May I share a story? I've used this story several times over the years in small settings, so some of you have heard it. But it's a true story and it remains a vivid memory.
When we first moved into this house, I was preparing to homeschool Isaac for the first time. I had recently discovered classical education, Charlotte Mason, the great outdoors, character development, habit training, all that good stuff I must have posted about every day. I had struggled so much with being a mom that Charlotte Mason was truly the turning point for me in feeling like I had a vocation and that it was beautiful and that there was so much potential in teaching children and raising good kids with wisdom and wonder.
So, we moved into this house and at the time a family lived behind us with a girl Isaac's age who presented an almost immediate problem. She and Joy became great friends, but this girl was a "bad influence." She cursed, she introduced them to things they hadn't ever heard of. She caused a lot of conflict as Joy and her teamed up against Isaac and created drama. One time I had to bring the kids in and she stood at our backyard fence screaming and crying that the kids hated her. I was really frustrated as we had moved to the house from an apartment and I was looking forward to having our fenced-in backyard for easy nature time. But every time we went outside, she came to join us and disrupted any opportunity for us just to do nothing outside but enjoy it and observe and do all of the wholesome things I wanted for our family.
Her parents were divorced and she had a difficult home life from the things she described. It's embarrassing to admit that I really, really did not like her as much as I did at that time. But there was also part of me that felt very sorry for her and knew I could try to help.
Being so new at mothering and homeschooling, I turned to a group of women I respected and admired, told them my dilemma, my torn perspectives, and I will never forget their advice because I took it.
Unanimously, they said I needed to protect and prioritize my children. Play in the front yard. Keep them away from her as much as possible. Supervise when she was outside. The emphasis was that this was an incredibly impressionable time in my children's life and that this was the time for us to be building that foundation of habits and goodness, and that they would soak up her attitude and habits if I wasn't intentional.
I can't remember if this next memory was before or after I sought the advice, but there was one day I managed to set aside my resentment when she came over. I cut up some fruit. I pulled out some of our favorite books. We all sat in our backyard at the picnic table and I read 'Blueberries for Sal.' She sat next to me and laid her head on my shoulder and was quiet, listening to the book. And this is typically the part where I cry telling this story because it is one of my greatest regrets that I ultimately followed the advice to protect my children and keep her at a distance. Her family moved away shortly after, and I never did develop a relationship with her.
And sometimes I think of sitting there with her. Bringing her into our family habits. Sharing goodness with her. And in hindsight it is so very clear. She was hurting. Her home life was stressful and traumatic. Her behaviors were to be expected in that context. What a terribly wasted opportunity. I didn't have my life together by any means, but I did have something to offer her. Fruit. Books. Stories. Love. Understanding. Friendship. Inclusion. Psychologically, I know that makes all the difference for kids in difficult situations. For humans who are struggling.
I will never forget the lesson I learned, and I've tried to make it up ever since. My kids play every day with their other neighborhood friends who have went on to tell them things that are 1000x worse than what that girl ever said. And you know how I know that? Because they talk to me about it. And we laugh about it and then we have hard conversations about it. And sometimes I'm shocked how comfortable they are telling me things. And I'm so thankful. Over and over again I emphasize: love them. Difficult kids in class? They might be having a difficult time at home. They need love and friendship. Even when everyone else makes fun of them or thinks they're weird.
But you know why I think of this story most often? It's not because of my kids. It's because of myself and the adults I know. Because sometimes we don't learn this lesson. We see adults who are "bad influences". Who require effort and forgiveness and understanding. And we exclude. Oh man. Do we exclude. We insulate. We judge. We would never. And we don't want to surround ourselves with sketchy people. It's easier to stand back and make judgments than get our hands dirty.
Sometimes it comes from a good place: you want to improve yourself. So you look to surround yourself with people who are further up the ladder, not lower. And when you're in the midst of it, it seems like the right thing, maybe the godly thing to do. But the divine is paradoxical. The divine descends to the lowest places. To the hurt and the pain. And guess what? Hurt and pain? It almost never manifests in a way that is pleasant or proper. It can look like bitterness and weakness and profanity and rage. And that's where the greatest love is needed. That's where friendship is needed. Not even just "let me help you", from a place of superiority. But a "let me love you" because we are the same. We are human. And if I were in your exact shoes, I would be exactly you. And I would want someone to see me. And tell me I'm worth knowing. Worth loving. Worth sharing this world with.