We heard teacher aids yelling at their students and saw seven-year-old boys using sexual gestures and F-bombs in such a casual, consistent way that we had to wonder, What's going on behind the closed doors of these homes around here?
Our daughter's at a young, malleable age when both teachers and peers can inculcate questionable values that might distort her view of the world. But even that wasn't our main concern. We focused instead on a measure of positive influence: faith-learning integration. As an academic, my husband felt strongly that our daughter should experience the synthesis he never saw growing up, where the study of God was confined only to church and the study of the world was confined only to school—with a wide rift between the two.
Where, then, should we send our kid to school? We found ourselves caught.
After months of research and conversation, we found ourselves touring a little private school called City School, which at the time was housed in a defunct Episcopal church overlooking Austin. The principal walked us through the facility and then, while sitting on a third-grade desk with his long leg dangling off the side, described to us the school philosophy: a hands-on learning approach, a racially and economically diverse student body, a classical "big ideas" curriculum, a bent toward Anglican-Presbyterian theology, and a commitment to faith-learning integration.
That's the school, we agreed.
Thanks to help from family, hard-earned extra income, and scholarships, Madeline now attends City School. In the morning, she slides on her navy blue uniform and straps on her used brown shoes before Dad drops her off in front of a homely little school on the east side of Austin. Most of the cars in the parking lot are not what you might expect. Our friend Jennifer drives an old Chevy Caprice station wagon, a beat-up car that, incidentally, my daughter thinks is a limousine because of its length.
Most of the kids are not what you'd expect, either. The school calls itself City School precisely because it sets out to represent the diverse demographic of our city, with some 40 percent of the students of ethnic minority and 70 percent on financial aid. While the students come from very "real" homes, the school offers a curriculum that frames this realness in a redemptive Christian worldview.
By now, some of you are raising hands to say—not every private school looks like City School. By way of reply: I'm not offering a uniform defense of all private schools or private school parents, nor am I arguing that private education is the best for everyone or even the best for Madeline in perpetuity. I am, however, lamenting the vitriol that often flares up in the private-versus-public debate and asking both sides to extend greater grace and latitude. Education is not one-size-fits-all. Parents often have substantive, defensible reasons for where they send their kids to learn—be it a public school, the kitchen table, or a private school (wealthy or not).
Setting aside issues of wealth and demographics—which I believe require complex, case-by-case assessment—here's the more fundamental question: Are parents justified in putting their kids inside of a protective bubble? This question depends upon another perennial question: When and how do parents transition a child from innocence to experience, from healthy, normal naiveté to growing knowledge of a world that reflects both divine glory and human fallenness?
N.D. Wilson argues that—in the realm of literature, and by extension, life—we should expose our children to narratives of true darkness so that our kids can see God, the true light. I agree, in part. But the quality of darkness matters. Sexual darkness, as observed on the local elementary playground, is not the kind of darkness that leads to learning. (For the record, I think Wilson would agree.)
Conversely, the quality of light matters, too. Sure, I've put my kid in a certain kind of "well-lit" bubble, but what's wrong with that? Robert Joustra, a professor at Redeemer University College, wrote recently in In Defense of Christian Bubbles that:
Bubbles are endangered species, yet they are the very soil from which community, from which mission, grows. [Bubbles are] about sinking our roots deep before—and then persistently during—our cosmopolitan call to service. It's both/and, sure, but one does come before the other. We are beloved, and therefore we love.
Even Jesus practiced bubbles until he turned 30, says Joustra, and even then, his life was "consistently punctuated" with them. So it's not a foregone conclusion that putting my kid in private school—a so-called Christian bubble—is necessarily a disservice to her moral, intellectual, and spiritual development. Quite the contrary.
As I continue to struggle with the decision we made for our daughter, I talk to the parent-friends around me about their stories and wonder how ours will pan out. No outcome is guaranteed. I was homeschooled for part of elementary school, attended public school from 3rd to 12th grade, and then went to college at a private Christian university, and none of those experiences stopped me from fleeing the faith at age 22. As I parent, I suffer no delusions that my child's educational context will somehow protect her from doubt or pain.
No matter what I do as a parent, I'm subject to the great complexity of trying to steward a little person who happens to be an eternal human being. How I do it is a matter of imperfect judgment, daily decision-making, and frequent failure. I need God's grace. I also need grace from public school parents and other public school advocates. Am I making the right decision by sending my daughter to private school? I think so, but I'm not entirely sure.
What I do know is this: Madeline sings "Holy, Holy, Holy" while going to the bathroom. But in 20 years, if she's anything like her mother, she'll be working in the slums of Nairobi or somewhere, struggling with her faith, searching in the darkness for God's long-awaited restoration of a broken world, and, if she's singing at all, singing a blues ballad. For now, in these years of innocence and preparation, she's armed with the lyrics of an ageless hymn: "All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea."
Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, which tells the story of her crisis of faith, her departure from the church, and her eventual return. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas. To connect with Andrea, visit her on Facebook.