Did you see the covered bridge that went downstream when hurricane Irene slammed Vermont? The Bartonsville covered bridge used to stand a mile downstream from where I live. Every Tuesday on our way to Classical Conversations we would drive through it. My husband and I exchanged our first kiss on this bridge, and we have taken it back on every crossing since. It was near and dear to our hearts (the bridge, that is), and the people of Bartonsville village are working hard to raise funds to build another. But will we end up with an historic bridge rebuilt with recovered original materials, a new covered bridge bearing the date 2013, or a two-lane cement bridge?
I am learning something about my roles as mother and tutor as I watch my community wrestle with this one. It touches on a comment I keep hearing from the parents with whom I work: “I recognize the value of these tough assignments, but how can we manage when our circumstances make it nearly impossible to achieve excellence?” These parents aren’t whining about the workload; they are juggling challenges in the home that seem to conflict with the goals of the program. Parents, and the people of Bartonsville, have three choices: to work for nothing less than the best, to accept a more modest goal, or to settle for just enough.
The latter option, I assure you, is repugnant to residents of our hamlet who do not want a cement bridge! In a similar vein, most homeschool families are choosing to do more than the bare minimum. Most, but not all! Occasionally I meet parents who have set their sights too low, with the result that their child cannot read with understanding or do more than basic math. These families need the pungent counsel of someone who will speak the truth in love, pressing home the need to do hard things! While most parents who join the Classical Conversations community accept the challenge, there do remain a few who never intended to take on such a workload. By dropping some of the classes they struggle to the end of the year, benefiting to some degree from the program but not allowing it to shape them. The bridge crosses the chasm but it is merely functional, not exceptional.
On the other hand are families with very high standards indeed, who guide their children to achieve excellence in all they touch. Gifted children and gifted parents raise the bar for the rest of us, laying an example of what can be accomplished by hard work and talent. We all have been amazed at what we can perform, when we didn’t know, as Milo learned after he rescued princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance, that it was impossible. Maybe it is possible for a master craftsman to pull enough wood from the twisted remains to splice together solid beams for an authentic repair of the bridge.
However, everyone eventually meets a wall too high to scale. Either an assignment hits us where we are unequipped or unusual circumstances clog our schedule. In these cases we have to modify the goal. We are learning to create goals of small increments until we are able to move to a new level. Let’s take a lesson from the average cross country athlete, whose ongoing goal is to beat his own best time. When a child struggles to write a persuasive essay, allow her to work with a smaller goal. Perhaps she can leave off an introduction and conclusion for now, or give two reasons instead the classic three. If a week is choked with unexpected events, a parent can drop one writing assignment and focus on another. One good paper turned in is better than two attempted and two failed. A modified covered bridge is still a beautiful testimony to craftsmanship and hard work.
Called to deliver our children across the gap from infancy to adulthood, we contemplate the contrast between our blueprint and the materials we can gather. It is odd that the program which taught me to reach high also teaches me how to settle on a nearer target in order to become the person who can score on a distant goal. We prepare this generation for a lifetime of learning and decision-making by holding them to high standards, while recognizing that humility sometimes calls us to work hard for a lesser goal. The truth is, a true rebuild of the historic bridge with authentic materials may be a goal out of reach. We won’t even consider that cheap, ordinary, ugly cement bridge. We may have to settle for a new covered bridge, strong and beautiful though perhaps not the work of an old master of the art. Let us all work hard and wisely to craft a beautiful, solid crossing for our children.