What impact can the Caldwell experience have on non-students? How does the school's classical Christian community affect people like parents, teachers, and staff?
After over two decades as part of the Caldwell community, Rhetoric Student Affairs Coordinator and Caldwell parent Polly Wierda is stepping away. Her three sons have graduated from the school, most recently Mason, part of Caldwell's Class of 2022. As she reflects on her time here, she notes her boys were not the only ones to receive an education at Caldwell.
Twenty-one years ago I walked into the Founder’s Hall Gym holding my oldest son’s tiny hand. He and I both took in the scene with nervous eyes. I slowly let go of his hand with a kiss and a tear so he could make his way to the front where his new kindergarten teacher and new friends waited with open arms to welcome him to his first day of school at Caldwell Academy. Last week I watched my youngest son, with his lifelong friends and classmates, walk across the stage to shake the hand of our head of school, hug his principal, and receive his Caldwell diploma.
In the time between those two events, our family grew up at Caldwell. Two of my sons were born during this time. I changed diapers in the parking lot. We endured the fearful days of 9/11. I watched my preschool sons whirl lightsabers around the sidewalk in Star Wars costumes as we waited for their brother in the carpool line. We made friends. We watched new buildings, new fields, courtyards, and playgrounds change Caldwell’s landscape. We saw teachers, administrators, and staff come and go. We danced, traveled on field trips, did projects, prayed, learned, and laughed. We mourned the deaths of students, parents, and friends in our community. We slogged through COVID-19. We celebrated weddings, babies, college acceptances, state championships, and victories big and small. My little boys became grown men. I spent 13 years working in the Rhetoric School and had the joy of knowing so many amazing students as they launched into adulthood, careers, and parenthood.
While my children were growing up at Caldwell I also had some growing up to do. Nothing has brought me more joy or laughter than parenting my three children but the lessons I learned growing up at Caldwell came with many mistakes, sleepless nights, and prayers. My husband used to say, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” I discovered my parenting had to change and adapt as my kids grew and changed. The kids and the world got more complicated. My idealistic ideas about how my kids would never spend too much time on video games and eat green vegetables every day seemed less important as they encountered bigger issues in adolescence. Teaching them had to give way to more listening and learning about their world. Instead of handling everything for them, I had to let them do things on their own, even if they failed.
In 2002 I attended the kindergarten Mother’s Day luncheon where my son’s teacher shared some thoughts that stuck with me. Her pastor preached about five things we can not give our children, but I only remember these three. Recognizing that much of my stress and worry came from desperately trying to achieve these impossible goals, I had to learn to trust God’s plan for my kids and not my own. Here are a few things I learned.
We can not make a perfect world for our kids. We can send them to the best schools, insulate them from the news, and teach them God’s ways, but until heaven comes, the world is broken. I don’t like to use the word “sin” because it tends to offend some people but whatever you choose to call it, you do not have to look far to see human nature is flawed. Good people do bad things. War and violence are a reality, and so are poverty, racism, and many other things not found on Dora the Explorer or Bubble Guppies.
Sheltering and protecting my kids when they were young was important but they do not stay young forever! Even in the few years between the time my eldest and middle sons were teenagers, the parenting world changed rapidly. With the explosion of mobile phones, everything was suddenly at their fingertips. Once on a particularly stressful parenting day, my oldest son, who was home from college, gave me a piece of wisdom. He said, “Mom, you can’t keep the world from them (his brothers). You have to teach them how to swim in it.” So true. It was scary, but eventually I lhad to learn to let the life rope out a little bit and give them room to become stronger swimmers.
We can not make our kids perfect. Sometimes I lived (and still live!) under the illusion that if I did everything right as a parent, taught my kids to behave, be respectful, and do their chores and homework, then they would always behave, be respectful, and work hard. If I prayed for and with them, took them to church, surrounded them with Christian friends, and never missed an event, they would always believe in God's love. If I didn’t let them watch junk on TV or hang out with people who did, they would never do anything wrong or make bad choices.
Yet, the Bible says we all fall short of the glory of God. While I do not have trouble believing this about myself (I know what’s in my heart!), it’s a stretch for me to believe this about my kids. They were so cute and innocent when they were little! I was so proud of them as they grew. It was hard to imagine any flaw lurking behind those precious faces. My husband and I often joked when we were frustrated with our kids’ behavior, “Why can’t they be perfect like us?” It’s only funny because we know how ridiculous that is. God’s grace is not for the perfect, because it would be for no one. We learned to give up our attempts to make our kids flawless. Instead, we try to teach our kids to be real, to recognize when they’re wrong, to say they’re sorry, and to trust their Savior for forgiveness.
We can not kiss away all of their hurts. Perhaps you can relate to this scenario. Our screaming two-year-old bumps his elbow, with no blood. Somehow a Band-Aid and a kiss magically healed it on the spot. I wish that were always true.
Our kids experience pain and loss just like us. Sometimes they are left out of the birthday party, experience injuries, and people are mean to them. They get cut from the team, lose the state championship, or do not get into their dream college. Someone might break up with them. Some of our kids will experience heartache even worse than that.
I learned that a world where bandaids and kisses heals all wounds is make-believe. I couldn’t fix everything, but I could be there. I often think of this dialogue from Winnie the Pooh:
The wise and compassionate Piglet once asked his friend, “Pooh?”
“Yes, Piglet?” Pooh asked.
“Nothing,” said Piglet. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
There are times when the best gift my husband and I can give our kids is to just be there. Sometimes they don’t want us to speak, to offer a solution, a Band-Aid, or a kiss. We just sit and hurt with them, trusting God who works all things together for good to heal and bring comfort in His time.
As you walk through the halls of Caldwell you almost always see children of all ages smiling and laughing. It’s a happy place to grow up. My children received an excellent education here, but the real reason our family stayed so many years was we knew that our kids were loved by teachers who also loved God and that was enough for us. Was it perfect? No. There are no perfect Christians, ministries, churches, or schools. I have learned no amount of moral teaching, mentoring, or modeling from Caldwell (or anywhere else!) can make perfect children or parents. But I found teachers and friends who pointed me and my children to our loving Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever no matter how the world and our families grow and change.
I’m still growing up, learning new things as a child of God, and as a parent. While I’m excited to close this chapter and see what God has next, I will miss my Caldwell family and am grateful for our time in this special community.