During these past few days there has been a palpable sense of preparation– of everyone preparing for something – permeating nearly every occurrence in our household. I can’t speak for our kids, but my own anticipation for this time had been growing exponentially in these past few weeks, for I know that I hold in my hands some secret key that many others have yet to find nor search for.
This week all 8 of our kids, Darwin and I are on vacation from all our normal activities for ‘Holy Week’ (the week leading up to Easter that can be taken as the American equivalent of Spring Break).
In our household, every time there is any kind of extended vacation such as this, everyone knows what to expect, and they do so with well-intentioned groans and good-natured murmuring, although I know that deep down they rejoice. They know without fail that Mom will spend considerable time each evening elaborating long, specific lists of goals, homework assignments, and other guided activities for each person on the whiteboard outside of their bedroom door. And each person is expected to meet these goals with diligence and joy before 5:00pm the following day.
My heart quickens with giddiness just thinking about it, because as many squander their precious free time, we busy ourselves with the joyful art of preparation, knowing our Father has something in store for us and wanting to be prepared when the time comes.
A quote that I stumbled upon during my college years that has greatly marked my outlook every since is this:
The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And although I have never breathed mention of this quote to Darwin or our kids (nor do we have it painted in huge, bold letters over our front door, although that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea), the reality of its words is already deeply imprinted upon our hours and days.
So while the rest of our neighbors or even our beloved students who study at our school most likely spend these 9 days of vacation wandering aimlessly (as is the favorite pastime of youth in our neighborhood), watching hour after hour of television or idly chit-chatting and gossiping on their front porches, we are toiling upward in the night.
Each day our 6 kids who can read and write have a host of healthy, guided activities to set about doing: study specific chapters from the Bible, play piano or recorder for a certain amount of time, practice the times tables with a certain sibling, go to a quiet place with so-and-so to share and pray, write a letter of friendship or encouragement for someone else, write a reflection or list of life goals, study English as a second language for an hour, stand up and read out loud 45 minutes from any book of their choosing, or participate in our version of cross-fit training (100 push-ups, 100 frog-jumps, and 10 laps to and from the far gate, etc). Each person (ages 8-15) must manage their list of 4-8 activities by themselves, checking off each activity throughout the day as it is completed. When 5:00pm rolls around, the goal is that each person has finished all that was assigned to them.
In the beginning (as in, until very recently) this was like trying to herd cats on steroids (as my dad would say), especially with the younger kids who generally used to get distracted or were moved to acts of disobedience every 16.45 seconds, but after months (and, for some of them, over two years) of consistent encouragement, fair discipline, modeling by example, dogged persistence, and real-world consequences, by now everyone is well-adjusted to Mom’s terrible habit of expecting everyone to toil upward in the night with her. By some act of divine grace, they’ve recognized that, although in the here-and-now they would rather do as they please, long-term it really is what’s best for them and, as such, they have decided to hop on board willingly with all this crazy business of toiling while just about everyone else they know does the exact opposite.
A couple nights ago 8-year-old Jason, who has been known to be quite the procrastinator and not the best general manager of his time and resources (by golly, he’s only 8!), approached me at 5:00pm as we were all setting the table for dinner and said in a very even, mature tone, although clearly disappointed with himself: “Mom, I need a consequence because I didn’t finish all of my goals on time. I got most of them done, but I’m still working on writing all the times tables from 0-10.”
I squatted down in front of him and said in a very sympathetic tone, “Well, everyone who did finish their goals will get pudding with their dinner and then your Dad and I will watch a movie with them afterward, so your consequence is that you don’t get the pudding and will have to go to bed early instead of watching the movie.” I shrugged innocently and added: “Maybe tomorrow you will manage your time better.”
The consequence seemed clear and fair to him, so he smiled, nodded in agreement, and we continued lightheartedly with the dinner preparations.
The next day he got up early and worked (independently of any adult help or encouragement) more diligently and joyfully than I have ever seen him work, and finished all of his goals not by 5:00pm but by 1:00pm. And, that night, he got his chocolate pudding at dinner and got to watch the movie in addition to having quite a bit of free time in the afternoon to play after having finished his goals!
Something that brings me great joy in a sneaky sort of way is that among the 7th grade students from our local community who study at our home/mission, our eldest daughter, Dayana (15 years old), has quickly and efficiently distinguished herself among them without any conscious effort. The other students are literally astounded by many of her abilities, whether it is the fact that she plays piano quite well and already gives classes, is Darwin’s very capable assistant in the choir and frequently teaches the sopranos by herself, or that she delivered several lethal blows in the class’ first organized debate, speaking with such authority and confidence as if she were already a well-trained lawyer. On the first set of quizzes that rolled around, she was the only student who passed, and right now as we are ending the first grading period, she is the only student who has an ‘A’ average. While others glaze over in Bible study, she participates actively and wisely, and she has to turn away many classmates who seek her help in group projects or homework assignments because she knows they will only distract her.
One day as she and I were discussing the reality of her overwhelming success thus far in our 7th-grade program (which is the first year in high school according to the Honduran system), she laughed earnestly and said, “And I thought I wouldn’t do well in high school!”
I, too, laughed with her, amazed at all the Lord has done with her young life in less than two and a half years of living in our home (after two years of living with a foster mom before us), and I asked with a careful tone: “Do your classmates know that you didn’t enter first grade until you were 11 years old?” Understanding that my goal was not to shame her for the fact that her biological parents never put her in school but rather to point out the impressive fact that all of her academic, musical, and Christ-like developments have been made in four years’ time, she looked over at me with a sly grin and said, “…No.”
Upon hearing her answer I believe I threw my head back and let out a laugh that came rumbling up from my gut. If only they knew: Dayana is not some genius; she has simply mastered the art of toiling upward in the night.
So at 6:30am on any given day as our 26 students (16 in high school and 10 in elementary) come pouring in our front gate, many drawn to those beautiful notes coming from the keyboard just inside the schoolhouse door, eyes wide when they peek their head in and see it is 15-year-old Dayana playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I smile because I know she practiced 2-4 hours every day during her vacations and continues to do so an hour each afternoon after getting out of her academic classes. It’s not luck or some special gifting; she’s a toiler.
Or when 8-year-old Jason’s principal at his private Christian school comments to us with wide, sincere eyes that she is shocked by Jason’s turnaround from a rude, immature student to one of the most well-adjusted, stable students in his class in less than a year’s time, I smile because I know all the toiling upward we’ve done with him while the rest of the world was sleeping.
So Tuesday of this week of vacations each of our kids set about accomplishing the different assignments on their whiteboard, certain activities intended for spiritual or relational growth while other focused on more practical skills such as math, reading and public speaking. It quickly became evident – to my total surprise – that not even one of our kids needed encouragement or redirection because each one was already so joyfully entrenched in their interdisciplinary assignments, so I did something I have literally never done before: with the rain in a constant drizzle outside, lowering the usually hot tropical climate to an almost-nippy cool, I got out a blanket and author Ted Dekker’s new book and curled up on the couch in our living room to read.
You must understand: Darwin and I are typically in constant motion from about 5:00am until about 8:00pm – going to and from the office or school buildings to supervise, teach and counsel, correcting and disciplining so-and-so or attending to such-and-such semi-crisis, talking with him-and-her about their attitudes or going after the lost sheep who stormed out in anger, working on paperwork or accounting, attending to various visitors, etc.
But Tuesday was different. I looked around me, taking in with careful observation all that I saw: Dayana peacefully holed up in the school building, producing beautiful notes from the piano; Sandra in her bedroom, her voice soaring high as she practiced the different choir songs; Jackeline and Jason rather dynamically practicing the times tables with flash cards; Josselyn writing a reflection on what she had read from the book of John; Gleny at our square wooden table a few feet from me, contentedly coloring a large graphic drawing of flowers and such; my husband Darwin finally having 5 seconds of free time to study his English textbooks and audio tapes, his materials spread out as he studied uninterrupted in our dining room; and Josue and Gaby playing with some degree of focus with blocks and stuffed animals on the floor beside me. I assessed and re-assessed the situation, thoroughly convinced that at any moment someone would urgently need me or possibly explode with anger or need to be encouraged to manage their time more wisely, but, despite all odds, each person continued onward in serenity and efficiency, managing themselves with a self-discipline that I had never before seen in such perfect bloom.
Seeing that everything was quite under control, I hesitantly sat down on the couch – a sacred act which does not happen often, as we have the widely-accepted rule that no one can sit on the couch until evening once everyone has bathed and has on clean clothes – with my book in hand, waiting to see what would happen. I tentatively read a few pages, constantly lifting my eyes from the written plot to supervise and verbally encourage/praise the little ones around me, until the daring thought struck me: I think I could actually remove myself from active involvement in this situation and…nothing bad would happen. Cool! I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna get out the blanket, curl up and really relax! Is this possible?! I’m sitting – no, laying! – on the couch at noon! Whoa!
So that day – for the first time that I can recall – I curled up horizontally on our little couch with multi-colored cushions under a big quilt and spent several hours devouring my new book. Yes, Gaby came over more than a dozen times to pat me, sit on me, put her stuffed animal cat in my face and generally try to reel me into her love trap, but the general tranquility and diligence around me continued on unabated the rest of the day as each child/teen reached all of their goals way before the designated hour, and did so with grace. My heart smiled as I reached out in gratitude to our Good Father, thanking him for these seeds of diligence and wisdom that He has planted among us and allowed to begin bearing such fruit.
So in our household, we are learning that it’s not about taking in orphaned and abandoned children and giving them a toothbrush, a safe place to sleep and three square meals a day and assuming we’ve done our job well; it’s about toiling with them upward in the night, taking what was broken, thrown-away and abused and seeking God’s power to transform, renew, and germinate in such a way that we all – Darwin and I included – become increasingly useful instruments in His hands. It’s about throwing aside what eats our time, what only distracts and destroys, and secretly plodding onward toward a new calling, a new Kingdom, while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s about seeking to prepare the little ones one day after the next with such a dogged perseverance that the world may very well call us unrealistic or too demanding, so that they may be found prepared and willing in the hour when He may call and reveal the purpose He has for them.