Mourning

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Of all the things in this world that I want to learn more about, death is not high on my priority list. Nor do I ask why God allows some to live long, happy lives while others die too young. There are just some answers that won’t satisfy people completely, no matter how hard they try to make sense out of nonsense. And yet here I am now, sitting in my dorm room after a memorial service for one of my professors and asking questions about the people who die, the people who mourn and the God who heals all.

Today the English department at Calvin College held a memorial service for William Vande Kopple, one of the most popular professors in the department, who died in the early morning of July 3 this year. When students, staff and faculty received the email saying that Professor Vande Kopple had passed on at age 63 only a week after being diagnosed with cancer, the reaction was the same: “how could this happen?” A lot of people thought it was a joke, that the professor was pulling a prank on people, and that he would pop out of the casket at his funeral saying “Just kidding, I’m still alive!” But that wasn’t the case. I’ll never have a class with him, I’ll never get to go on the New England Saints trip with him as one of the supervisors, and I’ll never have the chance to know him in the way that so many others did.

It’s one thing to mourn for someone you know and love. But it’s another thing to mourn for someone you really wanted to know in person but never had the chance. The questions that came up for me today at the memorial service were a little different from the questions that Professor Vande Kopple’s students and colleagues had, though the conclusion we came to was very much the same: he died too soon.

I’ll be honest: I feel cheated. Almost as soon as I walked into the chapel I had a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite belong there, that I was intruding on the grief of those who knew him and loved him. They had a chance to learn from a man with a lot of humor, a lot of wisdom and a lot of encouragement. I did not. While I was looking for a seat I saw a girl that I didn’t get along with last year. Even now I can almost imagine her looking at me and thinking “What is she doing here? She never had Vande Kopple. She doesn’t belong here.” And to be honest, I don’t think I would’ve disagreed with her there. Why did so many others get to learn from and be encouraged by such a great man when I, a twenty-one year old writer looking for the right questions to ask, the right answers to accept and the right direction to find such things, be left with very little in comparison? Why did I have to go to the chapel intending to pay my respects and instead feel like a hypocrite who goes to church just to get an ego boost?

I don’t know if I’ll ever have satisfactory answers for any of these questions. I may end up spending a lot of time trying to come up with answers that sound comforting but, in reality, is just wishful thinking. While we can quote something like Romans 8:28 over and over again, there will still be times where we’ll just have to heave a great big sigh and say “You know what? We’re just kidding ourselves. We can come up with as many answers concerning God’s will as we can, it’ll still never make sense.” The longer we remember things like 9/11, shootings at a movie theater and at schools across the country, the Boston massacre and the deaths of people in our community, the more we realize just how much we can and can’t deal with. That’s not to say we can’t be comforted, but it just won’t be as easy as we might think before something beyond our comprehension takes place.

But here’s a truth that we can, if anything, take at least a little comfort in: we’ll be okay. Professor Vander Lei, one of my favorite professors at Calvin, said that “we mourn, but as Christians we don’t mourn as those without hope.” What can keep us moving forward is the fact that things will eventually get better. Death has lost its power, and soon there will be a day when we’ll have nothing to fear, when tears will be a thing of the past, when we have at last found Heaven’s Light. We may not see it, but it’s true. It just might eventually take a while to know that in our hearts as well as in our heads.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

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Public School, Private School, Homeschool

Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Well my fellow veterans of all-nighters, caffeine addictions and ten page essays, we’ve reached that season famously dubbed “when school starts.” And as we are September, the first full month of school, I’ve been pondering something that parents, education lovers and society have been asking and expressing opinions about. Of the education options available, which is the best for our children from a Christian perspective: public school, private school or homeschool?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at the pros and cons of each option.

I did a little research on the subject of comparing private schools to public schools. According to an essay called “Private versus public” found on www.greatschools.org, one of the biggest differences between a private school and a public school is the tuition money: how much are you paying to send your kid to school? They say that “the good news for parents is that public schools cannot charge tuition. The bad news is that public schools are complicated, often underfunded operations influenced by political winds and shortfalls.” A child is also more likely to be accepted into a public school as private schools tend to be more selective.

But from a Christian perspective, obviously, the biggest worry that Christian parents have about public schools is exactly what they teach—more specifically, what they teach about God. When I was in high school, most of the kids in my church attended public school. They said that their biggest struggle was trying to believe in God and stand up for him when everyone else tried so hard to prove in the nonexistence of God. In some ways, though, I’d also say that this is an upside: I think that a public school can serve as a challenge for a Christian teenager, a challenge to figure out what you believe for yourself and then sticking to what you believe when everyone else around you tries to prove you wrong. I’ve also heard that some public school survivors were glad that the kids in public school weren’t as hypocritical as the kids in a private Christian school, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

This brings me to private school. I took a look at the website for Focus on the Family to get a parent’s perspective of a private school, and they say that private schools make socializing easier, provide legal religious instruction, and they don’t depend on the state for their finances. But on the downside, private school is more expensive than public school, again they’re much more selective in enrollment, some activities such as music and sports might not be offered, and unfortunately the student population in a private school may not be as diverse as it could be in a public school.

As a student growing up in private schools since age four, here’s my two cents from a student’s perspective: what I appreciated about attending Christian schools at a young age was that all of my classes were taught from a Christian perspective, particularly the religion class and a weekly Christian service attended by the whole school. And I will say that it was nice to have the faculty serving as a daily reminder of why we’re here, why we serve the Lord and—at least at the schools that I attended—challenged me to evaluate what I’m doing and ask myself “is this right?” But in a sense, you could also say that that’s a downside to religious private schools as well as an upside. The belief in Christianity is so heavily enforced every day that it almost loses its edge when students grow older and start growing more independent. By the time I reached high school, I met with more kids who were lukewarm or ice cold in their faith than fiery hot. Don’t get me wrong, there were still some who were passionate about their faith, but at the same time there were plenty that weren’t and yet still claimed that they were. Another thing I should point out is that there are some people who believe that a Christian school will shelter your kid from a lot of controversial things in the world. Let me make one thing clear: that statement is one hundred percent false, especially in a Christian high school. Fights have broken out, hearing colorful words you wouldn’t want your kids to say was a daily occurrence, and teenage pregnancy is just as likely in a Christian school as it is in a public school.

The last option I mentioned is the homeschooling option. I studied this option and interacted with homeschooled kids in the last few years, and they had a lot of interesting things to say about when they were homeschooled. The home provides a safe environment for learning children, and in many cases I’d go so far as to say homeschooling is much more successful in education than most people would think. I have two cousins who are both homeschooled, and especially at a young age I honestly think that they’ve grown mentally at home more than they probably would have in a public or private school. A lot of kids say that they felt safer at home than at school, and I believe it. In many cases, my homeschooled peers have also told me that being homeschooled allowed them to grow closer to their families then they would have otherwise. And without the negative peer pressure that a public or private school can often bring, homeschooled students have a stronger sense of who they are, what they believe and what they want to make of themselves.

But the downsides to homeschooling are often big ones: the cost, the time and the social interaction of homeschooled kids. I’ve said before that you need to count the cost before you buy the product, and the same thing could still be said of homeschooled children. School materials are expensive, and only one of the parents can maintain a full time job in order to provide for the family. The older kids grow, the harder it’ll be to prepare lessons for them, and the harder it’ll be to be patient with them and keep them from getting restless. By far, though, the biggest factor is the social growth of a child’s mind, and it’s hard for a kid to grow socially if they don’t encounter people outside of the neighborhood on a regular basis. We can learn just as much from people outside of our comfort zone as we can from people inside, and without that ability to reach the outside world we won’t be able to do that. Particularly in high school, kids will want to be able to interact more with people their own age rather than just the people at their churches or in their families.

So which option is the best? Well, from a Christian student’s perspective, I’d say that there is no best option. God has different plans for different people. While I do wish that I had the experience of attending a public school when I was older or had been homeschooled when I was much younger, that doesn’t mean that I regret my education. I still got to meet some inspirational, supportive teachers and friends when I was growing up that I wouldn’t have met had my parents come up with a different solution. It all depends on what you want your child to learn and how you want your child to be raised. Teachers often have a big impact on kids whether they work at a public school or private school, secular or Christian. I still remember most of the adults who were on faculty and staff when I was in elementary, the teachers were all supportive enough in middle school, and I definitely owe a big thanks to the teachers in my high school that inspired me the way that they did. So what does God want you to provide for your children, present or future, in terms of education? Leave a comment below if you have any thoughts; I’d be happy to hear what you think.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”