I am the product of public school education. My public education shaped me, not all for good, but much of it was. It was instrumental in my growth – not only intellectually, but spiritually as well. The spiritual growth was not by any design of the school administration or teachers, but even unintended, it was real and substantive. Thankfully, I had a strong church and a Christian family to keep me grounded. Public school served as a counterpoint to these spiritual anchors. In hindsight, I can see at least three things I gained through public education.
A Lens for Perspective
There is a sharp distinction between the church and the world. To allow the one to seep into the other is to confuse the distinction. Certainly we should guard against the church becoming worldly. I also think we would do well to guard against the world become churchy. When worldly institutions dabble in affairs of the church, they offer a bland serving of Christianity, palatable to all but appetizing to none. Prayers are generic, theology is watered down, Christ is a figurehead, Scripture is literature and morality overshadows redemption.
Clarity comes through contrast. Without my glasses, everything is blurred and indistinct – edges get fuzzy, colors bleed, details are lost, and contrast is muted. Put my glasses on and clarity is restored with sharp lines and clear colors. Public school helped bring the distinction between the church and the world into focus, like corrective lenses. I discovered that the world should not be expected to fill the church’s shoes. Public school could be trusted to teach me reading, writing and arithmetic. It could not be trusted for spiritual direction. For this I turned to the church.
Our approach to the institutions of the world is to be in them, but not of them. This idea goes back to Jesus’ prayer for his followers, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one” (John 17:15, NLT). I need protection in, not freedom from the world. Worldly institutions, whether the government, marketplace or the school system, are largely ignorant in matters of faith, if not antagonistic. I should expect no less. Through constant exposure, I learned to be vigilant, critical, and discerning.
When the topic of faith arises in the world, I am to be the influencer, not the influenced. In high school, the Bible was frequently brought up in discussions in my literature and social studies classes – not by the teachers, but by me. I didn’t expect the school to initiate. That was my role, as an ambassador for Christ.
A Crucible for Testing
Public school served as a proving ground for my faith. Affirmations made casually in the safety of church were put to the test in the crucible of public school. Whether resisting temptation or standing up for my convictions, I regularly faced situations that forced me to put into practice what I believed. Under fire, the pure alloy of my faith slowly emerged as the dross was scooped away. The testing of my faith develops perseverance, and perseverance, according to James, leads to maturity (James 1:3-4). There is no maturity without testing. Just as plants adapt root systems appropriate to their environment, so I grew roots suited to my environment. In a friendly environment, my roots would have remained shallow and weak. In the harsh conditions of public school, deep roots were required.
In my junior year of high school, I remember being challenged by a pastor to think of ways I was acting like a hypocrite, behaving one way at school and another at church. One example that came to mind was praying before meals. I always prayed when out to eat with a group from church, but never did when eating lunch at school. Convicted, I committed to pray for my meal when I sat down to eat in the cafeteria. It was a hard commitment to fulfill, but it reminded me of Matthew 10:32-33, which states, “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Each day in the cafeteria I had an opportunity to either acknowledge or deny Him. That daily test strengthened my faith.
There were other examples – opportunities to stand boldly against the gusts of peer influence and cultural norms. I didn’t always succeed. But even failure was instructive, opening my eyes to my double-mindedness and motivating me to do better the next time. In the end, these tests made me stronger.
A Field for Harvest
This testing was all done among peers. In living out my faith I was cultivating steady opportunities for relational evangelism. Daily I rubbed shoulders with those at various points on their spiritual journey. Some were antagonistic, others were curious or questioning and a few were ready for harvest.
I began each day of my senior year praying that God would open my eyes to opportunities and give me courage to take advantage of them. Often I prayed with a Christian classmate at the start of the school day. Each new day was another day on the mission filed. I would look for openings to bring my faith into conversation – in the classroom, hallways, locker room and on the school bus. Some days generated no significant opportunities; others gave me small opportunities to expose a nugget of Christianity. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to share the gospel fully. A handful of my classmates visited my church youth group and a few of them were saved. I wish I had experienced a more bountiful harvest, but am grateful for the crop I did reap.
Some of that crop was slow in coming. Years after graduation, one of my classmates contacted the friend I used to pray with before school. He informed her that he had become a Christian and knew that we would appreciate the news. Even years later, he remembered us for our evident faith and thanked us for our consistent witness. We played a part, if not in reaping then in planting and watering the seeds. He graduated with a favorable impression of the sincerity of our faith. Years later, that faith became his own.
Now I am the father of four children, all of whom are in public school. I hope the lens, the crucible and the field that I found through public education will shape my children much as they shaped me. It is still too early to tell, though I see hopeful signs. My oldest is in junior high, and much of this came to fruition for me during my high school years.
While public education is not the right choice for everyone, I believe it is a viable option for a Christian parent. It is not necessarily a decision by default or one made in careless disregard for a child’s welfare. For me, it is with the intent that my children will shine like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people (Philippians 2:15 NLT) – a world that begins in the hallways and classrooms of our local public school.
Phil Huber is a freelance writer. Read more at http://aploddingpilgrimage.blogspot.com/