Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Chapter 6 – Learning about church

School was a half mile walk across the edge of town. We were 25 to 30 in two grades in each classroom, about the same number as for eight grades in the Bishopric school. I settled in, got to know my classmates and continued to get good marks without much effort.

The big change in our life was that we were now attending church. Of the three churches in town two were deemed unsuitable by my Dad, the United and Catholic, so more or less by default we became Anglicans. It didn’t take long to become at home with the rhythm of the services in the Book of Common Prayer. They were saturated with readings from the Bible and passages from the Bible that were spoken in unison or as responsive readings, one line by the minister, the next by the congregation. There were prayers for every situation, old written prayers that were very eloquent and meaningful if one was paying attention. Our lives began to be centred around church and its activities.

The congregation was small, but included a number of children from my class in school. My cousin Ron, 21 years older than me, owned the Red and White grocery store in Craik. Ron and Rose and their son Garry started attending around the same time we did. Mrs. Rutherford, the owner of Craik Realty and Insurance, was always the last person to arrive in church. A short, round lady,, she would march up to the third row from the front, the keys on her belt jangling for all to hear, take her seat, and then the service could begin. Alf Soper, a bachelor and jack of all trades, was another regular. Some folks had concerns about his lifestyle; I was little and didn’t know if the concerns were warranted or not. But he could sing. His deep voice was heard by all and he was always on tune.

The next summer I went to Anglican summer camp on the shore of Mission Lake between Fort Qu’Appelle and Lebret, in the Qu’Appelle Valley. We slept in bunk houses, spent our days learning Pilgrim’s Progress, swimming in the lake and hiking through the hills; in the evenings we all gathered around a campfire for singing and stories and an evening prayer.

I first took note of Norman when the camp leaders led us on a hike to Lebret. He was a quiet boy, walking with us, yet alone. He seemed like the rest of us, except that he could not hold his head up straight. It tilted towards his right shoulder, almost resting on the shoulder. Some of the other boys called him Leadhead.

I didn’t like to hear the other boys making fun of Norman and calling him Leadhead. By the third day I overcame my scruples began to call him that myself.

The morning of the fourth day, I woke up with pain in my neck and shoulder. The pain became excruciating if I tried to straighten my head — overnight, I had become Leadhead II! I went through that day with my head in the same position as Norman’s and got the same unkind remarks from the other boys. Late in the day my muscles began to loosen up and the next morning I could hold my head up with no discomfort.

One would think that such a dramatic lesson in the Golden Rule would be unforgettable. I have found that there is a difference between remembering the lesson and learning the lesson.

The next winter the minister announced he would teach catechism classes for those who wanted to be confirmed. I had no idea what that meant, but my father enrolled me and four other fathers enrolled their sons. Once a week, we five boys walked to the minister’s house after school and studied the Anglican catechism, writing the answers to the questions in a notebook. Sort of a crash course in systematic theology for eleven year old boys. Some of it stuck.

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Chapter 4 – Scenes from my childhood

I was three and a half years old the first time my parents moved. In the house we were leaving there was a telephone at the bottom of the stairs near the front door. It was on a party line rural phone system and I believe I had been frightened by this box on the wall that would suddenly make a loud ringing noise and sometimes my parents would feel summoned to go and talk into it and other times they would ignore it. This day I caught on that the box was no  longer a threat. I pulled a chair over to the phone, stood on it, picked up the receiver, turned the crank and began chattering into it. My parents had to drag me away when it was time to leave.

Dad had sold his homestead farm just south of the western end of Old Wives Lake and bought another farm just past the east end of the lake. Memories of early childhood are tricky – it is not easy to separate what I remember from what I have been told so many times that I think I remember it. I believe there is a fuzzy memory of the ride to our new home that is genuine and that I was told later that our family vehicle at that time was a 30’s era Buick sedan, chopped off behind the front seat and converted into a pickup.

One day the next spring, when my mother was planting the garden and I was lying in the shade of a spreading maple tree, the breeze carried a sweet scent such as I had never known before. I searched for its source and found a patch of flowers with delicate petals having rings of pastel colours. I knelt on the ground and leaned close to breathe in the fragrance and the intricate beauty of the flowers. Then I ran to ask my mother what they could be. She called them Sweet Williams.

C. S. Lewis wrote that such memories are given by God to make us homesick for heaven. Certainly my childish wonder at the beauty of the flowers and their perfume has not been repeated in this life.

When I was four our dog Penny would not let me walk to the barn. Whichever way I turned to get around him,he would always be in front of me. I think I cried in frustration and my mother came to my rescue and explained that it wasn’t safe for me to go out among the cattle.

Penny was a black and white land race collie and every farm seemed to have one. He was as big as I was and a gentle protector. Many years later my mother said that whenever she wanted to apply some discipline to me she had to ensure that there was a closed door between us and Penny.

A couple of years later I started school, walking a mile each way along the fence line into the little village of Bishopric to attend a one room school. Bishopric was a company town, all the houses, the school, the store and the railway station were built of brick and owned by the company that operated the Sodium Sulphate plant.

We lived in an area of rolling hills that rise up from the plains a few miles south of Moose Jaw and extend to the US border, known as the Coteau Hills or the Missouri Coteau. The buffalo wintered here years ago, drawing Lakota, Nakota and Cree hunters and later Métis.

Not far from us there was a little town called Ardill located on the side of a steep hill. One of the members of the crew who built the road up this hill was an Englishman who dropped his h’s. He called it an ‘ard ‘ill and the name stuck. One winter day we were trying to get to Mossbank and the hill was icy. We got about two thirds of the way up and lost traction. The truck began to slowly slide backwards, edging ever closer to the ditch, then gently laid over on its side in the snow. Dad helped my mother and me climb out the driver’s door and we walked a mile back to the nearest farm, where our relatives Ed and Julia Ludke lived. Ed and Dad went out with the tractor and righted the pickup and got it turned around.

There were no churches nearby. We once attended a service held in a country school house. My Dad must not have approved of the preacher, for we never went again. I don’t think we had family devotions in those first years. As soon as I could write, my parents enrolled me in Sunday School by correspondence and I dutifully did my lesson every week and sent it in. That was my introduction to the stories and themes of the Bible.

Chapter 2 – Alphabet blocks

I found the wooden alphabet block with the letter N and added it to the row that was beginning to spell my name — R O B E R T G O O D N . . . Now I needed one more O. I carefully rotated each of the blocks I had not used, but could not find another O. This was a familiar problem; there are just too many O’s in my name. Now I had to take the blocks I had already used, rotate them one by one to find another O, then find a block with the letter I had taken away. Finally it is done: R O B E R T G O O D N O U G H.

I was four years old and this set of blocks was my favourite toy. With it I could build fences, walls, barns, houses, towers. When night came, I gathered them all into the wooden box with wooden wheels and put them away for another day.

One day, I don’t remember when, my mother began to explain the meaning of the mysterious symbols on the blocks. She showed me how to spell words like M O M, D A D, C A T, D O G and then how to spell my name. Soon I began to sound out words I saw in other places and found that there was no end of things to read. My cousin Julia, 18 years older than me, had once been a teacher. She noted my love for words and began bringing me little books each time she and her husband made a trip to Moose Jaw.

The day that I began school, my mother went with me and informed the teacher, “Robert can read.” The teacher was sceptical; she stuck a newspaper in front of me and said: “Read.” I read it aloud, smoothly, pronouncing the words correctly, though I may not have understood all that the news story was about. Thus I began Grade 1, and was introduced to the mindless Dick and Jane books: “SEE SPOT. SEE SPOT RUN.” Not very interesting to someone who was way beyond that at home. After Christmas, I was in Grade 2.

How did it happen that I was already a fluent reader the day I started school? It never seemed like my mother was trying to teach me to read. Outdoors, I had a trike, a wagon and a whole big yard to explore. Indoors, my set of blocks was my multipurpose toy kit, useful for most anything my fertile imagination could dream up. The incident in the first paragraph is one of my earliest memories and it was oft repeated as I learned the sounds of letters. My mother did just enough to pique my curiosity, then forever after had to answer my questions.

My mother was my first and best teacher. Yet she had known only Plautdietsch until the day she started school. For six years she attended a one-room school run by the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church, spending equal time learning German and English. In 1920 the Saskatchewan government decided that all private schools would be closed. When Mom went to enroll in the public school that fall, they told her she would have to begin the sixth grade again. Her father decided that if that was the case, she didn’t need to go to school anymore. Despite having only six years of formal education, my mother was in many ways better educated than my father, who had considerably more schooling and whose mother tongue was English.

The explanation for my mother’s learning achievements lies in her physical handicap, her father’s disability and the special relationship between them. My grandfather was blind. Glaucoma had robbed him of much of his vision in his youth and he later became almost totally blind. He still ran a farm and raised fourteen healthy children.
My mother was number six and she was born with congenital hip dysplasia. Nowadays, this condition can be corrected in newborns without surgery. A hundred years ago, doctors didn’t know what her problem was. They thought she had a back problem, as that was where she had pain, but had no idea how to treat it. One day, long after I was grown up, she told me that she had never walked without pain. I thought back to the times that she would play ball with me, even run foot races with me and wondered if a mother’s love had eased the pain.

Because of his blindness, my grandfather needed help, and who was more able and ready to help him than this daughter who didn’t get around as easily or as fast as his other children? She read to him, letters, farm papers, books, whatever he needed or whatever interested him. She helped him with managing the business side of the farm, helping with correspondence and learning how to manage money. If her parents went away for a Sunday dinner and she stayed home, as soon as her parents came home her father would want to know what she had been reading. He would ask her to retell the whole story that she had read.

A large, well-used English dictionary was one of her prized possessions. She studied it assiduously, looking up every new word she found, learning its meaning and how to use it. Her brothers and sisters would tell her that she had swallowed the dictionary. She spoke clear, unaccented, grammatically correct English.

My parents’ home contained hundreds of books, the legacy of my father’s parents and of his brother who had abandoned the prairies for British Columbia. With a mother like this, and a house full of old, well-written books, how could I help but become a serious reader and a lover of good books?

Cloud based writing

One morning almost 60 years ago I entered a classroom to write my Grade 11 Composition final exam. I breezed through the first few pages, confident that I understood English grammar. The last page stopped me cold. It called for an essay on one of the topics in a long list. None of those topics stirred the slightest interest in my mind.

I glanced out the window. It was a glorious June day with puffy cumulus clouds drifting across the sky. I would rather have been outside, but I was stuck in that desk until I wrote the essay, or ran out of time.

Watching the clouds had a calmchild-830988_640ing effect. I saw a sheep being chased by a dragon. As I watched, the shapes slowly shifted and suddenly it was a Spanish galleon sailing through the skies. Cloud followed cloud and each one took on a recognizable shape then slowly morphed into something different.

Somebody coughed and with a jolt my mind came back into the room. The clock was ticking and the page in front of me was still blank. The list of topics was as uninspiring as ever.

Then inspiration struck: why not write about the things I had been seeing in the sky? I picked one of the topics that more or less fit and filled the page with my imagination. I handed my paper in and went outside into the sunshine.

I received full marks for that essay, 95% on the whole exam. Years later, I read in Writers’ Digest that a writer is doing the most real work when he is staring out the window. When he takes a pen in his hand or sits down at the keyboard that is just clerical work. I felt vindicated.

I still plot my stories and articles the way I did that long ago day in June. Only now the shapes I see are in my mind, not out the window. Clouds, people, ideas, arguments, incidents imagined or real, go drifting across my mind, often changing shape and becoming something totally different from the original idea. Some drift away, never to return. Some will drift through my mind for days, weeks, months, even years, before I put anything down on paper.

Sometimes I will think of a title and write it down. I might even write a list of words under the title, or a sentence or two. I have no idea how or where those words will appear in what I plan to write, but I think they will fit somewhere. Usually they do, but sometimes the whole shape of the story changes before I get it written.

I believe those idea clouds drifting through my mind are inspirations from the Holy Spirit. At least the ones that keep coming back. The changing shapes are the Spirit refining my perception so that I can understand how to put those ideas on paper so others can see what I am seeing.

Writers tend to classify themselves as either outliners or pantsers. An outliner has the whole plot down on paper before she starts – complete with descriptions of the characters, the main incidents and the conclusion. Pantsers start with an idea and proceed “by the seat of their pants” without a predetermined idea of where this is going to lead or what will happen along the way. Which category do I fall into? I don’t really know. I prefer to think of myself as a cloud-based plotter.

Matthew Effects in Learning

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29).

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a study entitled Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. The “Matthew Effects” in the title came from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

The study showed that students who, at an early stage, gained a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet progressed rapidly in learning. Those who do not rapidly develop an awareness of the spelling to sound correlation will fall farther and farther behind in subsequent years.

This concept of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) is easily taught to young children, but our public school systems are not doing it. Instead, for at least 70 years now they have been experimenting with other methods of teaching reading. The result is that about 1/3 of children quickly make the letter-sound connection on their own, another 1/3 will struggle at first but eventually get it and the other 1/3 will be labelled learning disabled. I believe a large percentage of learning disabilities are created by inadequate teaching.

Since reading skills are the essential tool for learning everything else that a child will encounter in school, those with poor reading skills fall farther and farther behind as they progress through the school system.

This is a perfect example of the quote in my last post: “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.”

What we need is a more flexible system that is focussed on results. In both learning to read and in learning basic math skills, a child needs to master one set of skills before being pushed on to the next level. This concept of teaching for mastery in the basic skills has long been absent from the public school system

If this sounds like an argument for home schooling, or the old-fashioned one-room school, well, yes, I believe that they are more successful models for results-oriented learning. In any case, parents need to overcome their sense of intimidation by the big school machine and be much more involved in their child’s learning, especially in the beginning stages.

Putting away childish things

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Does this mean that grownups should not play games? My father hardly ever seemed to have the time to play games with me, but my mother would take the time to play catch, to run races, to play croquet, and probably other things that i can’t remember just now. Those are precious memories and I think they should be part of every child’s growing up. Children need these kinds of exercises to acquire coordination and fine motor skills, but playing games with parents should also teach them how to play fair and be considerate of others.

In sports, boys will strive with all their might to outdo each other, yet still be friends after the game. Girls do not tend to be so intensely competitive in games between friends. The desire to show off, to demonstrate superiority over others, is childish and needs to be put away as one matures.

Which brings me to the baseball game at our recent school picnic. The picnic, or play day, is the traditional way of ending the school year in the school run by our congregation. There were various activities going on around the school yard for children of all ages, but the ball game was the main attraction. The two teams were made up of boys and girls, fathers and mothers, and even a grandfather and grandmother. The ages ranged from 12 to 62.

The aim was for everyone to have fun. There were power hitters and some who could just hit the ball a little way on the ground. Some could run fast, one or two couldn’t get up much speed. There were some outstanding catches in the outfield, and a lot of misses and dropped balls. The pitchers were not all that outstanding. Score was being kept, but I don’t think anyone really cared. One girl was thrown out at first, yet still allowed to run the bases. There were lots of cheers and not a single jeer.

I don’t think there is anything childish about such a game.

No fault parenting versus no excuse parenting

This is a story of two young boys. The first came from a stable, two parent family; the second from a home where the father had left for parts unknown. Boy Number 1 has an advantage, don’t you think? Well, let’s see.

Boy Number 1 takes a jackknife to school one day, the teacher sees him playing with it and confiscates it. The next day, Dad, who happens to be a police officer, comes storming into school and threatens criminal charges if the knife isn’t returned. The teacher meekly returns the knife.

Boy Number 2, who tends to be hyperactive, acts up a little too much on the school bus and the driver makes it known that he cannot ride the bus until he promises to stop being so disruptive. Mom could have cried discrimination because of her son’s ADHD, or she could have simply decided to drive him to school herself. She did neither; she told her son: “I guess this means you’re walking to school from now on.”

The next day she got him ready early enough to walk the two miles and get to school on time. She walked with him and walked home with him at the end of the school day. The next morning they walked to school again. Then she asked, “Do you want to walk home again this afternoon?” “No,” he replied, “I think I’ve learned my lesson.”

Some years have passed. At last report, Boy Number 1 is in prison. Boy Number 2 has learned a trade and is doing just fine..

Winter travels

Our fall was much warmer than usual, but now it has turned cold and every once in a while we get a little skiff of snow. There is just enough to cover the ground this morning and most of it could disappear if we get a sunny day or two. Nevertheless, this is the beginning of winter here on the flatlands.

Winter was much more formidable when I was a small boy. Formidable for the adults at least, since there was no machinery to keep the country roads open. Even our driveway filled up with deep snowbanks, due to the thick windbreak of trees between us and the road.

The only way to get anywhere was to walk, or hitch up the team of horses to the sleigh and go around the trees and across the fields. We had heavy horsehide robes to place over our laps and my mother often heated stones in the oven to place on the floor of the sleigh to help keep us warm.

I had a one mile walk across country to get to school. I remember one winter morning, I think I was eight years old. It was bitterly cold and there was five feet of snow in the driveway. Dad had the sleigh hitched up and ready to go as soon as I was finished breakfast. Mom fixed my lunch and I dressed up warmly, climbed into the sleigh, pulled the horsehide robe up over my knees and we were off . The sun was just coming up and it seemed that every snowflake over the whole landscape sparkled like a diamond in the light.

We got to school on time, but no one else was there. I was confused at first, then a little spark of memory lit up.

“Umm, Dad, I guess I forgot. Today is a holiday.”

The ride home was very quiet.

I guess I’ve always been absent-minded. This incident is still clear in my memory. The time was probably February of 1950 and the holiday would have been due to a teachers’ convention. Dad may have been upset, but he never scolded me.

Learning the wrong lesson

Nelson was born with the umbilical cord around his neck, causing oxygen starvation to his brain. He was slower in learning during the early years of childhood and his parents were encouraged to place him in a school for children with special needs.

The parents were disappointed with the results, or rather the lack of results, in this school. They believed Nelson was capable of doing better. They approached the school board of their congregation and they agreed to accept Nelson in the school. They placed him in a classroom with three children in another grade to give the teacher more time to work with Nelson.

The teacher of that class got a marriage proposal during the Christmas holidays and promptly resigned. That was when our daughter got a call. She had taken a break from teaching because of voice problems, but felt she was able to teach again. So off she went to a congregation a thousand miles away.

She noticed that Nelson would often let his eyes roll up, his head hang down, his mouth hang open and begin to drool on his desk. I don’t know just what she saw that told her it was an act, but she realized that Nelson was just acting stupid to get out of doing his schoolwork. She decided that if he was smart enough to put on an act like that, he was smart enough to learn.

She didn’t let him get away with acting stupid any more and he began to learn. He was a little slower than others his age, but he did go on to finish school. I heard later that he got converted and was baptized.

Nelson learned this little act in the special needs school and found that it got him out of having to do much work in school. I’m not intending to bash the teachers in that school, or to heap praise on my daughter. (Though I’ve often wondered how it came to be that I raised a daughter who was so much sharper than her Dad.)

I’m just telling this as a cautionary tale. Our children, whether it be at home or at school, learn a lot of other things than the things we are trying to teach them. Most of their learning is from example and observation, and that is completely normal. But we need to be alert enough to see when they are learning something that is the direct opposite of what we think we are teaching.

If that happens, it usually means that there is something that we haven’t learned as well as we thought we had. Raising children is quite a learning experience for the parents.

Don’t tell your Mom

The teacher told her class: “Your parents probably won’t understand what we’ve been talking about, so it would be better if you didn’t tell them about it.” One of the students in that class was the teenaged daughter of a co-worker. I could tell that her Mom was not impressed when she talked about it at work the next day. But what could she do? She was already doing one of the best things she could in such circumstances: the mother-daughter relationship was so strong that the daughter couldn’t imagine not talking to her Mom about things that troubled her at school.

That was more than 20 years ago. Nowadays we talk about “helicopter mothers” who hover around their children to protect them from bad things that might happen on the way to and from school, or on the playground. Others are convinced that the greatest danger is what goes on inside the classroom and have opted for other methods of teaching their children.

One alternative that is growing in popularity is for parents to teach their children at home. Many other parents are concerned about what their children are learning, and not learning, in school, but they can’t imagine that home-schooling would provide the education their children need. In addition, the time and effort that would be needed appear to be impossible for ordinary humans.

Would it be too strong to say that such parents have been brainwashed? From the beginning of the public schools, it has been the explicit goal of the educational establishment to convince parents that they are incompetent to teach their children. It took more than 100 years, but they have largely succeeded. And children are learning less and less all the time.

This quote from a study by the Fraser Institute blows the cover off the supposed superiority of public schools:

“Surprisingly, several studies have found that home education may help eliminate the potential negative effects of certain sociol-economic factors. Though children whose parents have university degrees score higher on tests of academic achievement than other home schooled children, home education appears to mitigate the harmful effects of low parental education levels. That is, public schools seem to educate children of poorly educated parents worse than do the poorly educated parents themselves. One study found that students taught at home by mothers who had never finished high school scored a full 55 percentile points higher than public school students from parents with comparable education levels.”1

Some exceptional teachers have inspired children from disadvantaged homes to accomplish great things. Such teachers do exist, but they are not the norm. The primary responsibility for instilling a desire to learn in children rests with their parents. They are also in the best position to teach proper conduct and respect for others.

Congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, of which I am a member, have chosen to operate private schools for their children. The key to the successful functioning of these schools is for parents to be parents — to be actively involved in their children’s lives and be the primary teachers of moral, social and spiritual values.

The long and short of it is that, despite the noise from the public system, parents are more qualified to teach their children than any professional teacher. Whatever form of education parents choose for their children, if certain foundational principles have not been taught in the home, the teacher has little to build upon.

1 Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream, published 2007 by the Fraser Institute,Vancouver, BC, Canada. The Fraser Institute is an independent research and educational organization founded in 1974. The Fraser Institute does not accept grants from government or contracts for research.

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