When I was Afraid of City Schools

I was in junior high when we boarded the yellow school bus and pulled out of the parking lot. We were quieter than usual, I remember that, mostly because we were all a little nervous regarding our opponents that afternoon.

McCaskey High School.

I grew up in the country, first on a farm and later in a house situated on a one-acre plot surrounded by fields. On humid summer nights, I would go for runs on those back country roads, completely at home in that feeling of incredible aloneness, winding my way through corn that grew well up over my head. That dirt, that quiet, that empty sky got into my blood.

I say all of that only to explain how uncomfortable I felt as the bus pulled into the city, made its way in among the row homes and the cracked sidewalks. When we passed the prison, I stared up at its castle-like turrets, its barbed wire and high brick walls. When we got off the bus and walked into the city school where the game was being held, I had never felt more out of place.

I have to be honest and say that I’m sure much of my nervousness came from entering into a space dominated by people of color. My high school had only a handful of young people who were not white. I was comfortable there in my back country school, tucked in among so many that looked like me, sounded like me, believed like me. Going into that city school when I was a kid, I was afraid of those kids because they didn’t look like me.

* * * * *

When Maile and I realized she had reached the end of the line when it came to homeschooling, that she could no longer teach our four oldest kids and remain sane, our immediate thought was, “We have to move.” After all, through various life circumstances, we found ourselves living in the very city I had feared as a child. Except we loved it.

But send our kids to those city schools?

I don’t think so.

So, in the winter of what would be our last year homeschooling, we put our home on the market. Our dear friend and realtor Dave, who has so loyally trekked alongside us through our many moments of indecision, listed the house for us.

One problem, though. We didn’t want to leave the city. We loved it on James Street–loved our neighbors, loved the convenience, loved all the things going on, loved the diversity our kids were growing up around.

But the schools.

Two families helped us right the ship. We invited the Kings over to our house, a family who had made the homeschool-to-city-school transition, and we talked with them long into the night. They told us stories about their kids finding their way in the School District of Lancaster (SDOL), a Title I school (read: full of kids growing up in poverty). And their stories heartened us.

Then, not long after that, my sister and brother-in-law came over with their family, and we spent the evening talking about the city. At one point, Ben asked us, “So, why are you guys moving?” Maile and I looked at each other.

We didn’t know the answer.

* * * * *

“We’ll just take small steps,” we told each other. “We don’t have to make any final decisions yet.”

And the first step was sending our oldest son to McCaskey High School with a friend he could shadow for the day. He came home totally amped up. He loved it. He loved the school, the vibe, the adventure of it all.

We had not expected that.

The second step was to visit the elementary school where our two middle-aged kids would go. We walked the halls of Ross Elementary with them, led by the most wonderful principal, and I found myself totally shocked. This was not the city elementary school I had expected. I don’t even know exactly what I had expected. But the principal knew every child by name. The kids were quiet and respectful. There was art on the walls and we could hear sounds from the music room floating down the hallways.

It reminded me of the elementary school I had attended as a kid. The one out in the country.

I remember walking home with Maile, two of our kids running ahead of us. I watched them navigate the traffic lights, chatting the entire way. They had loved it. Maile looked at me.

“Why are we moving?” she asked.

* * * * *

We called Dave, our realtor. We asked him to take our house off the market. Poor Dave. We’re always doing this to him. The next day he called, as if with one final test. “Are you sure you don’t want to move? I’ve got an offer right at your asking price.

We were sure. We weren’t going to move.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, I went to school with Lucy on Saturday morning for Tag Day. It’s the one Saturday of the year when several hundred McCaskey students involved in choirs or bands take to the streets and ask the people in our city if they’ll donate money to the music program. Just the thought of going door to door made me nearly sick–I hate that kind of thing. I think Lucy felt the same way.

At school, we loaded up our 15-passenger van with high school music kids and drove to our assigned route. They hopped out, and I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic they were. We went from house to house, but instead of getting the response I expected (basically, “Get off my lawn!”), we were greeted by person after person who loved Lancaster city, loved McCaskey, and couldn’t wait to give some money. We even passed people on the sidewalk who wondered what we were doing (the kids were dressed in choir robes and band outfits), and many of those people pulled out their wallets on the spot.

The kids even sang at some of the houses where we stopped.

Our small group of 12 kids raised over $500 in a few hours.

* * * * *

There’s something to be said about not making decisions out of fear. If there’s a direction you think you want to go but you’re afraid, take the next small step. You’ll find your way.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the first episode of the podcast Maile and I recorded about creativity, publishing, and the writing life, you can check that out HERE. Episode 2 comes out tomorrow!

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.

What Mohammad Told Me About Their Next Child

Now that my friend Mohammad has moved to Michigan, we don’t see each other very often, but we still chat on the phone from time to time, and every so often I’ll get a text message from him.



Hi, Shawn, how are you?


My friend Shawn I want to tell you that Moradi is pregnant with child.

I received that last one in October, so we’re closing in on the arrival of their fifth child, another boy! How I wish they still lived here in Lancaster, where we could take them food and hold the little one and watch the other boys dote on their new brother.

Sometimes, our friendship almost seems impossible, like a long-ago dream. Could it have been that Mohammad and his family lived her, that he and I would sit on the front porch and look out over James Street at night? Could it be that I sat in his living room after his father died, sharing a meal with all of his friends?

But friendships can survive even long distances. The other day I received this text from Mohammad, and after I read it, I held it up for Maile to read while tears gathered in my eyes.

Hello my friend, Mohammad wrote, when he is born we will call him Mahmoud in Arabic and in English the name Shawn.

There is a friend waiting for you in the most unlikely of places. Perhaps in a group of people you currently can’t understand, or people you disagree with, or even in a group you hate. There are human beings there, on the other side of your convictions, on the other side of your opinions. There are friends waiting to be found, meals to be shared, and perhaps even a new generation of children who might one day affectionately bear your name.

I know, now, that this is why Jesus emphasized enemy-love and loving your neighbor. Not so that we can feel religious and righteous, but so that we could experience life to its fullest.

Who is your neighbor?

* * * * *

Even more exciting news! Mohammad and I were asked to share our story of friendship at the upcoming CWS annual Community Appreciation Breakfast on May 9th at 7:30am at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Mohammad is coming into town just for this event! There is no cost to attend, but if you could sign up so they have an idea on how many are coming, that would be helpful. The Facebook link is here.

If you haven’t had a chance, please check out the book that Mohammad and I worked on together, called Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor.

Forever Lost in My Normality

Photo by Rob Bye via Unsplash

I am sitting in a coffee shop I don’t often visit, a smaller one in the middle of the city where I live. It’s a bustling, bright place with worn wood floors and large windows. Nearly every seat is full, and the baristas chat with the customers like they’re all old friends. I get a feeling this is the kind of place that has regulars, the kind of place where the employees know your normal order.

There is a man not too far from me who is drawing in a sketch book. His table is covered in colored pencils, his bag overflowing with paper. Every so often, he laughs for no reason, and he laughs so loud that we all jump and then chuckle nervously, smile sheepishly at each other, somehow embarrassed not for him but for ourselves.

The door whines open, slams closed. The music is loud.

At a nearby table, there is an old man in a wheel chair. His face is curled up in perpetual confusion, and his words escape in long, gentle moans. He wears oversized clothes and the rubber tires on his wheelchair are low on air. A young man, maybe in his late twenties, takes care of the man in the wheelchair. He eases the man’s travel coffee mug up towards his mouth, guiding the straw home. The old man coughs and the young man lifts a handkerchief to wipe his mouth. The young man walks around behind him, lifts him in a jerking motion, moving him up so that he can sit straight in his chair. He helps the old man wrestle into a coat.

People come by to say hello to the old man in the wheelchair. They carry on one-sided conversations as if nothing is amiss. And maybe nothing is. Or maybe I am the thing that is amiss, forever lost in my normality.

* * * * *

An African-American man comes in, baggy coat, earphones up on his head. He has a long, kind face. Concern etches the plains around his eyes.

“I’ve got a friend coming in a few minutes,” he explains, pointing towards the back. He is very sincere. He is not saying this ironically. “I’m just going to wait back there. He’ll be here any time.”

The barista waves off his concern. “No problem,” she says, and he disappears into the back, but not before the young man taking care of the old man whispers after him, “This isn’t Starbucks, man.”

* * * * *

Another old man comes in and sees someone he knows, grins. “You’re just as handsome as you were the last time I saw you.”

The guy he’s talking to chuckles a sandpaper grunt. “I hope the women still think so.”

The first man, feeling rather pleased with himself, leans in close and puts his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I didn’t say you were handsome. I said you’re just as handsome as you were the last time I saw you.” And he laughs, taking immense pleasure at the joke, as if the world is his.

It snowed yesterday. But outside the sun is shining even brighter than it was when I got here, and the trees  are budding red flowers. Everyone is walking down the sidewalk, staring up at the sun with expressions of awe on their faces, as if the unthinkable is happening, as if spring has finally come.

Like a Beautiful Thing, Unattainable (On Visiting Our Syrian Friends)

Photo by Zoltan Tasi via Unsplash

This part of the city is dark and feels empty. There are only a few streetlights, and the windows in the houses are, for the most part, unlit. My wife Maile and I get out of our car and walk towards the front door of a small duplex. Lines of light shine through the slanted blinds. A dim, yellow porch light looks down on us like a low-hanging moon.

“Oh, look,” Maile says. “They put out a small American flag.” It’s the kind they hand out at parades, stiff, clinging to a long, wooden stick. The stick is deep in the ground beside the sidewalk.

I tap lightly on the window and hear footsteps thunder through the house—some coming down the stairs, some racing from the kitchen at the back. The door swings open and the screen is pushed towards us and there they are, Mohammad’s four boys, grinning as if I’m Santa. Maile and I go inside and take off our shoes.

The house smells wonderfully of foreign food. It is bright inside, and warm, especially compared to the February night. Mohammad shakes my hand and pulls me in for a hug—he is not a tall man, with skin the color of tan leather, dark eyes, and gray hair cropped short.

“Shawn! Where have you been? I put the coffee on 30 minutes ago!”

“I know! I know. I’m sorry. It took us a while to get the kids to bed.”

“No problem. Don’t worry. Come in, come in!”

His boys flock around us, eager, excited to have guests. I shake each one’s hand, all the way down to their mischievous youngest. He grins and at first he doesn’t know what to do, then he exaggerates his hand shake and I pretend he’s hurt my shoulder. He giggles and runs off.

I look at those boys and can’t help but think about how they fled Syria five years ago, how Mohammad had to load them down with backpacks full of food and water, tried to determine how much weight each boy could carry. Fathers should not have to do this. Father’s should not  be in a situation where they are deciding how many water bottles a nine-year-old can carry through the night. Who should carry the baby? Who should walk at the back of their small line through the darkness?

* * * * *

“Here,” Mohammad says, handing me the mug full of dark, dark coffee, and I take a sip, the caffeine shooting through my veins.

Moradi, Mohammad’s wife, comes down and greets us. She has a kind face, soft eyes, in spite of all they have been through. She smiles at Maile and hugs her, and the two of them talk about work and family and motherhood. When they hit a language barrier, and this is often, the oldest son steps in and translates.

“We brought a game,” I say, showing them the box: Connect Four.

“I have that in my school!” one of the boys shouts, and we tear it open, put the thing together. I sit on the floor across from their third son. He is around ten, and he is very competitive. Every time one of us has three in a row, he shouts, unable to bear the tension of the pending win. When I finally beat him, he groans loudly and falls backward. We all laugh.

“Shawn, here, look at this,” Mohammad says, and I sit up on the sofa while the boys push in to take over the game next. He hands me his green card paperwork. “The last time I looked up this serial number, it said error. Something isn’t right.”

I take his phone, already at the correct website, and input the number on his application. A message appears.

“I don’t know, Mohammad. But this says your application has been processed and your card was mailed out yesterday.”

“Yes?” he shouts, grabbing the phone. Everyone in the house cheers. He hands me his wife’s application. “Check this one.”

We go down the row, checking everyone’s green card application, and an enormous cheer rises when we confirm each person’s pending status. Their cards are on the way. It is Christmas in February.

* * * * *

There are shouts from the other room. The boys are arguing about the game, and the youngest has taken it hostage. The older boys protest. Mohammad calls the little one over, and he comes, reluctantly, dragging his feet.

Mohammad pulls him close and they argue in quiet voices, the boy’s lips grazing his father’s rough cheek as he pleads his case. Mohammad alternates between listening quietly and talking sternly. Their Arabic floats around us, above us, like a beautiful thing unattainable.

Then, I recognize a word the little boy uses often, in his most pleading tones.


He says it over and over again. Sometimes, when he is at a loss for words, it is the only thing he says.

“Abba, Abba, Abba.”

The word Jesus used when he addressed his Heavenly Father.


* * * * *

It is late. We pull ourselves away despite Mohammad’s offended protests that we are leaving too early. I laugh.

“It is always too early for you,” I say. He smiles.

“Come again, Shawn. Any time. Come again. Please.”

Maile hugs Moradi and I tease the boys and we walk outside, all of them standing in the doorway, in the cold, watching us go. They wave and wave, even after we are in the car, and then we are driving through the dark, towards the city. I can feel the light.

* * * * *

Did you know Mohammad and I have put together a book and it’s coming out in October? It’s all about his family’s trek to get here and how our friendship came to be–the book is called Once We Were Strangers.

A Mother’s Love for Her Autistic Son #RideshareConfessional

Photo by Mike Wilson via Unsplash
Photo by Mike Wilson via Unsplash

I pull up on the side of a busy street, and a Hispanic woman and her son climb into the back. She is well dressed. He is toting a backpack and sounds excited about getting new glasses.

“Now, we didn’t get them today, son, but we will soon. Mommy has to pay for them little by little.”

We make a turn and head towards their home, two miles away.

“How are you?” I ask. “Sure is a beautiful day.” The sun is warm through the windshield and the sky is a blue that pops.

“I’m good,” she says hesitantly, and I can tell she makes a quick decision in her mind to answer honestly. I see this often, this split second of indecision, this wavering between an answer of “I’m good” or the truth. She keeps going.

“It is a beautiful day,” she continues. “But I’ve been to appointments all day. First, I had to take my youngest son here to an eye appointment. And there were other things.”

She pauses again, and again I can tell she’s thinking, thinking, thinking about how much to tell me, a stranger. “You know, honestly, I’m fighting the school district right now. My oldest son is autistic, and I’ve had to pick him up from school ten times this year.”

“Oh, wow,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sit back, son, keep your seat belt on,” she says to her son, then turns to me. “He has trouble sleeping. He has GI issues, which isn’t unusual for children with autism. And now he’s crying a lot at school. He doesn’t speak. He’s so tired, and they don’t know what to do when he cries, so they tell me to come and get him. I just don’t know what to do. I’m at the end of my rope.”

It’s a short trip to her drop off spot. We’re there in what feels like no time. She opens the door, barely finished speaking.

“I’m so sorry,” I say again. “My sister has fought those battles, too, for her daughter in Florida. I hear from her how draining it can be. I hope you’re able to get your son what he needs.”

“Thank you,” she says emphatically. “Me, too. Thank you.” She turns to her son. “Follow me out this side. What do you say?”

“Thank you,” he says.

“Thanks, man,” I say, turning around and smiling at him.

He giggles. “He called me man,” he tells his mother, stifling a laugh. They climb out. I drive away.