When I was a young Captain stationed at RAF Lakenheath in England in 2003, I remember having a conversation with my squadron commander about our lack of work-life balance. “Why do we have to go out and waste so much time and fuel practicing Basic Fighter Maneuvers (close-in dogfighting) when everyone is already working 60-80 hour weeks? If I ever end up in a close-in dogfight with the enemy, something has gone horribly wrong for the Air Force!”
What should have been obvious that I didn’t understand at the time was that BFM is a fundamental building block of all combat aviation. It was there not just so we would win a dogfight; it was an exercise that developed certain cognitive pathways in our brains. We were being taught how to observe rapidly changing sensory inputs, categorize them appropriately, and respond correctly at both a conscious and subconscious level – all while experiencing the most physiological stress the airplane could dish out.
As I think about the futures of my kids, they’re getting old enough that I’m starting to worry about their work-life balance. Do I have enough time with them at home? Are we giving them all the athletic opportunities we should? Are they doing too much homework? Will they get into the colleges we want them to?
To help answer these questions, I decided to observe Mr. Koenen’s 11th grade Humanities class last week. I was quite frankly dumbfounded by the transcendent level of all-around excellence I witnessed from start to finish. First, it was the light-hearted teenage banter, not about who did what to who or what so-and-so was wearing but about…Dante…and Beatrice…and bacon and the meaning of Mr. Koenen’s bumper sticker (and all this before Mr. Koenen even entered the room).
Next, I was personally edified by the diagram Mr. Koenen put up on the white board illustrating why I do the things I do and how it relates to the reading the students had been assigned in Dante’s Purgatorio:
Our senses perceive an object, our imagination projects what it might be like to relate to that object, desire is born and grows into love. But love in this world is broken and so I must use reason and will to shepherd my desires and loves and…”
“Mr. Koenen, stop,” I thought. “My mind can’t keep up with all of the different areas of my life this touches and informs. I’ve got to sit a minute and reflect and let my brain catch up!”
But it didn’t stop. At this point, a student in the class put his hand up and said, “Mr. Koenen, how is it possible to be a celibate gay Christian?” Without missing a beat, he somehow tied the writings of someone 700 years removed from our culture of shameless TV and Disney boycotts to his diagram of our loves on the board. He then proceeded to walk methodically, humbly, and charitably through the traditional Christian view of same-sex attraction.
For the entire hour that I sat in the corner listening (on a chair that was carried in from another room by a student who noticed I needed a place to sit), the students were engaged and articulate. They were thoughtful and amazed at the symbolism of Dante’s story. They asked difficult questions about relationships, human nature, and community. It was absolutely breath-taking.
As my mind drifted back to my tuition bill and all of my questions about my fears for my own kids, two things struck me: first, is a Petra education difficult? Undoubtedly, but if someone is to be a culture-making Christian leader in postmodern America – whether it be as an inventor, an artist, a homemaker, a programmer, a CEO, an entrepreneur or an electrician – they will have to wrestle with difficult ideologies and resource constraints every year of their lives.
Second, are the repetitive, mundane building blocks of classical education executed perfectly all the time? Probably not, but the Petra community is one in which we can ask each other the questions like the ones I’m asking above. We can share these fears with each other and constructively help each other find answers to those fears so both we and our kids can all grow in grace and cultural impact.
Like BFM produces quick-thinking combat aviators, Petra Academy’s cultivation alongside loving families is producing bold thinkers in an era and in a culture that needs them like never before. Observing the class of 2019, I witnessed spiritual warriors who will walk into the world, see what needs to be done, and do it with a spirit of humility and winsomeness unlike few others. Petra might not be doing everything right all of the time, but if whatever they’re doing produces what I saw in the classroom last week, I want my kids here.
Jim Stumbo is a 1995 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, and a financial planner with Edward Jones. He and his wife, Jen, have three students (8th, 6th, and 1st grades) at Petra, with a fourth beginning in Kindergarten next year. This is the family’s third year at Petra Academy.
Interested in observing a class at Petra? Contact our office at 582-8165 for options.