Our Life in Title 1 City Schools

Around 6:45 a.m. I unlock our front door so that when the neighborhood kids start arriving, they can just walk in. These days, it’s chilly in the mornings, and the golden hallway light spills out onto our porch. When I open the door to see just how cold it is, I glance at the cars parked on James Street, waiting for the light to change. It is busy at that time, on a Monday.

I make plenty of breakfast and go upstairs for something. Maile is looking at her phone.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. She received a text, addressed, “Hi Abra’s Mom.” Abra’s friend, who usually comes to our house to walk with Abra to school, went on to say that her younger sibling didn’t have anyone to walk her to school, and the elementary school starts after the junior high school, and since she had to walk her sister to school, she wouldn’t be able to walk with Abra. She’d be late to school, too.

She’s eleven years old. She just wanted to let us know, so we wouldn’t worry, or wait for her.

* * * * *

I know for a fact that a lot of people who don’t have children in the School District of Lancaster (the district that serves nearly 11,000 kids in our small city) think of these kids in a particular way.

I know, because I used to be one of those people.

When our oldest son, back in 2018, told one of the moms at his home school co-op that he would be attending McCaskey High School in the city later that fall as a freshman, her first response wasn’t to encourage him or wish him the best but to go on a mini-tirade about the pregnancy rates in the school.

When Maile shared that our kids would be going to public school, she was met with a similar barrage of fear. “I don’t know how anyone could send their kids to city schools,” one mom said.

“Is it even safe, walking around there?” someone else asked.

“You mean during the day?” Maile asked, incredulous. The person nodded.

Yet our personal experience couldn’t be further from these fear-based narratives.

Yes, the young people here in the city are presented with challenges I never had to face in my rural upbringing. And yes, there are a small percentage that make negative decisions that will have huge implications for the rest of their lives.

But the overwhelming majority of kids I’ve crossed paths with since our children started attending the SDOL have been respectful, motivated, and kind. They’ve befriended our kids. They’ve shown themselves to be hard workers. They make a huge effort every morning JUST TO GET TO SCHOOL. Many of Abra’s junior high friends are responsible for picking up younger, elementary-aged siblings. Many of them walk well over a mile, no matter the weather, so that they can learn.

There’s too much garbage out there about the schools in the city, and I’m weary of hearing it, especially when it comes from people who don’t know a single child that lives or goes to school here.

* * * * *

Abra’s friend was able to work it out so that her younger sister could get to school with someone else. In the meantime, we told her to bring her sister to our house next time, and she can join us when we take Sam down to the elementary school.

Our house is quickly becoming a morning magnet of activity, and to be honest, we love it. We make extra pancakes. We invite kids in. We leave our door unlocked. As usual, we asked the kids if they wanted to pray with us, and they all crowd into the dining room.

Am I claiming nothing bad will ever happen to us? Am I saying our kids will make perfect choices their entire life?

No, but that’s not the point. These kids we’re meeting in the city are the point, and they’ve been a gift to us. I hope we can be the same to this wonderful district full of precious young people.

The Question Everyone Asks Us About Living in the City

Photo by Rob Bye via Unsplash

Soon after we moved into the city, someone asked Maile, “Do you feel safe walking around the city?”

Maile wasn’t sure what the person meant. “Do you mean at night?”

“No,” the person pressed. “Just during the day. Anytime. Don’t you feel scared?”

* * * * *

It’s late at night and through our bedroom window I can hear the occasional car pass by on James Street. When we first moved into our small city five years ago, the passing traffic kept us awake. It took me at least a week before the sounds of cars and people walking the sidewalk and the occasional ambulance didn’t keep me awake long into the night.

We love it here in Lancaster. Our kids love it. Our older two walk downtown to meet friends or sit in coffee shops. Mai walks the younger kids to parks and occasionally museums. Three of our oldest four walk to school, and Sammy, the only one who still has one of us accompanying him, begs to walk by himself.

Our neighbors take our packages into their house for safekeeping when we’re away on vacation (even when we forget to ask them to), or water our plants when we’re not around, or shovel the snow off our front sidewalk if I haven’t yet gotten around to it. We look out for each other.

So, it’s strange to me when the first thing nearly everyone asks when they find out we live in the city of Lancaster, population 60,000, isn’t, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” (Luca or Himalayan) or “Where do you volunteer?” (we’re a little lost with that right now) or “Can you see the fireworks from your house?” (Yes), but whether or not we feel safe.

“Do you walk around town by yourself?”

“Are you okay letting your kids walk a mile to school?”

“What about crime—do you ever feel that you’re in danger?”

* * * * *

“…we are tempted constantly to grab a little bit of power that the world around us offers…But as we dare to be baptized in powerlessness, always moving toward the poor who do not have such power, we are plunged right into the heart of God’s endless mercy.”

Henri Nouwen

* * * * *

Normally, I quickly try to assuage people’s concern over the safety of living in the city, and for the most part I believe my own lines.

For every questionable interaction we’ve had, there have been a thousand positive ones, I say.

People look out for each other, I say.

People are, generally, good to each other, I say.

But I wonder sometimes if I am candy-coating things. After all, last year someone shot a gun at someone else just behind our house and across the alley. This probably wouldn’t have happened if we lived in the suburbs. And we routinely see police arresting people or bringing them out of their homes—a few weeks ago, the SWAT team was tracking someone down about eight houses away from us. At one point, an unstable man across the street insisted to me that my house was his house.

So maybe the city is more dangerous.

Maybe, when people ask us why we live here…aren’t we worried…am I nervous raising children here…I shouldn’t shy away from the fact that there are inherent risks with living in the city. But the thing is, we don’t live here because it’s safer.

We’ve tried to move away from making big life decisions based on fear.

We live here because we love city life.

We live here because our kids love their city schools, their city friends, and their city school teachers.

We live here because it’s a wonderful place that offers community to us in ways we haven’t experienced before.

And, as Henri Nouwen writes, “as we dare to be baptized in powerlessness, always moving toward the poor who do not have such power, we are plunged right into the heart of God’s endless mercy.”

Living in the city and having our kids attend city schools is, in some ways, being baptized in powerlessness. Things are not always “fair.” People are not always “nice.” Most places we go, whether it be PTO meetings or the Y, we are in the minority.

We find ourselves often unable to curate our (and our kids’) experiences.

But we’ve found, in this powerlessness, that we have been plunged directly into the heart of God’s endless mercy. What a feeling! What a way to live.

* * * * *

This is not a post arguing that everyone should move into the city.

This is not a post arguing that you should send your children to public school.

This is a post about not letting fear keep you from moving into a greater sense of God’s mercy.

Make decisions that work for your family, yes, but don’t make these decisions out of fear! I have so much more to say about that, but this post is already long enough. Maybe I’ll talk about that in more depth some other time.

Do you dare to be “baptized in powerlessness”? Do you dare to join the poor who do not have power, come alongside them in some tangible way, choosing to share in their poverty?

Maybe consider answering those questions the same way you might answer this one: Would you like to experience more of God’s endless mercy?

A Normal Morning at Our House (Where 13 People Congregate to Start Their Day)

I come up out of sleep and into the darkness of an early morning. I hear the cars out on James Street, idling. You can almost smell the coffee the drivers are drinking. I check my phone. 5:53. I wake up almost every morning just before 6 a.m. without an alarm. I’m not sure why. The fans hum in the house, and I would rather roll over and go back to sleep, but I reach over to Maile’s side of the bed. The covers are pulled back, the bed empty.

Usually, 5-year-old Leo is up before me, at around 5:30, and then I tell him it’s not time to get up so he sits on the chair in our room and waits for me to wake up. But on this morning he’s not up yet, so I put on some pajamas and make my way from Cade’s room to Abra’s room to Lucy’s room, making sure they’re awake and turning on lights.

I creak down the stairs, from the third floor to the first floor, and the family room light is on, and Maile is having some quiet time. We exchange gentle words in the half-light. A hug. And so our morning begins.

She makes her way back up to our bedroom, where she will do yoga or pray or sit quietly until 7 a.m. In the meantime, I make some pancakes, and little people begin their descent to the kitchen. Cade moves wordlessly into the bathroom and takes a shower. Then, Leo comes down, big smile on his face, asking about cereal. Abra is usually next, dressed in her school uniform, prim and prepared and ready for the day. Poppy peeks around the steps, her pacifier in her mouth, her hair braided from the night before. Lucy wanders down a little later. Sam can still sleep until 7:15, because he’s in elementary school.

By 6:45, things are moving: kids are eating pancakes and asking for more, looking for lunch boxes (which they pack themselves), checking their laundry for clothes, getting their backpacks in order, asking me to sign papers. I go and unlock the door for Lucy’s friend—her parents drop her off at our house every morning. By 7:00, Maile comes down. By 7:10, Abra’s three friends (and one of their younger siblings) have arrived (they go to school together).

“C’mon, we have to go,” one of the older kids will say while their sibling is running around in a panic looking for their school ID or the shoes they wanted to wear but can’t find or a jacket they left at school the week before.

At 7:15am, we gather in the dining room. We ask the other kids if they want to pray with our family before going to school.

“Oh!” one of the girls said the first morning we asked them this. “I looooove to pray!”

So, there we are. Two adults. Three teenagers. Four middle-school students. Two elementary-aged kids. Two littles. We stop, and we ask God to go with us. We ask for courage, and kindness, and positive attitudes. It is a small pocket of peace in a world that usually forgets to stop.

And then the whirlwind returns, as kids go out and walk their separate ways. We stand on the porch and watch them leave us, and then Maile drives others to school, and I take a deep breath, and put on some workout clothes, and walk to the Y.

These are good, hard, tiring, wonderful days. There is sometimes forgotten homework, and bad attitudes, and kids wishing they didn’t have to go, and lost things that can’t be found. And there are touching moments of love and grace and joy. They are full mornings.

And God is with us. I keep hearing the voice of the middle school girl, her eyes beaming.

“Oh! I looooove to pray!”

* * * * *

I’m sharing some big news in my newsletter tomorrow—the title and cover of my next novel, releasing the summer of 2020! You can sign up for the newsletter HERE if you’d like to get this info before anyone else.

And if you didn’t buy my newest release, Light from Distant Stars, maybe treat yourself to that today? Find out more about it HERE.

Some Thoughts on ‘Getting There’ (Whatever that Means)

Photo by Kseniya Safronova via Unsplash

The kitchen is uncharacteristically quiet, probably because Maile and I told the kids they didn’t have to clean up after dinner, that we would take care of it. So the two of us mill around, wiping down the large table, loading the dishwasher, hand-washing whatever won’t fit. Outside, the hot August dusk wilts the leaves on the trees. A storm rolls in.

Our conversation is meandering, comforting. We talk about the kids, the music that comes on, our plans for the week. We talk about my work, the payments we’re waiting for, the ones that should come in soon, the bills we’ll pay when they do.

“Well,” I say. “We’re getting there.”

Pause. We both stop and look at each other. Rain splashes up in the alley, a mist.

“Remind me,” I ask. “Where exactly is ‘there’?”

* * * * *

Poppy is our youngest, the baby of the family, the one who, when she wakes up and comes downstairs, is greeted with cheers and celebration. Surely this shapes a child, being the recipient of this kind of familial adoration.

I bring up Poppy because Maile and I have been changing diapers, off and on, for 16 years. Cade was born on a warm June day in Wendover, England, and I still remember changing that first diaper. I thought his fragile little legs might snap off if I wasn’t careful, and he wailed at the cold air on his new skin. Ever since then, apart from a few short gaps between Lucy and Abra, and then again between Sam and Leo, we’ve stocked diapers in the house.

Yesterday, Maile decided to try to potty-train Poppy. And, unlike our other children, it seems to have taken almost immediately, with incredible success. She tells us when she needs to go. She even goes on her own, less than 48 hours into the experiment. I am still waiting for her efforts to come back down to Earth. After five other potty-training experiences, I know these things do not always stick.

Yet, just like that, we’re finished changing diapers. It’s rather shocking, actually, this idea that something I spent 40% of my life doing is now over. Never to be done again.

I can’t say it saddens me at all, the vanished need to purchase diapers. What will we do with all the extra cash? Maybe pay for another set of braces, I guess. But it is sobering, this entering of a new era, one where everyone, for the most part, sleeps through the night, and eats on their own, and doesn’t need a diaper change.

Where do the years go?

* * * * *

There is no ‘there.’ You know that, right? There is no magical future era where everything will be easy and everyone loves you and you sell enough books or make enough money or get the raise that solves everything. The marriage will not be perfect–it might even get harder, or better, or you might come to a new understanding. But the future holds no magic pill. There is only here, now.

Sometimes I know this. Sometimes I can feel the now in my bones. Like tonight, when the air conditioner kicks on and I can hear the rain pinging on the windows, when some of the kids are playing in the basement and Lucy is working on an essay and Cade is reading and Maile is upstairs writing novel number two. The light glares off the table and I don’t care about the bank balance or the manuscript due dates or the trim in the house that needs to be replaced. I take one breath, and another, and another. I can feel the now moving in and out of my lungs, pulsing with the heartbeat in my neck. There is something tangible in this present moment, and I am more aware than usual of each passing second.

Could it be that the only ‘there’ to get to is here already? Right now? In the good and the bad, the joy and the heartache, the diaper-changing and then whatever phase arrives in its wake? The sleep-deprived nights and the lazy Saturday mornings?

What will I do with it?

Some Thoughts on New Berries, Stephen King, and Chasing Your Dreams

There is a broken Lego set on the table, and I can feel a few pieces under my feet, the small ones, the kind the vacuum sucks up without any regard for the incomplete set it has just created. There is an open newspaper at the other side of our large dining room table, and there is my wallet with a one dollar bill folded in the clip. It is a quiet morning, an early summer morning, and through the windows I can see the barely rustling trees that line the alley, the gray-blue humid sky, and the wooden framework above our small back porch that needs to be painted.

Maile is in the kitchen, washing and cutting strawberries. The water makes a pinging sound on the metal sink. She is barefoot, still in her summer pajamas, a kind of airy, blue dress, light as a breeze. It is just the two of us in the open kitchen-dining room.

I hold up a book I’m perusing, a book I’ve read many times before. Stephen King’s On Writing.

“Listen to this,” I say. “I love this story.” Stephen King writes,

My wife made a crucial difference during those two years I spent teaching at Hampden (and washing sheets at New Franklin Laundry during the summer vacation). If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rented house on Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Hermon was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however. Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given.

“Sounds like you,” I say to Maile, smiling. I continue reading.

I had a phone call…My wife, sounding out of breath but deliriously happy, read me a telegram…CONGRATULATIONS, it read. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.

I think of when I received the email that The Day the Angels Fell had found a publishing home at Revell. I remember sitting down in the study, my back against the wall. I tried to read that email to Maile, but I couldn’t read it without crying, so I just handed my laptop to her, and she sat down beside me and read it, and she started crying, too.

At some point while I’m reading King’s book out loud to her, Maile comes over to the table and perches on the bench, right beside me. She crosses her legs and puts her chin in one of her hands.

“That story about Stephen King and his book makes me want to cry,” she says quietly.

“Wait until you hear this part.”

One Sunday not long after that call, I got another one from Bill Thompson at Doubleday. I was alone in the apartment.

“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked.

“No,” I said. Our phone hung on the kitchen wall, and I was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “Do I need to?”

“You might,” he said. “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.”

…I hadn’t heard him right. Couldn’t have…I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery.

That was Stephen King’s story, but I know it. I can feel it. By now my own throat is aching, because I can imagine what that must have felt like. I am filled with happiness for Stephen King in that long-ago year, when he received such good news. Good news. We are all yearning for good news, aren’t we? We all have that desire in us, to see that we are making our way in something that we love to do.

I close the book and leave it on the table. I trace the wood grain with my finger. Somehow, Maile and I are far, far away from that kitchen.

“What in the world are we doing?” I ask Maile in a whisper, and while I don’t get any more specific than that, we both know what question I’m asking.

Why do I spend so much time writing books? Why is she querying agents over and over again about her own quiet, beautiful book, not stopping in the face of rejections? Why do I keep freelancing when sometimes the checks come and sometimes they do not? Why do we spend nearly every waking moment reading books, talking about books, writing our own books?

Can a life made out of words be enough?

Maile leans over and puts her head on my shoulder, her hand on my leg. Her hair tangles in my beard.

“We’re chasing our dreams,” she says, and her voice is rich with happiness. It is enough. That’s what she’s saying.

We sit like that for a long time, or what feels like a long time, the hot summer morning pooling around us, children waking and coming downstairs, asking for breakfast, the city waking up. Poppy and Leo climb like monkeys up onto the stools beside the island and start eating the berries Maile has cut, their mouths curling in the sour-sweet. Poppy giggles.

“These are new berries,” she says in her squeaky, almost-three-year-old voice.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, they are.”

* * * * *

My next book releases in only five days. Five days! After all this time, Light from Distant Stars has arrived. I’d be honored and pleased if you’d preorder it from any of these booksellers (or perhaps your own local bookstore not listed below):

Aaron’s Books, Lititz, PA – call 717-627-1990
Baker Bookhouse
Barnes and Noble
Hearts and Minds Bookstore 

If you don’t have the money at the moment, you’d be doing me an incredible favor if you contacted your local library and asked them to order it. Then, you can read it for free.

As Light as a Memory

We wander a block from my in-law’s house to their neighborhood pool, the kids who didn’t choose to slip on some footwear dancing lightly across the hot street, making for the grass. The sky is a melting blue-gray and the air is a wool blanket. The kids run ahead and us parents and grandparents come slowly behind, carrying all the things. It is a summer day just west of Charlotte.

Two kids argue over who gets to use the key fob to unlock the gate, and once inside it’s a flurry of splashes and shouts. I sink into the warm water and spend the next hour being a shark or an underwater diver or the thing Leo tries to swim to. Time moves slower in the summer, in the pool, in the heat.

Later we walk back and eat supper. The youngest kids go to bed early and fall into a dead sleep within moments, exhausted, their hair still wet from the pool. We play a game, watch a movie, go to bed late and sleep in. I write all day.

And, at four o’clock, we head to the pool again.

* * * * *

It has become a much-anticipated summer tradition, our time with family in North Carolina. The long, hot days. The Cookout milkshakes. The quick trips to Books-a-Million where we make extravagant book purchases.

It reminds me of the traditions we used to have when I was a kid: the trips to Florida in the summer when our vacation neighborhood was empty and we’d race the streets on bikes, walk to the candy store, and spend hours at the beach. Or the old Christmas tradition, when grandpa and the uncles would play Monopoly and grandma and the aunts would play Scrabble and I’d fall asleep on the couch, wishing someone would let me in on one of the games.

It’s hard to imagine that someday this tradition will be a memory. It’s too sad a thought, so we go on pretending it will never end, that we’ll keep coming here forever.

* * * * *

I go downstairs, taking a break from writing. Poppy comes running over.

“Daddy, will you be my horsey?”

Of course, and I get down on my hands and knees and give her a ride back-and-forth, back-and-forth, from here to there.

She is so light on my back. Light as summer days. Light as memory.

For more pics like this, follow me over at Instagram at @shawnsmucker