The Door in the Wall is a slim work of children’s literature that welcomes a student into the world of the Middle Ages, enchants his imagination, and shares a poetic knowledge of life itself. More than this, the little book also embraces all that we hold true in Simply Classical by helping us as parents and teachers see what is needful in education.
This humble story begins with a ten-year-old boy in dire circumstances: Robin’s father, a strong and noble knight, has been called to war, his mother has been called to serve the Queen as a lady in waiting, and after their departures Robin himself fell very ill and is now unable to move his legs, becoming bedridden and sullen. To make matters even worse, the servants assigned to care for Robin have all either scattered due to his surliness or have died of the plague. Robin’s insolence soon turns to dread and hungry loneliness. Brother Luke, a wandering friar, happens by, learns of Robin’s lot, and brings him food. In earlier days Robin would have cast the offering against the wall with a broad show of disgust, but in this moment he eats what Brother Luke gives him.
The friar tells Robin that together they will travel to his quarters at St. Mark’s, where the friar will care for the boy himself. Robin responds with doubt. “‘See you, my two legs are as useless as if they were logs of wood. How shall I go there?'”
Brother Luke uses this as an opportunity to teach Robin greater lessons. He references something familiar to Robin: “‘Dost remember the long wall that is about the garden of thy father’s house?'” Robin replies, “‘Yes, of course. Why?'” The friar continues, “‘Dost remember, too, the wall about the Tower or any other wall?'” Robin nods. “‘Have they not all a door somewhere?'” The friar continues with conviction, “‘Always remember that. Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.'” Robin promises that he will remember, though he is not entirely certain he knows what Brother Luke is trying to tell him. As the story continues, Brother Luke continues to teach Robin many things, including carpentry. “‘Remember, even thy crutches can be a door in a wall.'”
Years ago, over the course of several evenings I had slipped away early to read this unassuming little children’s book, marveling at its reflection of all that we believe and teach within Simply Classical. “Each day,” I read, “Robin grew stronger, and could work longer before resting.” With admiration I watched as the author described a well-rounded, nurturing instruction that is at once spiritual, physical, and intellectual, just as we wish classical Christian education to be.
Robin is taken to Vespers and shown the written psalteries, is given therapeutic massage and physical tasks to perform, and is taught letters to enable him to read and write. He joins in swimming with other boys.
Besides reading, writing, and the study of history and the stars Robin was given certain duties in the routine of the church …. Each day, too, he worked with Brother Matthew in the carpentry shop …. [B]est of all he liked the swimming. It made him feel free and powerful.
Later, when Robin meets the lord to whom he was to become a squire before his illness, his transformed demeanor shows in his humility and servitude: “‘I shall make a sorry page,’ said Robin ruefully. ‘But I can sing and I can read a little to while away the time for your lordship,’ he offered, ‘and I can pen letters for you.'”
Rather than rejection or hopelessness, Robin hears from the lord words that we can speak to all of our children:
“Each of us has his place in the world,” he said. “If we cannot serve in one way, there is always another. If we do what we are able, a door always opens to something else.”
There it was again, Robin thought, a door. He wondered whether Sir Peter meant the same thing that Brother Luke had intended.
A classical Christian education offers numerous doors to students who seem locked behind impenetrable walls. History offers illumination beyond a narrow preoccupation with current circumstances. Latin and mathematics discipline the mind with steady sureness. Music, art, and literature stretch inflexible thinking and free imprisoned imaginations.
Poetic knowledge, an understanding beyond mere skills or rote memory, is perhaps best taught through the psalms, as we see with young Robin. The Word of God holds a power greater than anything we could hope to impart on our own. When we teach our children to pray the psalms we give them a gift to last longer than our lifetime.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12)
In the presence of God’s holiness, our insolence fades away. In the presence of God’s mercy, our gratitude begets service. With the Word of God we give our children the peace of Christ Himself to carry them through their infirmities. Even one psalm deeply impressed upon a student can give him sustenance to seek more.
Formidable walls often stretch long before our children. As our children grow, they will find, as we all must, that they cannot walk without aid. In a classical Christian education we impart knowledge, skills, and new interests, as do the friars with young Robin. We give our children companionship in our teaching and in fellowship with other students. Most importantly we lead them to the door.
I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture …. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9, 11)
This culmination of all history, imagination, and poetic knowledge is in the truth, mercy, and hope of the words of Jesus, as He speaks words of life to our children and to all who will hear.