When I Encountered Grace: Sarah Dunford’s Story

Homeschoolers U

This summer, as I prepare to enter my junior year at PHC, I have been reflecting on my time at PHC. I have enjoyed the past two years. This is not to say that it does not come with its challenges and struggles, but that I have been encouraged and strengthened by the community and structure established there. To better explain what I mean by this, here is a brief summary of my life at PHC thus far.

My first encounter with PHC was an ad I saw in an HSLDA magazine. My initial reaction was, “That is a college for homeschoolers. I will never go there.” At that point, I was a freshman in high school without the thought of potential colleges in my mind.

A year or so later when I began looking at colleges again, I came back to PHC. After hours exploring the website and reading the course catalog, I fell in love with the classes offered there. I wanted to take (nearly) every class listed.

I traveled from California to Virginia to visit PHC my junior year of high school. What I remember most is a conversation I had with a PHC junior in the dining hall. This conversation, most of which I’ve forgotten, included a description about life at PHC. At some point, he said that each student at PHC reaches a point where they break and realize how much they need God. I really appreciated his vulnerability in sharing his story — and I thought I understood what he meant.

But it wasn’t until I underwent the process myself that I came to know the full meaning.

A year and a half later, I came to PHC as a student. I thought I was prepared for what I would encounter, but I was soon stretched in every aspect possible. I wanted to excel in academics, but struggled to keep up with the workload and reach my ideal GPA. I wanted to make friends and be outgoing, but I questioned if people enjoyed my company. I wanted to engage in intellectual conversations, but told myself that I had nothing to contribute and remained silent. I wanted to maintain my faith, but easily forgot God in the midst of my busy schedule.

Academics

In high school I did well in classes. I thought academics would be no problem at PHC. Yes, I expected it to consume a lot of time but I would excel nonetheless. About a week into the semester I was already behind. Most people were in the same position, but I still wanted to keep up. I never did. I would become overwhelmed with the workload and the stress prevented me from focusing on what I was working on at the moment.

This is not an uncommon story among college students. For me there was another aspect.

School was my only accomplishment thus far. When I could not meet my expectations in school, I lost my worth. Having placed my identity in academics, I no longer knew who I was. It’s okay to laugh at me. I see now how short minded I was with my preoccupation with grades. I was nearly always aware of my grade in any class. I had constructed a spreadsheet to calculate my grades, and checked it even when there were no new assignments to input. This was a habit from high school when I was responsible to calculate my grades. But in college it became my motivation. And my standard for success.

I needed grades to indicate if my time had been well-spent or not.

Friends

My friendships at school began opposite my expectations, in the same way academics did. The difference was that my initial expectation was that it would take weeks to develop any good friendships. The truth was by the end of orientation, my freshmen suitemates were my closest friends, as if I had known them for years.

As the semester progressed and I made more friends, I soon found that my insecurities regarding friends still remained. Though I now had the closest friends I ever had in my life, I was still questioning if people truly wanted to be with me, or if they were only my friends because they pitied me.

Intellectual

Many people I met at PHC had been involved in speech and debate and loved to bring their experience to the dining hall. This intrigued me at first. I loved listening to them, for though it was pointless, it could become very entertaining. A few weeks later it only annoyed me. I wasn’t comfortable engaging and giving my opinions.

I didn’t want to debate, I wanted to discuss.

This was found in the classroom more than in the dining hall. Rather than the goal being to prove you are right (which was what annoyed me), you would be able to give your perspective. Yes, debates did break out in class sometimes, but not as often as the dining hall. Still, anytime I spoke my heart raced and I knew that my words were not well expressed. I told myself that anything I said in class was worthless.

So I remained silent. I would let those smarter and more eloquent than me speak.

Spiritual

I assumed that I would easily maintain my faith while at PHC. How hard could it be, it’s a Christian school, right?

We have chapel five days a week. Chapel can be great at school. But it was easy for me to adopt a habitual spirituality that scheduled perfectly between my classes without taking the time to know God intimately. My Christianity became something intellectual. I would talk about God, but never really talked to God. But many times I was frustrated. I could not understand God. Then I doubted Him. He wasn’t working like He used to. Many of my friends would mention the things God had been teaching them. I didn’t see it. I didn’t feel lost, but I felt like I had lost God.

I wanted to give up trying to find Him. It was too hard.

*****

In each of the four areas above, I wanted to form my life into what I thought it should be. Anytime I fell short I would despair. I kept telling myself that when I had my life put together I would be happy. Anytime I made progress, my failings in another area would become exposed. I was stuck. I was exhausted. I was chained. What would free me?

Some people at school feel trapped by the rules at PHC. That wasn’t my problem. 

I am naturally drawn to rules. If you don’t give me rules, I will make them for myself. But I am not the best at always following rules. Though I am excellent at mentally punishing myself after I don’t meet my own standards. I made my list of what I needed to do in order to have a successful life. I was tired of wasting my time.

What I needed was grace. This is the whole message of the Gospel. But I missed it.

I had come to realize that I did not have the ability in myself to work hard enough to become the person I thought I had to be. And I thought this meant my life was meaningless. That was a lie.

Grades, friends, and having remarkable ideas do not define my life. Grace does.

None of the four areas above are resolved, but here is how grace has set me free.

I can do school work because I love to learn, for I don’t have to earn a grade to validate my existence.

I can enjoy my friends, knowing that I don’t have to be the perfect friend. I will mess up, but because they are genuine friends, they will forgive me. I can trust them.

I don’t have to worry what people will think when I share my ideas. They may laugh. Some people will always laugh. Many will disagree with me. But I know who I am and what I believe. Engaging with people at PHC with different ideas has helped me sharpen my opinions. And there are also people there who can eloquently express what I have been longing to say. I learn from these people.

I have learned more of the true identity of Christianity is. It has no connection to the number of times you attend chapel or how many things in your life you can label “Christian.” I could not become a Christian by the things I do or don’t do. It is the work of grace in an individual’s life.

My time at PHC was consumed with a constant list of things I needed to do. At many points, I felt like I was drowning. During this time many deep struggles I had grown up with but never noticed emerged. Many of my problems at PHC came from within, for I am my worst adversary.

I eventually stopped trying to hide my problems at PHC and told people my struggles.

Many some people judged me, but I don’t care. So many of my peers reminded me that grades are not important. They showed that they are true friends. They validated my ideas and encouraged me to share my perspective. They didn’t judge me when I questioned my faith, but reminded me that God is constant. Yes, I will fail, but that is not the end.

At PHC, I encountered grace. This I will carry throughout my time here and beyond.

Friendship and Parenthood

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Latebloomer’s blog Past Tense Present Progressive. It was originally published on June 27, 2014.

Many people find the beginning of parenthood marks the sudden decline of their friendships.

Babies are constantly needy and deprive you of sleep, energy, and coherence.  Toddlers, when awake, need constant monitoring; and even their sleep must be prioritized in your schedule.  Preschoolers are fast and fearless and can disappear in an instant because of a whim.  And for all of them, their constant stream of needs and your constant stream of worries, day and night, can completely shut down your ability to think of any other topic.

But somehow, although all of those things are true about my two kids, that does not describe my experience.  And I’m forever grateful for that, because increasing my already unbearable feelings of isolation just might have killed me.

Somehow, in the haze of new parenthood, I actually connected to a group of other new moms.  Maybe it was because they were in a similar haze, and we were all in the trenches together.  Crying, worrying, laughing, celebrating together.  Just what I had always wanted, for my whole life, but never experienced even once.

And it didn’t stop there.  I also began to feel closer to a few other friends that I had always wanted to connect with more.  And I began to meet even more people, around the neighborhood, in kid classes, through friends, through preschool.  Was it my newly increasing confidence and happiness?  Was it the oxytocin boost of motherhood that made me better able to connect?

Whatever it was, I wish that myself as a child could have known that a good future was coming, so that the dark nights didn’t seem quite as cold.  However, the coldness of the past makes me value even more the warmth of friendship now.  The empty silence of the past, the years of absolutely no conversations with anyone, make me value so much even the broken snippets of conversations that moms have while also monitoring active young children.  The lack of attention and lack of empathy from my parents means that I don’t take the attention and empathy of my friends for granted today.

Thank you friends, if you are reading this, for being you and letting me be me.

I wish it weren’t true, but unfortunately my past does still sometimes reach all the way here to my good life today.  Sometimes I still struggle with depression.  Sometimes another person’s choices or mistakes hit me in an area where I am vulnerable, leaving me shaken and crippled with emotion.  Sometimes, when my mind is stretched between sleep deprivation and two active kids, I find I have no bandwidth left to function socially, and then I resent the deficit I have to work with, and the fact that basic social skills and conversational skills that come naturally to many others require so much extra attention for me.

But now I can better fight my way out of those dark moments.  Instead of trying to “be better” so I’m not a disappointment to God, now I have the positive motivation of wanting to connect with my husband, connect with my kids, and connect with my friends.  Because, now that I know what it feels like to connect with others in a healthy and non-codependent way, there is no way I’m ever letting go of that.

Teaching My Son the Lessons I Didn’t Learn

Crosspost: Teaching My Son the Lessons I Didn’t Learn

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Latebloomer’s blog Past Tense Present Progressive. It was originally published on May 12, 2013.

"Watching my naturally shy little boy become comfortable and have fun with other people is incredibly satisfying."
“Watching my naturally shy little boy become comfortable and have fun with other people is incredibly satisfying.”

Much to my surprise, I’m finding motherhood to be incredibly therapeutic.

Part of it is certainly that I have felt far more socially connected since my son’s birth than at any other time in my life.  Ironic, I know, but true.  I feel incredibly supported by my friendships with other parents, accepted for who I am, and inspired to grow.  Finally experiencing the social connection that I desperately craved for my entire childhood has increased my self-esteem and has decreased my issues with depression, which in turn helps me feel like a better mother.

But more specifically, as a mother, I feel like all the kindness and love that I pour into my son’s life is somehow healing my own childhood wounds.  I see him learning the lessons that I wish I had learned myself as a child, and I feel at peace.

He is learning, right from the start, that his feelings are important.  As a toddler, he has so many feelings, which often appear suddenly and catch both of us off guard.  My job as a parent is to help him learn to recognize his feelings, to validate his feelings, and to direct him toward an appropriate action to manage his feelings.  For us, that means when he’s expressing an emotion, I get down at his level and say things like, “Sweetie, are you feeling sad/upset/angry because _______? Awww!” And then I suggest an appropriate comforting/distracting/calming activity.  The most amazing thing to me is that, even as a toddler, he usually quiets down in order to listen to me name his emotion,  and seems incredibly relieved just to be understood.

He is also learning that his opinions and desires are are worth expressing, even though at this age they sound like nothing more than him shouting, “No! No! No!”  It’s up to me to help him phrase his opinions and wishes more clearly, because his “no” could mean anything from, “Don’t do that!” to “I don’t want to do that!” to “I want to do what you are doing” to “I want to have what you have.”  Once we understand each other, we can decide how to proceed.  But most importantly, I always try to praise him by saying something like, “Good job asking!” even when I have to delay or deny his wish.

Finally, he is also learning, along with me, about the importance of social connection and the joy that others can bring into our lives.  He is not yet in pre-school, so as a stay-at-home mom I have to make a conscious effort to teach him this.  We leave the house at least once every day, either for a playdate, coffee date, mommy & me class, park, children’s museum, library, or errand.

For myself, I know that I need to be around other people daily to avoid emotional flashbacks to the isolation of my youth.

For my son, I know that he needs to have a lot of early positive experiences with others and have a lot of opportunities to observe social interaction so that he can build his confidence for later social success.  Watching my naturally shy little boy become comfortable and have fun with other people is incredibly satisfying.  It gives me hope that my personal social weaknesses will not greatly limit him.

Seeing my son learn these three lessons has made my motherhood experience wonderful so far.  I only hope, as Baby Boy #2 joins that family this fall, and as my boys get older and start school, that we will be able to continue building strong family relationships on this basic foundation.