This post first appeared on Assist News Service in October 2015.
I just returned home from my morning walk. Though born purely out of necessity, it is now one of my favorite parts of the day, a peaceful interlude for a mother of four living in a bustling metropolis.
If you have been following my column here, you know that we recently moved from the mid-sized Ukrainian town that we had called home for the last eight years to Kyiv, the capital of the country with a population of roughly four million. The move was unexpected and the changes that accompanied it drastic, but at every stage we have seen God’s amazing guidance and provision.
A month ago, our two eldest kids started the school year in a new school. When we were preparing to move, we weren’t sure how the school and kindergarten situation would work out, because we had so little time before school started. However, we were able to get our 8-year-old and 6-year-old enrolled in one of the public schools not far from the house we’re renting.
I have to admit that I was worried about how the kids would handle the new environment, especially since public schools in Ukraine have a reputation. Everyone seems to have his or her own story of being mistreated in this system. It’s not uncommon for teachers to yell at the students and use shaming tactics to maintain control, and the students themselves are often cruel to each other. The school we had been planning to send our kids to before the move was different. It was a public school, but it was smaller and had a gentler feel. Our eldest had already spent two years there and loved it, and it was difficult to leave. Despite these concerns, however, we still believed that public school was the best choice for our kids.
So it was with some trepidation and much prayer that I sent them off to school on the first day. Imagine my amazement when they returned home and my eldest excitedly told us what he had learned from his teacher: out of 200 schools in Kyiv, their school was ranked third! He also said that the kids are even better behaved than in his last school. But the greatest news came from my second son.
He is my most emotional child. He is so sensitive that he completely shuts down when he is embarrassed, hurt, or disappointed. I had feared that he would constantly call down the wrath of his teacher by entering one of these states and refusing to cooperate, but he told me that his teacher said she would never yell at him, because she realized that he might not always understand what she said due to the language difference. God gave him the perfect teacher who made a point of reaching out to him and managed to form such a bond with him that he loves to follow her instructions and seems to have become one of her special favorites. This outcome is above and beyond anything I could have asked or imagined for the son I believed would surely become a problem child in school.
So our school-aged children were taken care of, but finding a kindergarten was more complicated. My husband went to the kindergarten administrative office for the city of Kyiv, and they told him there were no openings. I found it a little difficult to believe that in a city of 4 million, there wasn’t a single spot available in any of the kindergartens anywhere, but that was the official story. Later a Ukrainian friend pointed out that they were probably just waiting for us to offer them money to find us a place, but bribing corrupt officials isn’t really our style. Instead, my husband, a veteran missionary of over two decades, had the inspired idea of going directly to the kindergarten that was our first choice. It was located right next to the school the older boys were attending.
It turned out that this kindergarten didn’t technically have room, but given our extenuating circumstances of having just moved, they were willing to work out a compromise. Public kindergartens don’t get enough funding to maintain their premises, so several times a year, the parents pitch in to finance various projects, like repainting a classroom or buying a television. This kindergarten needed some new furniture, and if we would make a large donation for the purchase of this furniture, they would take our son. In terms of expense and outcome, one could argue that it wasn’t much different than bribing an official at the top, but we felt comfortable with this arrangement, because we knew that the money would go to benefit children instead of perpetuating a system of graft. So now our kids attend school and kindergarten next door to each other!
Every weekday begins with a scramble to get our three older boys to class on time. Initially, we had planned to drive them, but a pickpocket on the subway stole our van documents during our first few weeks in Kyiv, and we still don’t have replacements. And so my morning walks were born. It takes 20-30 minutes one-way, depending on how cooperative the kids are being, and the route is anything but flat.
Have you ever heard some version of the joke that granddad had to walk five miles to and from school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways? I chuckle every day while walking to and from the kids’ school and kindergarten, because I feel like I’m living this anecdote. While our route is much less than five miles, and we are all blessed with shoes, and we don’t have snow yet, there are steep uphill sections on both the outbound and the homeward routes! How is this possible, you wonder?
Kyiv is a city of many hills, and we live near the base of one of them. The kids’ school and kindergarten are located partway down the other side. Going around the hill would take an extremely long time, so we have to go up and over. My husband and I had fun exploring the many narrow streets, footpaths, and stairways that crisscross our hill to find the most direct routes to both school and kindergarten. Some sections of these streets are at least a 30- or 40-degree incline, and I have no idea how drivers navigate them in the winter. I’m wondering if we’ll even be able to manage them on foot in the snow and ice, as they are challenging enough now!
For two of the five weeks my kids have been in school, my husband has been gone on ministry trips. This means that I have had to take our 2-and-a-half-year-old with us on these walks. At first it seemed like a huge burden, and it is, in a very literal sense. A 30-pound burden, to be exact. For some reason, no matter how well he starts off, he always reaches a point on the outbound journey when he refuses to walk another step. He just holds me around the knees and cries, begging me to pick him up. After one or two days of this, I learned just to tie him on my back with my special baby wrap before we left home. I always feel like Christian from The Pilgrim’s Progress, trudging up a mountainside with a great burden strapped to my back, but it is excellent exercise!
For some reason, once we’ve dropped his older brothers off, this youngest child of mine usually has no problem walking home, and the return trip is the morning walk I was referring to in the first paragraph of this column. It couldn’t be more different from the walk to school. When we leave home, we’re usually in a rush, with me trying to set a pace that the kids can match that will also get us to school before the tardy bell. Someone is usually straggling, needing frequent encouragement in the form of breathless commands barked over my shoulder, “C’mon, catch up! We’re gonna be late!”
But the way home is magic.
We chase pigeons, pet kitty cats, talk to doggies, pick flowers, collect fallen chestnuts, and anything else my little one wants, as long as it’s moving us closer to home. We exchange frequent smiles and laughter. By the time we make it home, we’re both in excellent spirits, and I feel energized and ready to take on the day.
Often while we’re walking home, other people on foot will pass us. Some of them will nod and smile and say hi, but the rest are in such a rush that they seem completely oblivious, lost in a world of deadlines and pressures. I know that place, because I can find myself there far too easily. But my 2-year-old is teaching me to seek a new rhythm, one where the wonders around us take precedence over everything else, where God feels near, and we notice and appreciate the people who cross our path as living reflections of His image.
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