Sowing the Unknown

We will continue learning through living tonight and tomorrow and the day after, no matter what we do or where we go. Durham has helped us come to grips with reality and helped us to see how everything is basically rooted in the Great Creator, Christ, who directs us in our day-to-day experiences.
—Jane Reitsma, Durham Christian High School Valedictorian Speech, 1971

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
—Mark 4:27

Perusing through the seed catalogue last spring, I was determined to grow something different in the garden. We always have amazing green beans, and we enjoy them all summer long. The yellow zucchinis are such a hit that our friends come looking for them. While I enjoy cultivating these old favorites, I was beginning to suffer from boredom, or “garden fatigue.” So this year, I grew okra.

I had only ever heard about okra from reading books about the southern United States. In these novels, it seemed that invariably, the children didn’t like the bitter taste and slimy texture of the vegetable. According to Wikipedia (so I realize this may be suspect), okra is known around the world by various names: okra, ochro, quigombo, gombo, and lady’s fingers. Different countries lay claim to the origin of okra, but it appears it was found in its wild state on the banks of the Nile River, and the Egyptians were the first to cultivate it in the twelfth century BC.

Okra is full of nutrients, enzymes, and all those healthy ingredients we seek. With such a rich history and myriad names, how could I not try my hand at growing this unknown (to me) vegetable? While weeding the garden in early July, I came upon a short row of plants that I couldn’t identify. They had the most beautiful yellow flowers, and looked unlike anything I had ever seen. This was okra in full bloom! I was thrilled, for the Canadian climate is not ideal for okra growing. More than one of my gardening friends was skeptical of my okra experiment, but to them I replied: what’s life without a few unknowns?

Educators are forever dealing with unknowns. We wonder how we are going to keep Christian education viable. The statistics that we see appear to justify our doubts. But looking through the lens of God’s faithfulness, there are no questions. God’s faithfulness has been immovable through the generations, a reliable bridge, taut and anchored, across a sea of unknowns.

This summer, I participated in what was the first reunion of my graduating class. Forty years ago, my classmates and I attended the fledgling Durham Christian High. High school was a potpourri of learning, laughter, and tears. As a class, we had great connections with our teachers, many of whom became lifelong mentors to us. Interestingly enough, despite forty years, my classmates didn’t really look so different from their former selves, and their spirits remained the same. In our day, we were at the cusp of higher Christian education, as students and parents were pushing the board to add grade 11, then grade 12 to the school curriculum. As the first graduating class of a small country school, what did that mean? We did not have great facilities, and mostly found ourselves in five round, portable classrooms bought for a dollar each from Ontario Hydro. We did not have the extensive curriculum outlines we now benefit from, but we did have idealism and youth. We had teachers who were eager to share the vision and help us find ourselves. We had a family atmosphere wherein students, thrown together in small classes, made lasting friendships and “stretched our horizons as God’s children.” Those are also the final words of my valedictorian address to our graduating class. As further proof of the depth of my experience at Durham, those words have stuck with me, forty years later. As graduates, our futures were yet unknown, but we stepped into them eagerly, with anticipation.

As with any school, the first graduates of Durham went their separate ways. Some stayed in town, others moved across the continent. At the reunion, classmates reflected back upon their high school experiences. Underpinning each shared memory was the feeling that Durham’s newness as a school meant that the social, educational, and cultural “unknowns” of the time provided great fodder for creativity and community. As graduate Kay (Terpstra) Heidinga notes:

The years in Durham are a good memory. Annual campouts at Algonquin were a highlight, as was helping with set design for a play or organizing a massive donation of books from a school in the United States for our library. We also put out our first yearbook; there were a lot of firsts. The class was small. The isolation in the portables made us feel like our own little club, and I remember the euchre tournaments during lunch hours in particular. We had great teachers who I like to believe thought we were pretty great, too. Kingdom vision and Christian worldview were passed on and bore fruit.

“Kingdom vision and Christian worldview were passed on and bore fruit”: isn’t that the sum result of Christian education? Schools don’t have to be super-large, but have to strike the heart of the students. Our reunion showed that even though we had all gone separate ways, our memory of a joyous high school experience was shared.

The soil in my garden is the same for beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and even okra. Each grows uniquely and offers something different to the palette. Education has changed tremendously, has seen many different “crops,” yet the “soil” from which our seeds grow remains the same. In this decade, we need to refocus and rethink, just as I did with my garden. Instead of fearing the unknowns facing us, why not recognize the potentialities inherent in not knowing? Of my garden, I asked the question: how can I include okra in my diet to improve health? Of my work as an educator, I ask: how can I begin to include the “unknowns” into my classroom, my pedagogy, and my school intentionally as a whole as a way of providing fodder for creativity and fresh perspectives? Maybe the classroom won’t look the same as it did in those days long ago when I was a student, but relationships don’t change, and that is the true heart of Christian education. A classroom must be a community.

I just tasted the first fruits of my okra in an amazing Indonesian rice stir-fry dish. The result: different! Delicious! And yes, it was a little slimy, just like the children in those novels complained about.