This past week I joined the steering committee for the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund. Since testimonials are one of the best ways to sell, I thought I'd share my own Waldorf story, since it has some spiritual significance.
Personally, I did very well in public school . . . if all you're looking at is the report card. I got great grades, stayed out of trouble, and went on to college without a hitch. I would be one of those students the public schools would be proud to claim as their own. The only problem was . . . well, everything else, everything besides the grades. I spent vast amounts of time in the earlier grades being hopelessly bored -- "Oh, jeez, not another geometry unit again? How many times are we going to have exactly the same lesson about parallelograms?" I managed to get along with other kids but never really had friends. I was high-strung, geeky, unsocialized, and generally unhappy, though I was too proud to admit it.
The public schools gave me a number of disappointing teachers along the way, and I have my mother to thank for watching carefully and knocking down anyone and anything that got in my way. One year I had a mentally unstable teacher who routinely lost assignments, accused people of not turning them in, and read passages of the historical novel sheÂ was writing to her third-graders, including scenes of colonial settlers being hung in their own homes by British soldiers. My mom volunteered to be an assistant in the classroom, and managed to shelter us from most of the damage. Another year my teacher only got us halfway through the reading text we were supposed to cover. The school administration shrugged its collective shoulders and planned to just let us repeat the text next year. My mom arranged for me to finish the text in the summertime. Because I stuttered in the earlier years, I had been tracked into the lowest reading level. My mom intervened again and arranged to demonstrate my reading comprehension was actually several grade levels above, and I moved from the lowest reading group to the highest. At that point the school was ready to just promote me a couple grade levels, but my mom (who herself had been unhappy when promoted past her age level) prevented it, knowing I was having a hard time fitting in as it was. When the local teacher's union threatened a nasty strike, my mom organized parents to monitor the picket lines for trouble.
So, by the time I finished school I had an largely negative impression of the public school system.Â Well, actually that's being generous -- I thought they sucked.Â Once I realized that I was smarter than the teachers, that I could read better than they could, and cared more about learning than they did,Â my teacher's-pet eagerness to please turned into silent contempt.Â There were some notable exceptions, though. I had a fantastic experience in a gifted program that took students out of the regular schools once a week and brought us together to do fun stuff -- build rockets, dig for artifacts, study mythology, conduct toga parties in Latin. It was a much-needed dose of oxygen to my intellectual life, a reassurance that school could be wonderful, even if it often wasn't. When we returned to the regular school to get our homework assignments, the teachers were often full of spite, angry that they were not deemed fit to teach the best and brightest, angry at anything that disrupted their educational reign. Later on, I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a public boarding school that took students for their last two years of high school. I had the same experience of elation: "oh my God, this is what school is supposed to be like." And I encountered the same spite from the regular school; teachers and guidance counselors told me it was a mistake, that I could get just as good an education at Brevard High.
So, even when public schools were exceptional, they were literally an exception --Â a special program that took me away from the usual schooling. Like most Americans, I believe in the ideal of public education. I don't think we can embrace a social order that promises the American Dream of upward mobility without giving people the educational opportunity to rise to the highest level of their talents. But I also can't argue with my experience that the public education system is broken, and that anything to shake it up is a Good Thing.
When it came time to consider school options for my own kids, I wasn't sure what I would do, but I knew for certain that:
I wanted it to be a better experience than I had.
I wanted it to have a more holistic notion of education, that recognized emotional and social development as well as intellectual skills.