Years ago, when Vermont had a Christian homeschool state organization, its president asked me why it was so hard to find people willing to serve as leaders. A mother of small children at the time, I figured it was the hassle of long drives that turned away so many. But that’s not the answer, not at all. Vermont lacks leaders because our lifestyle has afforded few opportunities to develop leadership.
Vermont’s population dropped dramatically after the War Between the States when returning farmers who had seen the rich farmlands elsewhere turned away from their annual crops of stones and headed west. The Back to Nature movement of the 60s and 70s brought a wave of young people to Vermont’s valleys to raise crops and families. Though the culture they brought has faded away, people still immigrate to Vermont for its conscientiously rural lifestyle. We are people who deliberately dropped out of traditional careers in order to take on a more agrarian lifestyle. Many are artists, some raise animals, some telecommute, and most of us have no need to wear anything other than work clothes when we stand up in front of a group. Even campaigning candidates wear jeans in order to appeal to the common man.
Vermonters savor the privilege of strolling quiet gravel roads and driving through the forested countryside, grateful not to be in daily meetings or on team projects. Where can children in this state have the chance to develop public speaking, thinking on their feet, arguing against an opponent? Homeschool families in particular miss out on many group activities. When do they have the opportunity to practice leadership?
Today I witnessed one, when students from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts performed in the Classical Conversations Mock Trial tournament.
The small courtroom in Woodstock was packed with family and visitors this morning. Four tutors bit their lips or silently cheered their students on as their classes encountered trouble–witnesses who gave unexpected answers, attorneys who asked difficult questions during cross exam. After a semester of preparation, our kids were on their own inside the bar. They behaved magnificently.
No team executed a flawless performance, but as Judge Fred Glover pointed out, each person had a moment in which he had to think on his feet. We could see it happening–the pause, gulp, and tentative answer, or the “No, sir” spoken when the witness knew it could damage her case. What astonished me was how much my students surpassed any rehearsal, suddenly becoming a believable witnesses before my eyes, when until today their practices had been peppered with silliness. My own daughter, who avoided speaking in class so much a new student thought she was mute, boldly conducted a direct exam on the pathologist with a clear voice and tremendous poise. The poise and preparation of the other team’s defendant was so skilled, she flustered my crossing attorney and prevented his line of argument. Wonderful, wonderful performance!
It is achieving difficult tasks that builds leaders. Each of these students will be able to look back to this defining moment and know the benefit of research, study, reasoning, and perseverance. Some asked the judge what it would take to become a lawyer, clearly impressed with the possibilities.
Classical Conversations demands challenging things of our children, and those who can tackle challenging things are in demand. Today I learned again how present suffering will lead to greater strength and blessing. May Vermont be blessed with a small but powerful population of men and women who will be willing to serve their communities with the hard work of skilled leadership.