How "Good Enough" Became Not Good Enough Anymore

 
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Before I actually had kids, I had a fairly long list of things I promised I’d never do as a mom.

I vowed that I’d never allow toy weapons into my home. But I never said anything about bananas, and it turns out that boys will raid even the pantry for anything that remotely resembles a gun. By now I’ve been robbed at fruit-point more times than I can count. Add to that the various plastic swords and lances we’ve amassed over the years – I seriously can’t even remember how – and the “no toy weapon” rule looks a little ridiculous from where I now stand.

Or take wardrobe issues. I never thought I’d let my 4 year old wander through Newark Airport wearing nothing but a dog costume (and not on Halloween). But there are only so many battles you can fight when you’re already late to pick up your niece whose plane just arrived from Duluth, and canine attire is not one of them.

And I never thought I’d send my kids to a private school.

Public school worked well for my siblings and me; I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the academic standards of the non-public schools in our area; I didn’t think we needed a Catholic school to teach our kids the faith; and I didn’t want to spend money on a school when the government conveniently provided one right down the street.

So for nine years we sent the kids to public school, and I don’t regret it for a second. They flourished academically and made a lot of good friends. They didn’t love school, but what kid does? It didn’t light any kind of fire in them, but again, who finds inspiration in elementary or middle school? School was sort of their 8 to 3 job – something they had to do to get to the next step. They enjoyed it just fine when they were there, and didn’t think about it when they weren’t. Unsurprisingly, they dreamed of snow days and couldn’t wait for weekends, but they didn’t dread going either. To me it seemed like a completely natural, if not inevitable, way to go through school. And it was good enough.

Our town’s schools themselves are good ones. In fact, we moved here because they are so well regarded: standardized test scores are well above average and we were persuaded that, as far as public education went, we could not do better. I was never astounded or amazed at what these schools offered, but I was grateful that they adequately got the kids where they needed to be. It was good enough.

And then in 2016 I got wind of a new school in the area. Or, I should say, an old school that had begun to do things a new way. Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Boonton – more than 150 years old – was bringing in a new headmaster, retraining current staff and hiring impressive new recruits, and implementing a new kind of curriculum. I also heard that new families from all over the region were signing up.

At first I ignored this bit of news. It wasn’t my town, wasn’t my parish, and I wasn’t the least bit interested in switching schools. But by some strange twists of fate (or maybe it was a little more providential than that), OLMC kept creeping onto my radar screen, and eventually I couldn’t ignore what was happening over there anymore.

As I learned more about it, here’s what hit me the most: “good enough” wasn’t good enough for OLMC. They had this radical idea that elementary and middle schools aren’t merely compulsory stepping stones to the important step of high school; for them, learning is a thing meant to be loved for its own sake, even for the youngest of minds. It had never occurred to me that the occupational mentality of most other schools might be stunting kids’ intellectual growth, but this new way of looking at the purpose of school started to feel very right.

When I finally went to visit I was still skeptical, but by then at least I was ready to listen. I listened when they said their measure of success is “whether children leave school each day more joyful than when they came.” I listened when they promised me that my kids would excel on standardized tests, but then said that that’s not nearly good enough. And I listened when they said that if a child doesn’t become “enchanted with learning” at OLMC, they believe they have failed her. I listened, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it all.

The high standards everyone at that place puts upon themselves to provide each and every child the very best encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty took my breath away. Their passion for forming the minds, hearts, and souls of children was contagious. And it forced me to answer one question: “good enough” isn’t good enough for this place – so why is it good enough for me?

I finally came to the conclusion that it isn’t. Not when it comes to my kids. So we made the switch. It was like any major transition – fraught with anxiety and second-guessing. But it didn’t take long before my children started proving the OLMC philosophy right. Before, they liked school well enough but it was just their day job; now, they’re downright intoxicated with it. Before, they learned things for tests; now, they learn things for life.

It’s a new way of doing things based on a very old, time-tested approach to education. It’s the right approach: These kids are both outperforming their peers on standardized tests and finding themselves joyful and enchanted with learning. And I’m finding myself astounded and amazed on a daily basis by the opportunity my children have been given. OLMC has raised my standards for what school can and should be. So although I never thought I’d be the kind of mom who sent her children to a classical Catholic school, I’m so very thankful kids have a way of upending even the most settled expectations.