Writing Story: A School Is a Place to Learn

The Episcopal School of Knoxville will turn 20 this coming fall, inconceivably. My 20-something kid was a kindergartner in its inaugural year, 1998. This matters to me mainly because it’s a school my ex and I founded, together with a few other families, the culmination of a mammoth effort that was about five or so years in the make before that fall—our hard-won school, as one of the founders often said of it.

But it also matters because of what inspired the school’s founding, namely adopting our son in 1993. The school, we insisted at his christening reception, was something we could do to give back to the community that had so lovingly supported us when we were going through the adoption process, and then afterwards, when this perfectly beautiful boy was handed to us as a three-day-old infant. And we wanted to fill a void—to open a school where every child who crossed its threshold would benefit from a classical education that would continue to serve them long after they left its campus. It is the kind of cause you can champion when you are the parent of a young child, without batting an eye. In the end, things did not work out so well for us at the school, which we left in the spring of 2004, never again looking back.

But that is not the point of this story.

I’ve been unpacking a bunch of stuff lately, metaphorically and physically. People often ask in passing, You enjoying that new house? All moved in yet?

Emphatically, yes, and no—not by a long shot. I was explaining this to a colleague at the grocery store where our paths crossed yesterday afternoon: the garage is still about 25 percent full of stuff that needs sifting through but must wait for a warm weekend (it is still winter here), and our spare bedroom has served as the repository for every box, plastic tub, basket, clothing pile, or object whose final destination remains a mystery for the time being. Cedar chest? Closet? Chest of drawers? Maybe tag sale. The answers will reveal themselves eventually, I trust.

For now, though, you’re hard pressed to make your way from the bedroom door over to the closet, which is where I keep my burgeoning shoe collection, for which I am mocked. Occasionally I decide to wear something besides the two or three pairs of shoes in rotation that live in the mudroom (running shoes, Vermontish snow boots, and pretty boots), and on those occasions I must navigate the piles to get to the shoes. This happened a couple of days ago when I had my heart set on my green woolen chukkas, a kind of shoe you can’t really wear often in Vermont, because snow.

But before I found the closet, a pile on the floor caught my eye, precariously stacked books recalling some crazy illustration out of Seuss, that contained among other things, two important and rare ballet tomes, my old copy of Chicago Manual of Style, and one Journal of the Episcopal School of Knoxville—the only edition ever published as fate would have it, and maybe even the last copy in existence. That journal was my impassioned project in the school’s second year. I meant to publish it quarterly, had every intention. It was to be a collection of thought-provoking essays by the school’s faculty and others, interviews, and news of the school; it would be mailed to everyone on the school’s exponentially growing mailing list, and of course every benefactor would get a copy to see where their magnanimous gifts were going. The last piece in the journal was mine, an op-ed of sorts: I called it “Last Writes.” (Clever, I thought.)

I forgot my chukka boots mission and instead sat crossed-legged on the floor for a while to leaf through the journal’s pages, now yellowing after two decades—preparing myself to cringe, I instead found inspiration in them after all these years. Here was an essay by a classics professor at the University of Tennessee about the virtues of teaching Latin. “There was no reaction in organic chemistry,” he opined, “and no anatomical structure in the family Chordata that could compare with the rolling thunder of Vergil or the anguished heartache of Catullus.” And here was another by the school’s French teacher, who asked, Are we waiting too long to introduce second language learning? “I can remember not understanding the difference between direct and indirect objects until I learned how to use them in French,” she wrote. And look: my interview with the school’s librarian, waxing poetic about the role of the internet in research, and why it’s important to help kids learn to consume information intelligently in the digital age. Sound timely and familiar?

It all made me remember where my head was back then, parenting a difficult child with insatiable devotion. I knew I wanted to give him the benefit of the same classical education I had, and I knew of no better way to do it than to try to re-create it in the city where I was raising him, with the help of many experts and others who shared my desire. And reading the “Last Writes” column took me back there. But more than the anecdotal story about my own six-year-old kid that opened the column, the part that struck me like a lightning bolt was this quote by Thomas Southard, then head of school at my alma mater in Memphis, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, and who had helped us realize our ambitious vision:

Remember that a school is a place to learn, to study, to develop our minds. Unless we understand the past, we are condemned to repeat it. Unless we learn to think logically, we are victims of our own feelings. Unless we learn to think scientifically, we will be out of step with our own futures. Unless we learn the language of our neighbors, we are isolated within ourselves. Unless we understand the light and darkness of the human heart, we are condemned to ignorance. Unless we learn to listen, we shall understand only ourselves. Unless we learn to talk clearly and concisely, we are boring. Unless we learn to write voraciously, hungrily, we are no better than those who cannot read. Unless we learn to study with skill and zest, we are lost in the world of ideas.

Lost in the world of ideas—perish the thought.

What happened after the first edition of the Journal? I was diagnosed with a sinister retina disease that demanded my full and immediate attention, every moment I was not dealing with my difficult kid—one who was most certainly at risk of being lost in a world of ideas. And nobody else took up the mantle, at least not during our tenure at the school. My kid continued to struggle at every school he attended in subsequent years. But he bears at least a thumbprint of the classical education I so desperately wanted for him, and his demeanor betrays it. He is his own person, an independent thinker decidedly at home in a world of ideas.

As for me, I would not change much in the Journal of the Episcopal School of Knoxville. It’s a small but meaningful piece in a growing body of writing, one that finally helped me survive a time fraught with peril, when it led to the doors of the marketing agency where I spend my days editing loads of digital content, the kind that perhaps some young student might stumble across on a library computer.

Poring over forgotten books and objects in a disorganized guest bedroom? It’s worth the time you lost going after a pair of woolen chukka boots.

kindergartner engaged in a world of ideas

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