When you’re expecting football and get saltmarsh instead

Yesterday, as the sun was setting and football fans were gearing up for the Super Bowl and watching incredibly expensive commercials, our family was driving home from visiting my parents in South Carolina. Our trusty old minivan started having some problems, as indicated by the variety of warning lights that lit up the dashboard. We were hoping to make it home, or at least to a nice place to stop and call for help. But there on Highway 17, in the midst of saltmarshes and billboards, within sight of the Talmadge Bridge, all the gauges stopped working, and we coasted to a stop on the one little patch of concrete on the shoulder of the road.

My call to AAA started out a bit comical as I tried to describe our exact location. No crossroads nearby. No businesses except we were kind of between two “adult” dance clubs, but they were quite a distance away. We were near a billboard for machine guns, which surprised me as I read it. And another billboard for a car dealership. Other than that, it was saltmarsh.

Jasmine the Friendly AAA Woman finally was able to pinpoint our location, but the not-so-friendly computer would not accept the remoteness of this place where we were just thankful, and a little surprised, to have cell phone service. After consulting with her supervisor and keeping me on hold for an incredibly long time, Jasmine announced a tow truck had been alerted and would call me soon.

When Chris the Tow Truck Driver called, he had some random address for us, but I was able to explain where we were, and he was on his way. In the meantime, Jon called his brother, Karl, who was on his way with a friend, leaving the Super Bowl behind to pick up our family.

By this time, darkness had settled over the marsh and the highway, punctuated by headlights of cars rushing by. Will grumbled a little about missing the Super Bowl. Anna noticed the stars. The windows fogged over as it grew colder outside.

Karl and his friend, Al, arrived, and soon the kids and I were on our way home, having to leave Jon with the van to wait for the tow truck. By the time we got home, Jon was riding in the tow truck, taking the van to the shop. I dropped the kids off at Grandma’s house, and drove Jon’s car to go meet him.

The special surprise for the evening was that our truck, which had been borrowed for a few weeks, was suddenly returned to town, and Jon and I were able to pick it up on our way home. So we will not be down to one vehicle while our minivan is in the shop, which makes life so much easier.

Although the evening didn’t go as we had expected, and we missed half of the Super Bowl (a big deal to some of us), we can see God’s protection and provision in so many ways. Safety. That little patch of concrete. Cell phone service in a remote location. People able to leave what they were doing to come help us. Our third vehicle being returned just when we needed it most.

We made it safe and sound to a tv in time for the half-time show (though I don’t see what was so wonderful about Beyoncé, but whatever). It was a big, colorful, flashy, exciting show to be sure. But even better, to me, was the quiet, sure, steady presence of God with our family that night on the highway between the marshes.

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Be like butterflies

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Recently there was a monarch chrysalis on our garbage can just before trash day. Concerned about its fate with the garbage truck, Jon and I carefully removed it, clipped it to an office clip, and taped the clip to hang down from the top of our butterfly habitat in our house. A chrysalis is pretty delicate so we were not sure if this butterfly would live or not, but we hoped for the best.

A few days later, there was a butterfly in the habitat, clinging to the empty chrysalis. It was a male, flexing his wings to prepare for flight. And I did something I had not done before. I decided to release it by myself. Alone, with no kids. Just me and this butterfly rescued from garbage truck disaster.

Releasing butterflies has always been a team event in our family, complete with kids, excitement, attempts at photos, and figuring out whose turn it is to release the butterfly. This time it was so simple.

We went outside to the patio where Mr. Monarch fluttered his excitement as I unzipped the habitat top. Politely, he stepped onto my finger. I lifted him out, and away he flew. Up, up, up. Circling and gliding and fluttering.

He seemed joyful, exuberant as he flew. It occurred to me that this was his very first flight. And I wondered what a thrill it must be for a lowly caterpillar to awake from its chrysalis sleep to fly for the first time.

To fly.

This previously creeping, crawling, leaf-eating bug. Now a beautiful, delicate, flying creature embarking on an epic journey, soaring above the plants he had once munched.

I watched him fly all the way to a high branch of a pine tree where I presume he sat for a while as monarchs often like to do upon release. And I wondered how I had missed it before, the joy of first flight. But I saw it this time – the start of the journey, the deep joy of doing the long-awaited thing you were created for. My heart soared with my monarch friend, sharing in his joy, wishing him well.

I want to be like that. Transformed to soar, bold and brave in freedom, compelled to move forward into my purpose. Joy-filled for my part in history, regardless of the risk. Not content with a small and safe and sheltered life. Flying free and strong on my epic adventure.

May we all be like butterflies.

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Making the most of the season

I always have lofty plans for Advent, full of ideas for making this time as peaceful, reflective, and worshipful as I think it should be. “Silent Night” beckons me to carve out some quiet to consider the weightiness of the incarnation. Maybe sit in the dark by the light of the Christmas tree and ponder the miracle. Maybe light Advent candles and share in family devotions each evening.

And yet, even if I manage to arrange moments of quiet reflection, I find that Christmas rushes in before I feel ready. Life is so busy, often more so at this time of the year. Even our times of stillness can feel rushed, like just another item on the holiday checklist. So many plans and preparations, activities and obligations. I feel cheated, guilty, like I should have done more to savor the time, to quiet my heart, to be reverent.

But here’s the thing. Jesus didn’t slip peacefully into a worshipful, reverent, silent world. He didn’t wait until we were ready. Jesus burst into our messy, busy, crowded world. He came, not floating peacefully down from the heavens clothed in white, but through the struggle and mess of childbirth. Surely there were also some peaceful moments to rest and reflect, but the world He came to was not a place of peace, and He didn’t mind coming anyway. In fact, that’s why He came. He came to our world, and the wretched, violent, desperate mess we have made of it, on a rescue mission.

We shake our heads at the stories of mass shootings, terrorists, poverty, injustice, and other dark acts of darkened hearts. Some shake their fists at a God who would allow it to be. And God would shake us loose from these chains of sin through His Son, our Rescuer. He has a plan for this mess, and we see it now in His Christmas arrival and later in His Easter victory. God does not sit by unconcerned about the state of our world. It grieves Him enough that He sent His own Son to restore us, to bring true peace. He is the Light in the darkness, the Hope answer for our despairing questions.

So if I haven’t set up the Advent calendar yet or made an Advent wreath and I can’t manage to make time for daily Advent devotions with the kids like I want to, it’s still okay. He is here with us in the midst of our challenges and schedules and failures. He comes to us anyway, right where we are, penetrating our mess. It is great when we can be still, and we definitely need that at times, but God is still God in our busyness and stress and struggle.

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A thankful, giving, disappointing Christmas

So here we are in Advent, preparing for the coming Christmas… the coming festivities, parties, gifts, and sparkle. And the babe in the manger who came on that silent night can be easily overshadowed by the bells and bustle.

American culture makes this time into a sort of game, a competition, another leg of the Rat Race. No sooner are our bellies full of turkey thankfulness than the starting gun rings out and the race begins. Who will get the best deals, the earliest deals, the coolest toys and gadgets? Who will have bragging rights come Christmas day, inspiring the envy of their friends because of their cool stuff? Oh, yeah, and happy birthday, Jesus… and did you see my super, new, best thing?

This Christmas one-upmanship has a powerful effect on kids. They see the commercials, and hear people talking. They want and want and want. They quickly learn, in this great land of opportunity and plenty, that they do not have enough. Most have not yet learned the truth that they will never have enough unless they learn contentment. So if they don’t get that prized item, they can take it pretty hard, especially if their friends enjoy bragging about what they got.

Instead of the generosity of giving, much on display is the selfishness of getting. The main job of Santa is, after all, to bring kids what they want (although he is strangely biased toward the more well-off kids).

In the name of Christmas we can reinforce selfishness, continually asking kids (and adults) what they want for Christmas. “What do you want for Christmas?” “What will you get for Christmas?” It puts all the focus on themselves. What if we start asking what they will give, what we will give? “What will you give for Christmas this year?” “What are you excited to give?” Are we prepared to be thankful regardless of what we get?

God gave… that’s how Christmas started. He gave first, and He is our example to follow. He set the standard. But the focus can easily shift to getting rather than giving, and while the two are different sides of the same coin, the emphasis is important.

We can give gifts from a store, gifts of time, homemade gifts, gifts of experiences, gifts of togetherness. Teaching our kids to value them all can be a challenge. But words have power, and as we begin to change how we talk about Christmas, along with what we emphasize, the focus can begin to shift.

Maybe I haven’t done the best job so far of teaching my kids to be joyful givers. I think when kids are really young, sometimes we do not expect much from them, but as they grow we need to require more and raise the bar. Everyone has talents and time that they can give even if they have no money to buy presents. We need to encourage kids to be givers.

My kids have high expectations and hopes for this Christmas, just like every year. But they also know without a doubt that they will not be getting everything they want. (I tell them this to make it clear.) I am sure they will be disappointed because some friend gets a new cell phone or those expensive sneakers they will outgrow in six months or some other wonderful, amazing thing that my kids did not get.

And that will be fine. It’s okay to be disappointed. Sometimes it’s even good. Disappointment can lead to growth and maturity, and that, while maybe not appreciated at the time, is a great gift itself.

So, as we head toward Christmas this Advent season, let’s bring along our Thanksgiving thankfulness, look for ways to give joyfully to others, and graciously accept disappointment. Let’s give out of a fullness of love, following the Father’s example, and letting that Rat Race run right on by. That kind of Christmas honors the God who stooped low to love us.

And if you see my kids around, feel free to ask them what they are giving for Christmas.

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When the “worst camping trip ever” wasn’t at all

Happy to find a three-day weekend in October and hankering for autumn leaves and cool temperatures, our family headed north recently to Oconee State Park in the mountains of South Carolina for camping adventure. Following the “be prepared” scouting motto, we filled our minivan with all the essentials… tent, sleeping bags and pads, clothes, food, camp kitchen, and so on. Sure, we could have left the full size pillows at home and maybe brought fewer clothes or a smaller cooler, but we had room, especially with the backpack on the back of the van. Sure, we were heading to a hike-in tent camp site, but the ranger assured us the walk was not very far to the site. No problem.

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Setting up camp on Saturday was delayed a few hours as we waited for the rain to stop, which it did around 4:00 in the afternoon. That’s when we set out down the trail with our wagon filled and arms loaded with as much as we could carry in one trip. That’s when we discovered that our camp site was about a quarter of a mile over gravel, and then narrow root and leaf, trail. That’s when we realized we should have gone more minimalist with this trip. It took at least three more trips to lug all our “essentials” to our site. We vowed to work towards “bring only what you can carry” camping and making the kids practice with backpacks.

As we unpacked our goods, we discovered that our van backpack was not actually waterproof after all. Water-resistant, perhaps. But driving through significant rainfall successfully soaked two sleeping bags and various articles of clothing, prompting Anna to declare this “the worst camping trip ever.”

But no worries! Since we had not packed “minimalist,” we had an extra sleeping bag and blankets. And many of the clothes were not wet. And besides, the kids had packed too much and didn’t need it all anyway. Things could only get better.

And they did. Granted, we hit a few other snags along the way. Like how our tent was too big for the designated site so it extended right up to the fire pit, which was strangely close to the tent area to begin with, causing us to have to improvise our fire. Or how the entire campsite was on a hill so we felt like we were rolling into each other all night. Or how we could still hear those loud campers across the lake ignoring the camp quiet hours around midnight. Or how some of us were cold…

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But there were the mountains. The sweet smell of decaying leaves on the forest floor. The cool fresh air. And we were there in the midst of it. Living and breathing, absorbing it into ourselves, storing it up, hoping it could last long enough. And the colors and the coolness, the elevation and beauty were like the face of God to me. Smiling, gracious, kind in His caring for us. It is a gift to be able to tramp through the crunchy mountain trails, to chase the raccoon from our leftovers, to witness the growth of a small purple mushroom, to find a beaver had visited during the night to claim a small tree.

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We hiked the trails, marveled at waterfalls, drove the twisty roads, fed some trout, and ate some apples at the orchard down the road. It was a grand time after all, immersing us in another place and another season from the usual.

And the blue sky. And the sun on the autumn leaves. And the trees reaching toward heaven. And the five of us rambling over mountains, thoroughly enjoying our “worst camping trip ever.”

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Scrambled eggs, anyone?

My son, Will, is a go-getter. The second-born of our children (but the firstborn male), he is competitive and driven toward superlatives like “best” and “fastest” and “biggest.” He has decided he will be rich when he grows up, and has looked into the cost of cargo ships because he thinks it would be cool to convert one and live on it. So, in his nine years of life, he has come up with various ideas for making money.

Recently, Will looked at me with a sparkle in his eyes and said, “I know how I can make some money. I’ll sell eggs.” No, we don’t have chickens in case you’re wondering.

My blank stare encouraged him to continue. “Scrambled, of course,” he added.

He went on to explain his plan of setting up a table at the end of our driveway where he could take people’s orders and then run inside the house to cook their scrambled eggs while they wait. Who needs a lemonade stand when you can have a scrambled egg stand? This idea is surely inspired by my son’s newfound skill of cooking scrambled eggs, which he thinks are the best. He is quite proud of his new ability, and apparently wants to share it with the world (at a profit!).

And while I have my doubts about the viability of the scrambled egg stand business model on our quiet neighborhood circle, I give the boy credit for coming up with ideas and imagining possibilities. And I walk the line between grounding him in reality and encouraging him to dream and imagine and create. Who knows what he will come up with? He just might hit on a big idea one day that could change the world.

In the meantime we have scrambled eggs, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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How to Win an Inn

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There’s an inn to be won for $150 and 200 words. The transfer of real estate by essay contest is becoming a bit of a trend around the country, and the most recent example to catch our family’s attention is a lovely inn located in a cozy town in coastal Maine. I imagine the delicious wild Maine blueberry pancakes for breakfast, the friendly visitors, rocky shoreline, small town community, stunning scenery, and long, exceptionally long, winters.

And I wonder how does one win an inn? Out of 7,500 essays, what does it take to be the top pick? What can you pack into 200 words to convince the innkeeper you are worthy? Is she looking for credentials? A resume? Passion? Writing skills? Originality? If I write that I’ve always wanted to run an inn, does that make me enthusiastic and hopeful or just like 6,000 other innkeeper wannabes? Is it even worth saying, or is it a waste of precious words?

Maybe luck is the best you can hope for. Maybe a certain number of essays make the short list due to their likeability. But probably a whole lot of essays are just fine, so some are chosen and others discarded by sheer chance or whim. It’s kind of like the lottery, only with much better odds. And, after all, somebody’s going to win (unless there are not enough entries, in which case the deal is off and money is returned).

Though we have not decided to enter the contest, our whole family is excited just by the idea of winning the inn. After visiting Maine on vacation a year ago, our three kids think it would be great to live there. True, we visited for about a week in the summer with near-perfect weather, and had a lot of fun. Which is not at all comparable to living there year-round running an inn, but nevertheless… they are ready to pack up and move.

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It’s odd to me that our children are so eager to move away. When I was 12 years old, my family decided to make a big move, and I could not understand why we would ever move away from home. Home was a place back then, tucked in the context of extended family and history. It’s not so much that way anymore as our society has become so much more mobile. Most of our kids’ cousins live far away, only coming for visits from time to time. And we have had plenty of friends move away over the years, so why shouldn’t we move away, too? There is something to be said for being the one to leave rather than the one always left behind.

Will, who is nine, has another reason to want to move. He is sure that if we pack up all our belongings he will finally find his lost Gameboy. Never mind that he hasn’t wanted to play with it in ages until recently. Or that he has some issues with putting his toys where they belong. There is something to be said for being organized enough that you don’t have to rely on a major move to find your stuff. But enough of that… no need to launch into lecture mode.

But wouldn’t it be something if we were to win the inn? How exciting and terrifying and life-changing! It would perfectly turn our world upside down, which is sometimes what we need, or maybe what we crave, even secretly. A change big and bold and dramatic. Crazy enough to shake loose the cobwebs of complacency and comfort, to raise questions and eyebrows. Some might call it folly. Others might call it a fresh start. I would call it an adventure.

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Ready or Not – There Goes Summer

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So here we are, just over two weeks away from the start of a new school year, and I’m just not ready. It’s not that I haven’t bought all the requested school supplies – which I haven’t. It’s not that the summer heat still hangs oppressive, making me feel melty like a dweller of a Dali painting – which it does. It’s not that I’m aggravated by stores packing up summer and schlepping out the autumn merchandise – which I definitely am.

I’m just not ready to move on from these summer days. Days of relaxed schedules and time with my kids, whether fun or frustrating. Days to do something different like… well, maybe we haven’t done enough “different” this summer. Sure, we’ve had some fun, and done some neat things like play with butterflies and visit the Kennedy Space Center. But somehow I wanted something more.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I feel like this summer was just not enough. Not fun enough or special enough or meaningful enough. Maybe this summer – of stay-at-home camps and visits from relatives – pales a bit compared to last summer with its epic vacation to New England. Maybe I’m growing more sentimental as my kids grow older. Maybe I’m a little unsettled at the thought of Anna going to a different school – middle school – this year.

I treasure the time with my kids… time to enjoy them, laugh with them, teach them, guide them. Maybe there’s never really enough time for good things like these. Maybe my expectations are too high, too easily disappointed by the not-so-good stuff like whining and fussing with each other and not listening. Maybe I create stress for myself by wanting to do too much. Maybe I think too much (pretty sure about this one actually).

I can’t make the remainder of this summer the absolute best end-of-the-summer ever. But maybe I can be a little more deliberate, a little more intentional, and make the most of these together times before the rush of school and activities returns.

There is a saying I learned from a mom friend: “You take what you get and don’t throw a fit.” (In Southern, “get” and “fit” rhyme.) It’s a good one for stopping little complainers. But maybe what it really gets at is this idea of “enough.” We want and want and yearn for something… that other thing, not this thing we have right here. Our human nature cries it’s not enough, and sometimes that’s true. It’s not enough. But we are not promised “enough” on our own terms. And maybe God, in His wisdom, uses that unsatisfied yearning to draw our hearts to higher things.

In this season – this summer, this life – we can never truly do it all or have it all. But God does promise His grace is sufficient. His grace is enough. Grace is our resting place, far better than the fleeting, lazy days of summer. By grace, the pauper is crowned prince, and the ragamuffin trades his beggar clothes for royal robes. By grace we realize we are all ragamuffins.

On our own there is never enough. But we can look to the cross, and understand it is more than we could hope for.

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The Mowing of Grass and the Growing of a Boy

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I decided to mow the grass yesterday. Usually Jon takes care of the grass mowing, but I thought I would surprise him this time. Little did I know I was the one in for a surprise.

The kids had just finished their after school snack when I announced that I would be out front mowing. Will’s eyes lit up, and he asked if he could help. He is nine, and has helped mow the lawn only a few times. I hesitated, partly surprised by his enthusiasm and partly wary of his inexperience. But he had already finished his homework while waiting for me to pick him up at school, so I said yes, and we headed out through the garage.

I almost never mow the grass, but Will and I managed to get the mower started (he helpfully pointed out the little red button on the side that must be pushed before the mower will start). I showed my son where to begin, and off he went, happy as can be, with a look of determination.

It was one of those times when you can practically see your child growing up before you. Sometimes they grow subtly, almost sneakily, so that you barely notice until all of a sudden they are three inches taller. But this time I could see it there before me, the stretching, the reaching, the straining. Like my boy was willing himself to grow into bigger shoes, to be like his dad. As he leaned in to push the mower over the stubborn ground, he was leaning in to growing up.

And he wanted it. He wanted to be bigger, to do more, to be more. I could see it… in his face and in the way he didn’t want to let his sister have a turn. (Who knew mowing could be such an envious task?) But he let her have a turn anyway, content to stand beside me and watch her in a knowing, supervisory way.

Will started calling us Dad and Mom recently instead of Daddy and Mommy. Just out of the blue he changed our names. Anna, who is older, thinks it sounds strange. I think he is putting us on notice that he is no longer little, and he has plans to grow up. This child, the one who so often would wriggle away when I tried to snuggle him even as a baby… he is set on going.

When Anna had enough of her turn mowing, Will happily jumped back in the game. I watched him maneuver the lawnmower around the yard in a rather random path. He was full of determination and pride, though a bit lacking in skill. I tried not to point out every patch of lucky grass he missed, saving my comments for only the most obvious areas, and deciding to make up some of the difference with the hand clippers later.

Before long, both the front and back yards were mown, and they looked pretty good. My boy was sweaty and satisfied with himself as he went into the house.

I stood outside a little longer, taking in this accomplishment. And I was proud in a bittersweet way, pretty sure he was taller now.

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Considering the Challenge of Public Education

Recently I have been thinking about the challenges of public education . My daughter will be going to middle school next year, so we are looking at our options, trying to provide her with the best opportunities.

Our county has an interesting assortment of charter, specialty, and traditional schools of varying levels of accomplishment. Some of these schools boast high achievement with outstanding test scores and innovative programs, others lag sadly behind the basic standards, and many are a mixed bag. Students can apply to attend a charter or specialty school, and many do. In fact, there are so many students clamoring to attend the higher achieving schools that they just don’t have room for them all. Thus, a lottery selection process has been established to determine who gets in.

At this point, my daughter has lost the lottery for the charter school, and is preparing to play the next school lottery. And it strikes me as sad that motivated kids must leave their education to chance. What message does that send about motivation, hard work, the path to success? How many kids apply to these schools and fail to get in? How many squander time in less than challenging classrooms that, by necessity, struggle to bring other kids up to speed?

I can’t help but wonder, if there are so many students wanting to attend the “better” schools, why can’t we make more schools “better?” Obviously our county has some strong, successful programs, so why can’t we bring them all up to that standard? Public education is working great in some schools, yet failing miserably in others. So what makes the difference?

Some parents like to look to websites such as GreatSchools.com to evaluate school performance, but what does it really tell you? The GreatSchools evaluation is based on test scores. But what is behind the test scores? If a school has low scores, is it really a “bad” school? What are they doing there and why is it not working? Are scores low because of a deficiency on the part of the teachers? Because of the kind of students that attend? A failure in parenting? Socioeconomic or racial factors? The neighborhood it is in? A lack of money?

I believe, at the heart of school performance, the driving factor is values. Higher achieving schools have a common thread of students and parents and teachers and a school culture that all place a high value on learning and excelling. They are committed to learning. There is an excitement in the pursuit of Great that you cannot find if your goal is Good Enough. And that excitement can lead to higher levels of learning.

Education is a team effort. All the players must do their part. We cannot expect teachers to make up for misplaced values in the home or a culture that places celebrity and notoriety above character and learning. We cannot expect students to respect themselves and others if they are not shown and taught respect by involved parents, teachers, and the community. We are all in this together. Even if you don’t have children in the public school system here, public education affects you because these students will shape our community going forward.

So then, I wonder, how do we spread the value of learning to our students and to our community? How does the idea that learning is fun and valuable, important and powerful catch on? How can we cultivate curiosity and a desire to learn in the minds of students and maybe parents who are disinterested or otherwise preoccupied?

Can we encourage more parents of preschoolers to talk with them, read with them, count things with them to prepare them for school? Can we increase the visibility and impact of Parent University? Are there other service programs or churches in place already that can expand their focus to reach out to lower achieving students and schools with encouragement to value education? Can we bring some community leaders into the schools to lead motivational sessions about the importance and joy of lifelong learning? Can we further equip and empower our teachers to use innovative techniques in the classroom?

Maybe we can brainstorm, start a dialogue, and then step up and try something new to spread the idea that learning is fun and valuable, important and powerful. Maybe it won’t work. But maybe it will. If more people placed a high value on education, I think we would see a shift in mindset, in priorities, in results. We could raise the performance and the positive experience of all of our public schools.

Sure, you could say it’s only middle school. It’s not the end of the world. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal after all. Or maybe it’s the difference between getting by and thriving. Between learning to take the easy way, just doing the minimum, and being encouraged to take on challenges. Between merely making good grades and being excited by learning.

For some, where they go to school doesn’t matter all that much. They will do just fine anywhere. They will learn enough, make their grades, and life goes on. But, if our society is going to say that education is important, why teach our students to settle for Just Fine when there is the chance to have Great? And why leave that up to chance?

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