My second year of homeschooling, I was very highly structured. The summer before we began our third year, I spent a week of the summer carefully writing lesson plans for two children. I knew what to expect for each of that school year's 180 days with a kindergartner and second grader.
Two weeks into the school year, our home and business burned. We salvaged schoolbooks, clothes, and business equipment; everything else was lost. My children lost all of their toys. For three months, we lived in an 800 square foot apartment that served as our home, school, and business headquarters. Not what I expected.
Our homeschool community and neighbors carried us through those difficult months. I began school each morning with the kids at 6:30, and then we went to our fire-damaged home so I could work with contractors on rebuilding our home. Sometimes my children read Dr. Seuss books aloud to me while I sanded floors, cleaned workers' messes, and more. The kids spent their days playing in the yard while I frantically worked to get my family back into our home. As I worked the house, my husband worked our business to keep it alive despite huge challenges.
The kids learned a lot. One friend, a homeschool mother, not only helped the kids learn to make change but also to ride bikes and swim. They got to see how we demolished and rebuilt a home in record-breaking time and how many people came together to help us. Our neighbors were amazed at how other homeschool families helped us. One asked me, "Do they always drive vans?"
My kids learned vocabulary words that weren't on any list: insurance claim, demolition, insulation, toxic, decking, and more. Once, our school lesson was fitting a puzzle of oak floor pieces to determine if we had enough for our kitchen. A worker on the crew for our house happened to love ancient history and enthralled our kids with stories of Alexander the Great.
Five days before Thanksgiving, we moved back into our home. Three days before Thanksgiving our new stove was delivered. Two days before Thanksgiving we again had a refrigerator. On Thanksgiving Day we enjoyed dinner in our newly remodeled home with our extended family. We used card tables instead of a kitchen table. Everyone sat on folding chairs: there were no others. My son slept with his mattress on the floor because his new bed hadn't yet arrived. Yet we celebrated being back home, with a new beginning.
We live on a quiet, urban street and wanted to give our neighbors a "thank you" for their support during our struggles. A friend and I collected milk jugs the month of December and asked friends to collect them too. We collected over 50 jugs, made Chinese lanterns of them with votive candles and kitty litter, and attached a Christmas card to each milk jug handle. It became a Christmas craft project that took us days to complete. Five- and seven-year-olds are eager helpers, but it still took us time.
Our fall of the fire was also the year of September 11. We had all seen such devastation and loss that I wanted somehow to show our kids that even in times of great loss, we celebrate new beginnings and hope for the future. We hoped our plan would inspire and encourage others in our neighborhood.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, our families worked up two city blocks, placing a lantern in front of each home. I was nervous placing candles in front of some of our neighbors' homes; sometimes inner city neighbors are volatile. It was growing dark, the wind began to whip, and we hurried to light the candles before our family went to Christmas Eve services. I couldn't be late because the kids were singing before the service, and I was "volunteered" to direct them!
A light dusting of snow began to fall while we were in the service. When we returned home, the white snow dusted the street and sidewalks and reflected off the dark night sky. There was a unique calm and silence we didn't expect to experience in the middle of the city. In front of each house, reflecting against the snow, were our recycled milk jug Christmas lights. They lit the path to our newly rebuilt home. The neighbor in front of whose house I most hesitated to leave a light had rearranged the milk jugs so there were three lights in front of her home. Even they caught the Christmas spirit that evening.
When we arrived home, there was an even bigger surprise. Someone had visited our home and left a room full of presents under the tree for our children. Both squealed with delight. "This is the best Christmas ever!" they told us. Their toys had been replaced.
At first I worried that I didn't give them the school year I had expected. Instead, we spent a school year together as a family, doing school and rebuilding our lives. At the end of the year, both had surpassed my goals of what I had hoped they would learn that year. Now, five years later, I don't think about that haphazard school year's academics.
What I most remember is Christmas: the cookies we baked, the new tree we decorated, the new ornaments we made, the ornaments a family friend gave us when she learned we had none, and most of all... a lesson:
Great things can happen when you light a dollar store votive candle, resting in bargain-priced cat litter, in the middle of a recycled milk jug. A whole street of them transforms a neighborhood.
They become a snowy scene of Christmas lights.