We walked up the steps to the early childhood wing, and suddenly I found myself in the place I had dreaded – dropping my oldest off at school for her first day of pre-kindergarten. Our small parish school has a homey feel to it. Everyone smiles and greets you, and there is a palpable sense of comradery among the students, teachers, and parents.
I hadn’t expected that we would send this child of ours to school, let alone a Catholic school. With a husband in grad school and me making pennies off of freelance writing work, I figured that we wouldn’t be able to afford a Catholic preschool. My husband and I both went to Catholic grade schools and had wonderful experiences with them, but we had been seriously discerning homeschooling. But then, everything fell in to place and we realized we could afford to send our bubbly, social four year old to a Catholic school two mornings a week. We’re still discerning homeschooling (and are planning on doing using a hybrid approach to school for this year), but our love for Catholic schools runs deep, and we would love to stay involved in that world in some way.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the pain of letting go. The smiling teacher and warmly colored classroom, filled with toys and books, made our first day good-bye unemotional for my daughter, but did little to quench my sadness at parting with her. However, for this oldest child of ours, pre-kindergarten is the right option, and let go of her I must.
I first felt this feeling toward this child the night before her baptism. I remember holding her in my arms, rocking her before bed, and realizing that she would no longer belong to just me. I would be giving her back to God, in a sense. Once she was baptized she could call God, “Father,” and the Church her family.
It’s easy, as parents, to lose sight of that reality. It’s easy to forget that our children are not our own. But, the reality is, our children do not belong to us. They belong to God. Of course, I know that to some degree, but these little moments of letting go bring it back to the fore. This child of mine is on the road to sainthood, God-willing, as we all are. I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to play a role in her journey, but it is not my journey. It’s her journey; her journey to God.
Although I think that public schools can offer a wonderful education (speaking firsthand as someone who graduated from a public high school), I think there is a tangible difference in a Catholic school. The community is centered on Christ, a reality that simply isn’t present in a public school. The thing that stands out the most for me from my own fifteen years in a Catholic institution of learning (including elementary, undergrad, and grad school), was the experience of a Catholic culture and community. Crucifixes are reminders of our heavenly home, and those reminders are in every classroom of a Catholic school. Weekly Masses are on the school agenda, and you never know when your pastor might pop his head into your classroom and say hello.
It is powerful for a child to be a part of a Catholic community of some sort. The most important Catholic community in a child’s life should be their home, followed by their parish – and a Catholic school is simply an extension of that. That isn’t to say that a child in a public school can’t experience that community through their parish (I certainly did during my four year stint in a public school), but there is a value to being a part of it day in and day out. My husband and I are both grateful for getting to experience that kind of community as children, and we’re grateful that our daughter is being given the opportunity to experience it for this year.
As painful as it is, part of giving her this opportunity means letting go of her. Even if we end up discerning full time homeschooling, we won’t be able to escape from the reality of letting go of our children. Life is full of little moments of letting go, all preparation for that final letting go at the end of our lives.
Yet, those little moments of letting go are a real gift. When a parent is able to let go of their children – for a class at a homeschool co-op, for a morning in preschool, for a day at elementary or high school, for a year at college, for a lifetime with a spouse or religious community – they allow their family to be open to God’s will for their lives. They allow their children to share their unique gifts with the Church.
For now, I’m grateful that I can practice this letting go in small steps.