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The big yellow school bus rolled down our street and for the first time in my 19 years as a parent, my baby was getting on that bus. The fact that she was 14 years old did not stop me from watching out the window as she walked to the bus stop or from feeling momentary panic when I turned away from the window for a minute, turned back, and she was gone.

Thank goodness for texting! (Did I really just say that, with 3 teens in my house?!) But, yes, it was reassuring to know that she was, in fact, on the bus and headed for the first day of her new high school adventure.

After spending her entire schooling experience at a tiny private school (and yes, I mean TINY – she was the only girl in a class of 6 last year), she was ready to spread her wings in a larger environment. Her older brother decided to make the shift as well, as they both wanted to experience a larger high school environment so that the transition to college might not be quite as dramatic.

I thought the first week would be tough – navigating the sea of people and the large building, classes 3-4 times larger than they were used to, and all the extras that come with a bigger school. But they sailed through it all, miraculously finding a familiar face in almost every class and enjoying the new variety of courses and teaching styles.

So, here I sit in my pajamas, drinking a cup of coffee as they begin their second week of school. I didn’t have to scramble to get dressed and get everyone to school before the tardy bell rang; I just watched as they casually strolled out the door headed to the bus stop. I’m sure we’ll hit some road blocks along the way, but for now, I’m enjoying the smooth ride. My babies are growing up, and – please forgive me for saying this – I am one proud mama!

Wow! It’s been quiet in my house this week. Too quiet, in fact. All three kids are away at camps so my husband and I have the house to ourselves. We were pretty excited about it – for about a day.

Why is it that when your kids are finally old enough to go away for a week without much hassle, you don’t really want them to any more?

I’m getting a glimpsemptynestpice of the empty nest, and I don’t like it very much. I only have two years left with my oldest, and only seven before the youngest one leaves. Such a short time to complete this awesome task of preparing our young people to pursue their calling in the world.

It seemed like an eternity way back in the days of sleep-deprivation, diapers, and toys strewn about the house. But, suddenly, it seems all too soon.

I took the kids shopping a few weeks ago to find gifts for their young cousins, and as we wandered through the toy aisle at Wal-Mart, I remarked sadly that there was nothing there that interested them any more. You see, I love good kids’ toys, and teach about their educational value to young moms, so for me, it was not only letting go of their childhood, but setting aside a part of me that is very passionate about the value of “childish things”. Video games and sci-fi just don’t hold the same appeal for me!

And yes, I cried during Toy Story 3. My teen son has a battered and worn bear that has been with him since birth, and I imagine it will go off to college with him, if only in a box in the closet.

Of course, there have been signs that they were growing up – my kids’ homework is too hard for me, mountains of food disappear very quickly, and the aroma of young men has replaced that of dirty diapers.

But still, they are my “babies”. When did they get so independent?

I spent their early years pouring into their lives, reading together, going on field trips, and homeschooling them, and I’ve tried to let go gradually.

In the past year or so, I began to work more on building my own business and finding new places to focus my energies. My plan has been that as the kids need less daily time from me, the business will grow and take more of my time and efforts. I love what I am doing, I’m excited about the personal and professional growth I’m experiencing, and the kids are enjoying watching their mom develop in ways they’ve never seen before. So, all around, it’s been a good thing.

And, by the time the kids really are all gone, the business will have grown enough to fill the void left by their absence.

Almost.

As my 25 year high school reunion approaches, I’m thinking about how our world has changed over the years. One of my prized graduation gifts was a huge, silver boombox that probably weighed 10 pounds…complete with radio, stereo sound, and cassette player. It provided hours of enjoyment through college and beyond.   boombox2

And now my 12 year old walks around with his Ipod touch in his pocket, downloading music instantly and volunteering to order pizza for dinner for the sheer joy of being able to do it with his wifi connection.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that we were wrestling last spring with finding the appropriate educational experience for our now 10th grader. The choices in our small city are fairly limited and none were just the right fit. What did not occur to us at the time was that the same technology that has made my boombox obsolete and made Facebook a household word has also transformed the face of education. No longer are we limited to schools and teachers that are within driving distance. With an inexpensive computer and an internet connection, the whole world is literally opened up to us.

This year, my son is enrolled in Veritas Scholar’s Academy, an online school with live, interactive classes. His instructors and classmates live from Hawaii to Bermuda, and everywhere in between. At first I was leery of the concept of online classes, and didn’t think of it as “real” school.  I couldn’t imagine how a teacher would explain a complex algebra problem online. Until I learned about the digital scribe. This special tool allows someone to work a problem on paper as it is simultaneously appearing on the computer screen. Thus, the kids can take turns working problems and the teacher can see exactly what they are doing.

What about class discussions, I wondered? Never fear; each student has a speaker and microphone. Debates have been an almost daily occurrence in his rhetoric class.

Because each class meets twice a week with study time in between, his schedule is much like that of a college student. He can’t miss the bus in the morning, but he can still oversleep and miss class. He may not see his classmates face to face, but he gets to interact daily with people from all over the country.  The online option has allowed him to continue studying the subjects that interest and challenge him under some of the best teachers and without having to move away from home or break the bank.

I walked by him yesterday during what I knew was a class period. I heard nothing and he was looking at a book. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” I asked. “Yeah, we’re working on homework right now,” he replied. Right then, I heard a young lady ask,        “Mrs. S., I don’t understand this …”

And it hit me…it IS “real” school, and this is one of its new faces.

Educational Excellence in a Personal Environment

That is the motto of the University of West Georgia, which we visited last weekend, and is also in line with our family’s values.  They have one of the few residential early-college entrance programs in the country. These programs are designed for gifted high school students who are not sufficiently challenged in their home high school.

Even though it is a medium-sized state university, every staff member, including the president himself,  is required to teach at least one undergraduate class per year. To us, that clearly demonstrated the commitment to the personal environment; there are no administrators sitting in offices, ignorant of the “real world” of student life. The president, Dr. Sethna, is passionate about the early college program, known as the Advanced Academy, and the students who are part of it. He encourages many of them to collaborate on research with their professors, and some high school students have the opportunity to present papers at national professional meetings.

The Advanced Academy students that we met seemed to be much like our son – bright, discontented with high school, a little bit geeky, and eager to face the academic challenges of college classes at an early age.

univwga-picThe academic experience appeared wonderful, while the buildings themselves were…not. I am inspired by beautiful surroundings, and 1970’s era brick buildings are not my idea of beauty. But, as my son pointed out, he doesn’t care about the  buildings, and he’s the one who would be living there.

So, what’s not to like about a high school experience where the students are among the nation’s brightest, are taught college level courses in small, seminar style classes by full professors, and who graduate high school effectively as college juniors, often with wonderful scholarship opportunities?

It is four hours away from our house.

My then-16 year old would move away from home before he even learns how to drive.

I tear up just thinking about it. We would only have 16 more months of life together as a family as we now know it.

But, what is the cost of keeping him here? For no choice is without a cost, and a decision to keep him here is a decision to close doors for him that might not open again.

Can we offer him a stimulating, excellent education with peers like himself while still keeping him at home? We’ve been trying, but the options are few and looking less promising all the time.

One alternative we have just discovered is an online classical school. It offers classes in line with our educational philosophy that he could not get anywhere locally. The online school offers educational excellence, but is it a personal environment? Depends on how you define it, I guess.

The wonders of modern technology would allow him to take classes in real time and hold discussions with the teacher and a small group of students during class. They can share written material via an online whiteboard and comment on each other’s work.  It’s almost as good as really being there. Almost.

But there are no friends to eat lunch with or to hang out with on the weekends, except in the virtual chat rooms. No sports or clubs with friends from class.

Virtual friendships are great, but everyone needs some friends with skin on.

And I need some more time with my son at home.

Choices, choices. Wish life didn’t have to be so hard.

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

Pythagoras

I never understood before how the parents of young Olympic athletes in our country could fathom allowing their child to move away from home while still a child, live in a dorm with other highly driven and dedicated athletes, and only visit their families a few times a year. Now, we were not blessed with gifted athletes in our family, so it was always just an academic discussion, a “what-if” scenario where my husband and I were sure that we would never make those choices for our children. Family is too important and the gold medal too elusive — the cost was just too high. Well, you know what they say about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes….

We still do not have an Olympic-caliber athlete in our home, but we do have a brilliant young son who has hit an academic wall of sorts; the kind of wall every mother thinks she wants to face. When I called the guidance counselor to explain that he just didn’t feel challenged in his honors classes, she responded, “Well, that’s a great problem to have. That’s wonderful!” Only it isn’t. It means that he faces the very real possibility of being unchallenged for 3-1/2 more years before college. That he could cave to the pressure of the masses and just stop caring, never to be all that he is capable of becoming.

So, how do we stave off this potential disaster and help him find a way to stretch himself and his mind? We have met with the teachers and guidance counselor, but their solution seems to be to let him continue on the current path. After all, he is making A’s, so why are we complaining? Also, their hands are tied by local regulations so they can’t let him skip ahead without extensive and expensive testing which they seem unwilling to do.  The other students are already calling him “the kid who knows everything” because of his great vocabulary. He insists that he doesn’t; that there is plenty left for him to learn, but it falls on deaf ears when he appears light years ahead of the rest of them.

He needs a peer group of students who love learning as much as he does and who can feel the thrill of the academic challenge. And where can we find that for him? One option we are seriously considering is an early-college entrance program. There are only a handful of programs like this in the country, where gifted high school juniors and seniors enroll in a particular college, but all live together in a dorm just for them, with more restrictions than the regular college students but all of the academic opportunities.

Yes, I have shed many a tear over this, wrestling with the idea that my first-born may be leaving home two years sooner than we expected. He has a close relationship with us and with his brother and sister, so it would be a tough transition. It’s all still in the discussion stages – no bags packed yet-but when I watched the promo video for this program, I knew. When he watched it, his face lit up. His dad got excited about all of the opportunities it would offer him. Next week, we will attend a Preview Day to get a taste of life on campus.

It’s not a done deal yet. But in my heart, I’m sympathizing with all the parents of young Olympic athletes out there. I get it now – they didn’t make those hard choices for their kids; the children chose because it was who they were created to be. Having a child with an exceptional gift or talent is certainly a blessing, but helping them to find the right outlet to refine their skills can be a bittersweet experience.

A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.
Benjamin Franklin

bonfire_13


Lectures, DARE presentations, and well-scripted movies have nothing over a bonfire for keeping your kids off drugs. Why? Because one of the top ways to keep your kids clean is to have strong family relationships, and one of the best ways our family has found to enjoy each other’s company is around our backyard firepit, warming up by the bonfire.

On Valentine’s Day, rather than enjoying an intimate evening out with every other couple in town, my husband and I opted for a relaxing evening at home with our kids. Since there was a hint of spring in the air, the kids requested one of their favorite activities, which is gathering around the fire pit to enjoy a bonfire. Something about just being outside of the house helps everyone relax and talk more freely.

This time, we read stories about Hudson Taylor, a famous missionary to China, and talked about the amazing ways God had helped him through some difficult trials. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were having a very frank discussion with our teen and tweens about the dangers of drunk driving and of playing around with drugs. What seemed to be just an innocent evening out under the stars became a wonderful opportunity to reinforce the boundaries protecting our children’s innocence, with no lecture necessary.

So, why do we need the bonfire to stimulate these discussions? I think stepping outside, even just a few feet from our home, takes away the pull of the computer and video games and myriad distractions of daily life. Gathering the wood and lighting the fire creates a sense of freedom, of being on vacation, where it is easier to let down your guard and open your heart. Something about the outside air causes our children to waver back and forth between utter abandon in play and serious contemplation. They run around playing chase in the dark and then huddle by the fire, drinking hot chocolate, watching the stars, and considering the great questions of the world. Every time we spend an evening out there, we agree to do it more often, but we often allow too many weeks, or months, to go by before we do it again.

The time that used to be spent reading fairy tales is now sometimes spent talking about things no parent wants to discuss, but can’t abide the consequences of avoiding. Our kids are growing up quickly, and our bonfires are numbered. We’re going to light as many fires as we can, and pray that the discussions that result will continue to guide our kids’ choices as they move further away from that familiar glow.



Group presentations. One of my least favorite memories from high school!

My ninth grader was assigned his first group presentation in history class with two other boys he knew from his previous school. They were to have one week to work on it, but the illness of one combined with unexpected snow days left two of the three of them with one class period to prepare. I had encouraged them to talk on the phone while school was out and to at least map out a plan of what they were going to do. They did talk some, but I think the lure of days off was too great.

However, he came home from school Thursday confident that they had put together a nice Powerpoint presentation, which he had on his flash drive, and he just needed to make a poster. Being the cautious and somewhat fatalistic mother, I asked if they had made a backup copy of the Powerpoint file. No, his partner didn’t have Powerpoint at home, so they hadn’t seen any reason to make two copies of it; my son had the only copy even though the other guy would be giving the presentation. It all made sense to them.

We made the poster, did our evening activities, and went to bed. As we were walking out the door in the morning, I suggested that he double-check to be sure his flash drive was in his backpack. It wasn’t.

There was a ten minute flurry of activity as every couch cushion, pants pocket, and bed cover was overturned in a frantic search for the crucial two-inch long device. No luck.

As I saw his eyes filling with tears and the panic squeezing his throat, I knew that I had a choice to make. I could deliver the mommy lecture that was on the tip of my tongue and ensure that he left the house feeling defeated, or I could use the opportunity to teach him some valuable life skills.

So, taking a deep breath and fighting back all of the I told you so’s clamoring to escape my throat, I said, “Okay. You’re about to learn a great lesson in adaptability!” I quickly grabbed a coffee-table book that we own on his subject and told him to head to the van. His presentation was in his first period class, so there really was no extra time.

On the way, I had him write out whatever details he remembered from the powerpoint and think about how to use the pictures we had. I shared my own experiences of speaking “off the cuff” and assured him that the most important thing was to appear confident in what he was saying, and that I knew they would be fine.

Deep breath.

There was just enough time to run into the school library and print out a couple more important pictures. The first bell rang. The printer didn’t work. With the librarian’s help, he got the pictures printed, with two minutes to get to class. “Confidence,” I said, as we parted ways. “You can do this.”

And he did.

He told me that afternoon that all three guys were able to divide up the resources they had, deliver their talks, and no one else was the wiser. The teacher even told us at parent night that they had done a nice job.

As I watched him walk down the hall that morning, I felt like the mother bird screaming “Fly, fly, fly” to her fledgling on the ground as the hungry cat lurks nearby.

He did fly, with only minutes to spare, and those wings are getting stronger every day.

fledglingflying1

Breaking news in our house last night – my freshman son, Latin scholar and ignorer of all things nonacademic at school, has a fan club. What does this mean? I’m not exactly sure, but it is apparently the way that high school girls at his school indicate some type of interest in the boys. His good friend had one last semester, with some of the same girls. This fan club is not something they encouraged; it just sort of happened to them- I think the girls picked the most innocent and uninterested boys. At least one of the girls happens to have each class with him, and they are constantly asking him questions about everything except school. We intentionally tried to hold his “Affirmation of Manhood ” ceremony before too many of the raging teenage hormones kicked in. I think we succeeded on that count, as he sees any attention directed at him by these girls as just “weird”.

What’s a mother to do? I laugh and tease, a little, as he is obviously embarrassed by their attention. I’m surprised and a bit apprehensive, as I always imagined him as the geeky late-bloomer. And I wonder -are they truly interested in him or is it some kind of cruel trick? I know what a bright, kind, and compassionate person he is, but is that what they see?

I realize this is just the beginning of a whole new world of relationships with the opposite sex, a world that Mom cannot be a part of if he is to continue to develop into the man we want him to be. Sure, I can offer advice when asked, but it is a path he will have to navigate on his own.

Just when I was feeling comfortable with his new levels of freedom at school, somebody started snipping more of those apron strings!

Here is a video my husband made of our son for his Affirmation of Manhood ceremony. It is set to Toby Mac’s song Lose Your Soul on the Portable Sounds album.

I took my son shopping for a suit yesterday. It was no great surprise that the suit he had worn to a wedding three years ago was too small, but I was hoping the jacket from last spring’s banquet would fit. No such luck. Teenage hormones kicked in over the summer, and he is at least four inches taller than he was last spring, so shopping we went.

As we browsed the racks of suits on sale (“Do I really have to try these on?”) and picked out jacket, pants, shirt, tie, and shoes, he mentally began adding up the cost of this outfit. He knows that most of his clothes come from the 80% off sales racks and are usually under $10. “Are we really going to spend more on this outfit than you spend on a month’s worth of groceries?” he asked, surprised. “No,” I replied, “but probably more than I spend for a week’s worth.” “Wow!” he responded thoughtfully. I turned and faced him, looking him in the eye, and said, “This is important and we want you to know that.”

Now, I do not intend to say that spending more money makes something more valuable, but I do believe that making the effort to dress more formally on some occasions lends an air of importance to the event. A bride will sometimes spend thousands of dollars on the dress she wears for a few hours to mark what should be the most significant event in her life. We want our son to see this evening of transition into manhood as a significant turning point in his life. Having everyone dress up makes the occasion more memorable and marks it as different and more special than an ordinary get together with friends.

Our society has become so casual that what were the markers of important events for previous generations have been lost. Casual Friday has become casual everyday, contemporary church services mean wear your blue jeans; no suits allowed, and when is the last time you saw someone dress up to get on an airplane?

I am all for any effort to reduce the number of days when I am expected to wear pantyhose, but I think we’ve taken this casual thing a step too far. Wearing uniforms at school and dressing nicely at work promote a sense of value for the effort put forth that day. Dressing up in suits and “special occasion” dresses will make our Friday evening celebration just that – a special occasion. Besides, just think how handsome my son will look. It’s enough to make this mother want to cry!

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