This Lent began more or less as usual: piling pajamaed children into the pew on Wednesday evening for the imposition of ashes. Like every year, one child rolled on the floor under the pew while another needed to use the bathroom during the prayers. A third suffered greatly after refusing to wear a coat. After the service ended, instead of processing out in worshipful silence, I remained in the pew, gathering the impressive amount of crayon and paper shrapnel that we were able to generate in a little over an hour. What distinguished this service from prior Ash Wednesdays was a new connection between ash and renewal, between word and deed. The ash from last year’s palm crosses marked my head, reminding me that I am from dust, and to dust I shall return. These ashes are a visible mark that I am not too great to bend and gather crayon shrapnel. It is a small, holy act of faithfulness.
The words of Athanasius helped to lay the foundation for this shift. This past Advent, I began reading small portions of On the Incarnation to my eight and ten-year-old boys each day. Earlier in the school year, after many weeks of studying the Gospel of John, they informed me that Jesus was not really a man. “I mean, He was kind of a man. Sort of. He looked like a man. But He wasn’t really.” Shocked, I launched into a discourse on hypostasis then added Athanasius to our morning lineup.
Pondering their confusion over Christ made man, I had come to the conclusion that the source of their disbelief was neither intellectual nor imaginative. In the mess of a Monday morning, I was struck by a similar dissonance as I read, “The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning.” There it was: my inability to reconcile the renewal of creation in the world of the everyday. The Word, through Whom the whole world was made, embraced Earth, choosing a body subject to human infirmities. While working an unremarkable job as a carpenter, He grew in wisdom, stature, and favor. When I despise the day of small things, despise the very same humanity that Christ embraced, how can I point the way for my students to God Incarnate?
As a mother and educator, I wonder how my resistance to ordinary work has modeled disbelief in Christ’s humanity. I despise the ordinary; I am driven and goal-oriented. I want every morning run to be a personal record and every cooked meal to be restaurant quality. This is even more true in my career as an educator. Desiring extra-ordinariness was part of the initial appeal of classical education; like every other classical educator that I have met, I am an idealist. But the pursuit of wisdom and virtue is through much ordinary work. To create a dichotomy between the ideal and the ordinary is to build a pedagogy on a fractured foundation.
Ordinary work is the way of learning. This does not mean “do nothing fun or special.” Instead, it means usual and well-ordered. In the years since my move from classroom to homeschool room, my perspective on classical pedagogy has slowly transformed. My focus has shifted to daily faithfulness towards longer-term goals then I can achieve in a school year. The long, rigorous lessons I once thought necessary have proved to be less productive than short, faithful, well-ordered work. I have seen my loaves and fishes multiply by applying Charlotte Mason’s principle of short, frequent lessons coupled with the requirement of sustained attention. For example, in five to ten minutes of attentive copy work each day, I have seen rapid and dramatic progress both in my son with naturally beautiful writing and in my son with less natural dexterity.
Consider, for instance, an “ordinary work” approach to poetry. I could put together an inventive, thirty-minute poetry lesson designed to cultivate appreciation in young boys for poetry. It would be ill-conceived and fail because that is not how young boys learn to love poetry. I could then walk away believing the failure to be my sons’ lack of motivation and desire. Alternatively, I could read one poem a day. One. One hundred eighty poems in a school year (or ninety if one loses the poetry book under the couch fifty percent of the time). This is our approach (one a day except when I lose the poetry book). Sometimes we talk about them, sometimes we do not. Sometimes we like them, sometimes we do not. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they complain. This does not seem transcendent, but their hearts are being cultivated to attend to language and to beauty. It is easy to skip because you are short on time or tired or it just seems small, but that daily choice is the difference between a heart that is formed through poetry or one that is not.
Ordinary work is not just the way of learning; it is the way of wonder. Five to ten minutes a day with Athanasius has begun to shape my heart. Hoping to be a model of faithfulness, I scan my lesson plans for areas in which my longing for the ideal has prevented ordinary work. For months I have avoided a weekly nature walk, always waiting for a time in which we can hike for hours, thoughtfully discussing well-crafted object lessons. This time, of course, must culminate with a watercolor session en Plein air, all with my four-year-old daughter in tow. Because I expect the exceptional, these nature walks never happen. Instead, this afternoon we just go to the woods. We drive to our nearby park for a simple, thirty-minute walk. In this, we find wonder, resplendent beauty which I could not have scheduled. We find a trail of blue jay tail feathers that my boys gather for their feather collection, and we wonder why they are there. I marvel at the unfurling deep burgundy blooms of the trillium species that only grows in our county. The dappled afternoon light sifts through the unfolding new foliage, treetops awake. In this hardwood forest, we do not find Wendell Berry’s heron or wood drake, but we do rest in the grace of an ordinary afternoon, and we are free.