Cultivating Community, 2

I was homeschooled during the eighties and nineties in the state of California, which is very different than homeschooling in the time and place where I currently do it. There were some necessarily isolating factors built into the practice in my childhood. There weren’t co ops and large homeschooling communities or gatherings… or at least, none nearby that we knew of. There were other homeschooling families at our church, and we occasionally did something with another family or two (or ten), especially things like fieldtrips or Christmas parties. But it was sporadic and unpredictable. There were two different years when we did a weekly homeschool day with one other family, and I remember snippets from those studies more than just about any other part of my childhood homeschooling experience. (Math with my dad was memorable because of all the M&Ms… but it was also very ordinary, very daily.) What stands out in my memory are the things which we did in community – including a year of anatomy which included things like getting our blood typed (I was the only one who wouldn’t let the moms prick my finger! We waited to type mine until I got a bloody nose one day…), we kids got casts put on our arms for a week-long experiment, and we did cool dissections like blowing into a set of lungs attached to a trachea by puffing into a PVC pipe inserted into it. Perhaps predictably, one of the most striking memories I have from homeschooling alongside another family was our three week long “fieldtrip” going along the coast of New England one autumn, because we had just finished studying early American history. Even that was done in community, because we traveled across the country with our friends. It was that pursuit, that cultivation, of community that really made it stick and stand out.

But now in the current generation, we not only have curriculum galore (enough to drive one batty on the best of days), we also have community almost anywhere and everywhere we want to find it. Co ops are almost as common as coffee shops. And yet real community is often elusive.

Sometimes I think it is because we can tend to treat things such as a homeschool co op (or social equivalent) like a drive-thru coffee hut. You blitz through in order to make a transaction, but you aren’t really engaging and communing on a deeper level. It’s grab and go. On the run. Take what you need, pay your dues, but keep a level of distance. It is all very business-like at times.

When my oldest child was eight years old, I decided it was time to see what kind of community I could engage in as a homeschooling mom. We live on a large plot of family land, where our closest neighbors are my parents, half a mile walk away. At that time my husband worked almost an hour away and our church was an hour away… and so were almost all of the people with whom we had fellowship or relationship in those spheres. If I wanted friends, I had to pursue friendship actively. If my kids wanted friends, I had to learn to prioritize making time for fellowship. So when I was invited to join a homeschool co op that was only 25 minutes from home, we jumped in excitedly! There I was: every single week, packing my four-at-the-time children into the car with backpacks and lesson plans… and I gave myself and my kids predictable pep talks each week as we pulled into the parking lot. Have fun, be friendly, learn well, listen more than you speak. Those kind of things. My kids loved the classes, because they love studying new things, being challenged, and learning alongside others. I enjoyed being stretched to teach things I had never taught before: music & movement to preschool kids, plus a letter-writing class that got rave reviews (and always included things like being assigned a long-distance penpal as well as a field trip to a nearby post office), for instance. That was also where I first developed Singing School to teach vocal & choral music to children outside my own kin. But what we did not get in that co op was real community. It was all business. A work environment. It was not about cultivating a rich fellowship of likeminded families. It was more about checking boxes for educational practicality. Not that that doesn’t have a place in life at times. But it was not what my family needed, and it did not lift any educational burden from my shoulders for our other days of homeschooling each week. After two years there, we felt completely depleted, exhausted. I wasn’t even on the leadership team, but I felt like I was carrying so much weight, without having others bear any burdens alongside me. My husband could see that it wasn’t ultimately a healthy community for us. Just because it is a community doesn’t mean it is the right community for you to be cultivating. (Different plants need different nutrients in their soil, right?)

It was over a year later that we finally found a homeschool co op which felt like home. (There was actually one in between as well, but suffice it to say: that was a little bit more of a burden than a blessing. We were grateful it was shortlived.) Finding a place where we fit in, and where God was obviously wanting to use us as well as fill us, was such a huge answer to pray. It was still a lot of work, took effort on my part to prep & teach as well as on the kids’ parts to be well-studied and prepared for classes each Tuesday. But it was not just about checking boxes. It was about relationship with one another while learning subjects for the sake of knowing God and His creation better. And it overlapped into our other weekly homeschool days, which made it feel like a blessing every day of the week- the blessing of Tuesday flowed throughout the other days. It felt so very different. Even though this co op was nearly an hour away (fifty minutes usually, but getting stuck behind a schoolbus or dealing with icy road conditions happened all too often), we instantly had deeper fellowship with that group. Once a month, the moms got together for a meeting. The workload of teaching and cleaning and watching toddlers was shared equally among the group. The kids immediately had friends like they’d never had before… and my oldest was eleven by this time, so they were ready for peers and buddies. The two years God gave us in that Classical Christian co op changed me for the better, grew my kids in pivotal ways, and spurred me on deeper in my love of truly good community. We were so excited to help develop the high school level year by year – my oldest was in the oldest class, so we were eager to assist in the building of what high school co op could look like. This was the first place where my family really felt like we actually fit in. It totally felt like home.

And then it dissolved. I did NOT see that coming. I was already planning what classes I would teach in the fall, had purchased my curriculum and was excited to plan ahead… but the last week of April last year brought a phone call that broke my heart. Co op is going to close. Four out of the remaining six families aren’t returning next year. It was my family and one other (who just had one school-age child remaining at home). I tried to be brave on the phone, understanding and empathetic. But I couldn’t wait to hang up so I could bawl. It felt like a death.

Looking back, I now know that it gutted us so badly because of what the community was for us. It was not just educational boxes that were checked off each week. This was where we spent our time, our resources, our heart, our relationships. We were closer with our co op community than with our church community – there were lots of reasons for that at the time, which I won’t go into here (but I’d be glad to share about personally any time). Suffice it to say: I think my kids and I wept for four days without coming up for breath. It was grief. (And I know grief.) As C.S. Lewis said, I never knew grief felt so like fear. And even in this instance of grief (which is different than the grief of a broken engagement shortly before your planned wedding, and different than the grief of miscarriage, different than burying baby after baby after baby), it felt scary. The rug was ripped out. Our community felt torn from us.

Within one week after that, two different women from different spheres of my life mentioned rather casually to me that they wished I would start a homeschool co op. My reaction probably included rolling my eyes, but I know it included me basically blowing that off. I don’t want to start a co op. I don’t want to be in charge of something like that. That’s not something I want to do.

I want. I don’t want.
I suddenly paused to ponder… but what does the Lord want?

Community cultivation is more than simply putting a date on the calendar to get together. It is so much more than that. Considering what the Lord was doing, I needed to consider what He was asking me to do next. And that was a very humbling experience.

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