“I wish people would be more blunt with me,” my son said. “What do you mean?” I asked. Michael continued, “If they’re tired of talking with me, I wish they would just say so.”
Subtleties escape many of us, but individuals with significant brain differences seem uniquely prone to missing social nuances. When teaching character formation, how do we sidestep such fads as “social emotional learning” and keep our teaching consistent with our classical Christian heritage?
Just as we teach phonics explicitly and sequentially, so we should nurture moral development intentionally within a classical Christian education. We choose books with classic themes to embolden our clear understanding of good and evil. We use copybooks with words of truth for our children to learn by heart. We teach ancient moral lessons through cherished texts and the Holy Scriptures. We guide our children moment by moment as we teach them to seek ways to help, to love, and to befriend.
Character education is not as complicated as some would lead us to believe. In its essence, the message is this: We each need to be a good, true, noble friend to others. We need to be people who care for others, who sincerely listen, who confront others in love when they need to hear the truth, and who forgive freely. The corollary message is equally simple: We all need a good, true, noble friend. One of my best, truest, and noblest friends has five children. I delight in each of them. The family is a joy to visit—full of good humor, strong in faith, and eager to fill a room with the sound of heartfelt hymns.
I’ve known the middle child, Abram, from the time he was a baby. My daughter Michelle held him in her arms. A few years later we traveled across the country to visit them and found Abram, five years old, sitting atop a stool with small, round glasses slightly askew on his small, round face, pouring over the thickest book of animal facts I had ever seen. He had an earnest countenance and an “old soul.” Little Abram won my heart, as did all of the children over the years. As time wore on, they began to attend college and move away.
Last summer my son Michael and I were attending a classical education conference in Indiana. As I took my place at the lectern to begin my talk in the crowded room I looked around to assess the audience. I spotted Abram. He and his lovely young wife, both now teachers at a classical school in Virginia, were seated near the front of the long tables before me. I smiled. He still wore glasses. I could not help flashing back to the studious little boy from years ago.
After the session, while I visited with various people, Abram and his wife spoke at length with Michael. Abram’s traditional path had included college, marriage, and then pursuing the dreams of a young couple, but such was not Michael’s path. I wondered with some apprehension—as I seem to do involuntarily in such settings—whether the couple would give Michael perfunctory small talk and steal away, or whether the pair would take the time to speak soul-to-soul.
Drawn by conversations elsewhere, I had no ear to their discussions. As someone announced that lunch was forthcoming I moved toward Michael.
I overheard Michael ask Abram and his wife if they could all have lunch together. I found myself wondering what they would say. My husband and I have noticed that we reflexively cringe with worry in such situations.
At that moment the person who had gathered us announced that due to the record attendance we all had a colored dot on our name tags to indicate assigned lunch locations. Abram and his wife checked their name tags: blue dots. Ours were red. This is the sort of moment that can break my heart a thousand times over, as peers sometimes sigh with relief at having a socially acceptable means of escape.
Michael slumped a little and said to Abram with hope in his voice, “Okay. I’ll see you later. It was great talking with you.”
Michael and I found a place together near the back of our crowded, red-designated room. With his tremors, Michael could not carry both his drink and his tray, so he placed his tray at the table where I had taken my seat and made his way toward the front to retrieve his beverage. Above the crowd I heard his familiar voice exclaim, “Abram!”
Carrying his own tray, Abram said to Michael nonchalantly, “I wanted to finish our conversation.” I could not swallow as tears came to my eyes. Abram informed Michael, “I found out that the dots only told us where to pick up our food, not where to eat it.” Off they went to sit together.
Was this an act of Christian charity? Was this a genuine desire to catch up? I cannot know. I only know that this was an act of friendship.
After the meal Abram did not do what so many people do: He did not shoot me a wink, as if attributing the act to condescension. Rather, Abram said to me with characteristic earnestness, “We already own Ticket to Ride, but now I may need to make a more expensive purchase. Michael has sold me on Memoir 44.”
We all left the room together and walked up the crowded stairs to the next event on the schedule. The young men continued chatting about the few things they still had in common, including well-designed board games.
My mind was not on the board games. My mind was on the miraculous, merciful gift of companionship. Companionship surpasses all understanding, as the simplest of gestures bears great impact. In a bustling building, one young man had carried down the hallway a single styrofoam tray on which someone had plopped sausage, green beans, and coleslaw. But he did so much more: Abram sought my son.
Jesus Himself comes to us in our weakness. Jesus seeks us. May we teach our children to be such people, to look for such moments. As we teach them to give and receive friendship with generosity and gladness, may we help them remember that small moments speak deeply. In a loud lunchroom in Indiana, others might not have noticed anything extraordinary. Abram himself likely noticed nothing unusual. But I noticed, because Abram came back.