It’s Harder Than You Think to Create A Title with A Gnome-Pun

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“How then is perfection to be sought? Wherein lies our hope? In education, and in nothing else.”  – Immanuel Kant from Lectures on Ethics

In the quiet space as Z. fell asleep against me, her breathing even, the weight of her arm flung across me, the light from the hallway slicing across the floor I had a memory.  I rarely have memories that predate my father’s death — impossible as they are to separate from the childhood spent steeped in my mother’s stories, or pouring over the photo albums with their plastic covers (my father was relentless in his photo documentation of his marriage to my mother, and to my early life); do I remember that moment in that pink almost mohair coat with the matching bonnet — if I reach my hand into my pocket do I pull out a small film canister filled with something, knocking it around with my chubby toddler fingers — do I remember that or is it something caught on film from one of those blustery Illinois days spent at the local park; pulled up on a stripped, unvarnished wooden high chair my mother had found at an old farm sale — a red and white-checkered apron that my mother had worn as a stewardess around my four year old waist — braids behind me in my white ringed t-shirt, smiling up into the camera as I helped my mother in the kitchen.  If I’m honest I don’t remember any of it — I lay awake as Z slept and could only think of the term orientation — I thought of my friend from graduate school who had written a chapter of her book  about migration and the homing mechanisms of birds and I wondered if this feeling was akin to that — it wasn’t a memory per se but a sense of embedded place — where I could sense where, as a child Z’s age, I was in relation to the door, the crack of light, the voices outside raised in anger and terror. The clink of ice in a glass. Thudding. Angry screaming.

I’ve been scrambling for the right words for the next post — but time here is at a premium as Z has stopped napping and so there is no time for writing except at the expense of something else in my life.  I mulled over how I wanted to write the post about my continuing journey finding a school for Z — and I settled on the only way I know how — which is to tell you our story, from my perspective, providing sources and links as best I can throughout so that you might, if interested, seek out the information for yourself.

I always would have considered myself a seeker; I was rootless as a child, never grounded in any sense of larger community or faith — though I hungered for that.  It was I who, at 12, after nearly flunking out of the local public seventh grade, begged my mother to transfer me.  I wanted the elite prep school but instead was happy enough with the small Catholic elementary school that had 25 students in the entire grade. There was something in the dogma that appealed to me — in the ritual and in, what I felt as the core belief, the power of love and redemption.  I met some unusual nuns.  Nuns who took me to peace rallies and got arrested in non-violent demonstrations.  Nuns who told me to take communion if I wanted to — whether or not I had the papers or the formal education to do so “do you believe” they asked, and I did. My brothers came out when I was twelve — and that added a significant wrinkle to my relationship with the Catholic church.  I was a budding feminist, and by the time I minored in Women’s Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder — I had all but fallen away completely.  Boulder was, and remains, a center for Buddhist thought/scholarship — and though I never formally studied then — I always felt the draw. I came out of a very holistic, ecological approach to living — which seems so mainstream now –but twenty years ago was still looked upon as a kind of hippie-fringe movement.  It was in this frame of mind — about whole living, addressing the whole-self (mind, body, spirit) that I first learned about Waldorf Education.

I had been living in Missoula and I remember seeing a beautiful mandala-like art installation near the city’s farmer’s market and when I asked I was astonished to find out that it was made by children.  It must have been, I realize now, a “Waldorf-inspired” school — but that was the moment I first heard of Waldorf.  The person mentioned that it had an ‘arts-based’ curriculum — that stressed the whole-child — and I remember thinking it sounded perfect for the life I imagined for a child — that someday child because it would be that year, the year I was 27, that I would realize that what I wanted more than anything wasn’t a book deal, or to travel out of a backpack throughout the mountains of the world, but rather to have a family — I didn’t know that it would be more than ten years before I would be able to have that child — but I remembered. I remembered the name of the school.

I would come across it again later — I was at a writing conference in Santa Fe in 2005. G and I were together and I was teaching at a community college. I met a woman a few years younger than me — and I am trying now, in retrospect, to put my finger on what seemed so extraordinary about her — and I think that what it was, besides her physical beauty, was her infectious magical thinking — it went beyond the idea of interconnectedness –and it wasn’t an attribute that, at the time, I would’ve thought to connect to her schooling — but I remember her story — that she’d come out of a Waldorf school in Oregon — and here it was again — Waldorf — and here was this creative, free-spirit of a young woman.

At home, my brother’s partner at the time had cousins lived in the same city where we live and they were sending their children to the school here.  I remember him saying that the eldest son asked his parents to send him somewhere else “it’s great I can knit mom, but I want to study physics” is the phrase I remember.  That was the extent of people I knew affiliated with the schools — if it came up in conversation someone might say “Oh, right…arts-based, — don’t they believe in gnomes and fairies…” and I would take that as metaphor — and that this was a place that held on to magic and fairy tales for a little bit longer than other schools — but what, I thought, was the harm of that?  In a world moving at light-speed — it seemed, well, idyllic.

It felt idyllic when I first arrived with Z — at 18 months — the youngest age cut-off for the mother/child class.  She, I remember, wandered off  into the field with the other children as the mother’s sat in the circle.  I remember being overcome by the teacher when she teared up, talking about Steiner’s belief that the child comes into its chosen family — because Z’s birth was hard-won and at the moment, looking into the teacher’s eyes as she met each of our eyes — and she spoke of the mission of love that the Waldorf school brought to the education of children — how could I not fall in love?  Yes, there was talk of Steiner.  There were hand-outs about child-development but most of the time the mother’s spoke more about what was going on in their personal day-to-day lives than we spoke of the articles.  I remember thinking that some of the articles seemed difficult to grasp — difficult in the sense of being impenetrable — as if there were a key, a rosetta stone –that I was missing.  I’m an academic at heart and so my go-to sources are scholarly ones — peer-reviewed from Universities of record — that sort of thing.  I still liked what I was reading.  I liked the underscoring of the sense of rhythm for a child’s day — I marveled at women who would even think of de-mechanizing their household work in an attempt to allow their children to enter their tasks — I think I made a joke at one point about how my grandmother would be appalled to think about my giving up a dishwasher — these were hard-fought tools for feminism — not to be mired in the daily-ever-loving-drudgery of housework.  There were a few things that I found odd.  One day the teacher asked me to start carrying Z on the other side of my body.

She explained then something about Steiner and balance or something.  I thanked her.  I was struggling with the school’s stance in terms of media — I admired it but found it impossible. I was an early reader and I began to look at the picture books in the classroom — the ones without any words at all — and began to ask myself why it was that Steiner education eschewed reading until 7.  Our teacher really focused mostly on guiding with silence, as she put it — and not posing so many questions to our children — an exercise I found useful but excruciatingly hard — as I was always engaging Z — every way that I was approaching her was awakening her —

One of the things that brought me to the school was searching for a place that Z felt comfortable — and the beautiful space itself — with its timber-framed buildings and its surrounding prairie gardens, its long sunlit wooden hallways lined with boots — its coatrooms and pegs for coats — its teachers engaged in singing and filling basins of water for the children to wash their dishes after snack.  So beautiful.  For Z, a child who never warmed to the loud, brightly-lit community rooms at local music classes — or to the public library — seemed at ease enough there… and yet.  I was troubled.  I would catch the teachers faces in repose  — not just our teachers — but the teachers I saw on the grounds — with their hats on and the little ones following them around like ducklings — and their sternness seemed at odds with the physical surroundings in a way I couldn’t place — for a place that was created in such a joyful image — it seemed that there was something at work beneath that I wasn’t quite understanding.

I had, our first year there, done some internet research.  I think the first website I came across was PLANS but then I immediately found this — which seemed a direct rebuttal.  I still was in love with the school — I had made some connections, especially that first year — and then my best friend’s cancer diagnosis took a turn –and I remember being distraught as I went to class with Z– and when I mentioned something to the teacher she talked about Steiner and manifesting illness.  It was at that moment that I felt the biggest disconnect.  We continued the rest of the year there.  I always felt that Z was looked upon as a child that wasn’t engaging as she should — not as carefree and involved because I was not parenting her well enough according to the principles of Steiner, principles I didn’t even clearly understand at that point. I remember our teacher even called me at home — because she had, she said, thought all night about an interaction that Z and I had had — and she wanted to share an insight with me.  At the time I was both taken aback, but intrigued — if that makes sense.  The commitment to Z that prompted the call — and yet the feeling that, beneath it all, this was something to be fixed.  I remember that moment so clearly.  It was February after Z had spent her first time in the snow up at our cabin.  We had come back to the cities — and there was snow — she wasn’t talking clearly yet — most of the time I understood exactly what she was saying — but we were outside with the children as the mother’s began to gather in their circle of folding chairs — and Z was picking up the snow, or trying, and getting more and more agitated — and as I knelt by her, trying to understand her, soothing her — coming up with various alternative phrases — I could see our teacher standing over my shoulder — the look I’d come to be familiar with — where she seemed about to speak, but kept it to herself, hands gently folded.

Z never warmed to the school.  She never really played with the other children — and the free open space with the silks and the blocks and the cradles with the faceless dolls — none of it appealed to her much.  She liked the animals in the barn — and might take them out… she would help me with a craft but ultimately it was her lack of engagement that signaled to me that this was not the place for her — as much as I loved it — and I did — as much as I adored the teacher (and for all my reservations…I had come to really not only like her — but feel as if she cared about, was invested in me.) It was the end of this session this year that I mentioned to our teacher that I was looking into other preschool options — just to see — and that I was looking into Montessori.  I thought, as I looked, that I might as well give a search on the internet one more try.  And that was how I came to a fuller picture of Waldorf/Steiner education.  I ultimately found Alicia’s blog The Ethereal Kiosk by googling Anthroposophy Without Waldorf — and this is what I found.

I dug further and I read this essay by a Gregoire Perra — he is currently being sued, I believe, by French Anthroposophists.

Alicia has a wonderful recent post that links to another very astute critic Andy Lewis.  In the UK they have been seeking public funding for Steiner schools and so the debate has been much more in the open than here in the US — I have learned so much from that ongoing discussion. Here’s a link to Andy Lewis’ blog post which says it far better than I could.  He also has a post I would suggest called What Every Parent Should Know about Waldorf-Steiner schools.

I had this response when challenged by a proponent of the schools in the comment section of Alicia’s blog as to why I was surprised about the aims of the school:

  1. “Setting that general problem aside, its probably fair to assume that most parents have access to google and the same resources you have had access to.”

    It is impossible to know. What I do want to state here is that it wasn’t as if this was an easily drawn conclusion — nor was the information readily accessible. Not only have I been using the internet for scholarly research for as long as its been around…but I have been blogging in a community of women for over five years now and consider myself to be fairly comfortable with the medium — and STILL I had to dig. It was complicated by, if the suggestions raised in this forum have any merit, the fact that there was a very vocal component responding to the critics that may have gone so far as to create online aliases posing as other mothers on forums — the strange thing for me — being a lifelong academic whose primary study is that of language/literature — that syntax is almost like a thumbprint — for those paying attention it’s the equivalent of a verbal tic. Yes that’s just my supposition, or “intuition”. All of this to say — it wasn’t easy sussing out what I felt to be a whole picture of Waldorf/Steiner in order to make my own personal decision concerning my daughter’s education. A simple solution to this would be for the Waldorf Schools to be completely transparent about their connections to anthroposophy. As a parent I might certainly “take what I want and leave the rest” but if the entire pedagogy is shaped by the beliefs of Steiner and arises out of the impulses of an anthroposophical worldview — what does it matter if I, as a parent — not in the school everyday — wish to leave some parts out? There is no leaving behind the shaping of a child’s worldview in a particular way — that would be happening should I choose to educate my child in a Waldorf school — but in presenting it as a peripheral part of the education when it is clearly central — seems misleading to me. I can, you are correct, only speak for myself.

    “Its a logical error to assume that because people don’t see things the same way you do that they don’t know what you know. They may just disagree with the conclusions you have drawn because their experiences and their assessment of things comes from a different place.”

    Although I was musing about American parents as a whole (as I see more and more discussion and interest arising in Waldorf education) the musing was prompted by my personal experience with the women I do know who have chosen Waldorf — women I know well enough to have had fairly deep conversations about pedagogy and parents who, I might add — seem to know very little about the PEDAGOGICAL direction of the school — drawn, as they are to the idea that they have found a kind of holistic, natural haven … a kind of oasis in their modern lives (and here I am quoting directly from mothers I have known.) I’ll point out the article from the Montana paper that I included earlier — as well as this one from the NYT:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Where is the larger discussion and transparency? This isn’t simply a school that eschews media — this is a place where an anthroposophical soil is tilled– and I have no issue with the existence of the schools, don’t misunderstand me, but to seek a larger enrollment without being clear about the mission of its pedagogy is unconscionable — my son attends a parochial school and we are clear that his education is being filtered through a Catholic lens — we were able to weigh what that meant, if we still were inclined to send him there, question where the philosophy of the school might differ from our own… in short we were able to be informed. That is all I’m suggesting that the Waldorf schools do.

    I still think its a valid question.

    ***

    I have been promising for some time to write about this.  I am still struggling a little — more with what I believed it to be and the loss of it.  Ultimately, I took her to a local montessori and she lit up with interest — buzzed around the room.  I sat in and observed a classroom of 23 preschoolers who were engaged in tasks with very little teacher involvement — it was miraculous –and night and day from our experience at her other school.  It was just as another commenter on one of the critic sites put it — that upon leaving the school it was as if they had been dreaming – and they rubbed their eyes and the veil of fog lifted — and there the buzzing world was — in front of them all along.

    The new school is five days a week –and pretty rigid in its following of the Maria Montessori method — since I don’t think she’s ready for five days a week I hope that she’ll start there in the fall — and until then?  We’re setting up our own rhythm here.

    ***

    I think what I’ve been most bothered by is my own desire and almost willingness to have jumped wholeheartedly into this community.  I remember when I was a college freshman there was a lot of public service information regarding cults (though whether or not this qualifies, I understand, is a subject of much debate) a few of which were quite active in the Denver/Boulder area.  I remember the discussion about how the people who were vulnerable were those who were a bit adrift — maybe a little disconnected from family and friends — seeking a larger, deeper connection.  To be welcomed into the bosom of a community — isn’t that what we seek when we enter communities of faith? The loss of this, or the recognition that my own worldview doesn’t dovetail with the larger community — does make me reflect on just what it is that I am seeking –not just for myself, but for my family too.

9 responses

  1. insightful and important post – there’s a lot there one time Steiner Waldorf parents will recognise.

    ‘I could see our teacher standing over my shoulder — the look I’d come to be familiar with — where she seemed about to speak, but kept it to herself, hands gently folded.’

    Good luck to Z – exciting times lie ahead!

  2. Pingback: reading tip « the ethereal kiosk

  3. Thank you for such a wonderful piece of writing!

    I think the observations about how waldorf ‘speaks to’ one’s longing for a community are particularly interesting. I’ve always imagined I was more or less immune to such appeals, but have lately come to realize I’ve probably fooled myself…

    And waldorf has many other attractions as well. At least superficially. I was very unhappy in a waldorf school as a child. But my relationship to the whole thing — both the idea and the actual ‘practice’ — is still very divided, unsettled, confused. I went through many years of simply hating the whole thing and the memory of it — in a way that was much easier, but not fulfilling either.

    It’s complicated. The gnomes agree.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I can totally understand your sense of loss and grief… the idea of it, what you believed it would give your daughter – wholeness, beauty, a sort of magic. I’m glad you did the digging and your concerns sound very valid. xo

  5. Oh, boy. This post is a whole other road less taken version for me…

    My twins have spent 3 years in a religious pre-school. They LOVE it, I have had issues with it (with the crazy over-involved, bossy, fussy parents if I’m honest.) I have been bullied (along with others) into being an over-active volunteer, constantly raising money for the latest indulgence for over spoiled, over indulged kids (all having to do with weird food preparation). I am not into the philosophy, and have openly rebelled. So, I have been openly shunned. It sucks.

  6. Most people feel at home with like minded individuals, right? We have a child (and some of us only get one crack at it) and we just want to do the very best for them; give her/him what we never had. We want them to thrive and be happy and so we shepherd them to a place where we hope the teachers are heralding the values that we share. They are trained to do this full time, so surely they know more and have experience,so why wouldn’t you trust their judgment? Having said that, you discovered that they simply weren’t just cherry picking some benign twig & berry methodologies. You wanted it to be something that it is isn’t. It just appeared that way. I think the important lesson here is to listen to your instinct in all things and question, question, question.. Z certainly sounds like the Montessori method will serve her better in the time she will spend there.

  7. TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    Robert Frost

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