I was convinced thatÂ we needed to find an alternative education option for our kids. What were our options?
We could home-school. I found that option appealing on a number of levels. I was interested in education and enjoyed teaching. I knew that my kids would never have to be bored, listening to the same lecture on parallelograms they had heard the year before. I knew that my kids would have a teacher who knew his subject matter and actually cared about it, and about them. I didn't have to be that good to be a whole lot better than most public school teachers, so what did I have to lose?
We could go to an ordinary private school. My wife was the product of private schooling, and she had her own reservations about it. She felt perfectly well-prepared academically, but the curriculum was heavily lop-sided to the intellectual, and the culture of exclusive cliques of snobbish rich kids was almost as bad as the movies make it out to be.
We could go to a Waldorf school.Â We had no direct exposure to Waldorf education, until our good friend Kenny Felder spoke glowinglyÂ about it andÂ how happy their kids were at Emerson Waldorf. PhilosophicallyÂ we had taken a lot of child-development wisdom from Joseph Chilton Pearce, whom I had the good fortune to meet with several times through the SKS, and Joe Pearce was a big fan of Waldorf education. So it was definitely worth checking out.
I went on a campus tour of the Emerson Waldorf School a few months before my first son was born. It was a beautiful day, and the wooded campus seemed especially picturesque with the sun filtering through the trees and the ground still damp from recent rain. Just walking to the meeting room, I thought, "What a wonderful place to come to every day." And that effect continued inside, too, in the Eurythmy room where the tour was gathering. What was it, exactly? The wood trim, the big windows, the color of the walls? The place felt extremely . . . comfortable. No, comforting -- something about it actively embraced you. I am not, temperamentally, a touchy-feely kind of guy, but my reaction to this place almost made me believe there was such a thing as an "inner child," because I had a spontaneous longing and sense of regret, something like, "I wish I'd grown up here." And all that before they even started talking.
And the talking only took me further in. They explained some of the nature of Waldorf schools, how every little detail is consciously created to meet the child at their level. I heard several teachers speak, and I was struck by how well they could articulate their philosophy of education. Though I didn't understand it completely, it was clear they had spine, a consistent approach to doing things that felt rigorous and well-defined. And yet they were also totally grounded in their own experience. When Ameli Fairman-Evans, the kindergarten teacher, spoke about the early education program and the skills the children are acquiring there, she said, with heartfelt tenderness, "You know, sharing is really hard." The way she said it convinced me that she herself was there, in the same world the children occupied, and all this pedagogical theory was both the result and the cause of a deep understanding of the child. German has two words for understanding: wissen for intellectual knowing about something, and kennen for personally experiencing something. Clearly these teachers had both.
After the orientation we walked outside again, touring the campus, looking at some of the classrooms and workshops and gardens where the children studied, worked, played. As we walked I spoke with Ingeborg Boesch, one of the teachers. I asked her, "So, you mentioned that stories play a big role in the teaching in the early grades . . . "
"Do all Waldorf teachers use the same stories, or do the teachers choose the stories themselves?"
"Oh, we all choose our own stories."
"So . . . what do you look for, in a story that you might use for teaching?"
I literally stopped dead in my tracks, and Frau Boesch had to turn around to continue talking. "Of course I don't mean literal truth, I mean that certain archetypes are contained --"
"No, no!" I said, holding my hands up, a wondrous grin on my face. "You don't have to explain. I understand completely."
And I did. The fact that someone could say that . . . that there were still teachers in the world who understood Truth, and who knew that their job was to lead students to their own experience of it . . . I was blown away. I think that was the exact moment I knew my kids would go to a Waldorf school.
Of course there were other influencing factors on that tour. For all of the feel-good vibe, the curriculum was both vigorous and broad. Two languages, music, drawing, handwork-- all on top of the reading, math, and science you would expect of any school. Looking at the beautiful objects in the woodshop, I'm sure I wasn't the only parent quietly thinking, "Damn, I couldn't make anything like that." A lot of us grew up thinking that we weren't the kind of person who could build something, or sing, or play music, or grow a plant, or draw . . . and Waldorf clearly believes that no such person exists. Implicit in its broad curriculum is an unspoken empowering message: you can do this. Nor do the teachers confuse nurturing with mollycoddling. One mother, nervously fingering a rasp in the handwork shop, said, "You make them wear gloves when they're using these tools, right?" Mr. Hagerman, the grandfatherly shop teacher, replied, "Of course not. They couldn't feel the wood if they did. We teach them how to use the tools safely, and absolutely no horseplay is allowed in the shop. But they need to learn to respect the tools; that also is part of the lesson."
So what did I think about my options now? Looking back, I laugh at my absolute hubris for thinking that I was the best person to education my children. I probably would have done better than the public schools, but looking at the Waldorf curriculum I realized how vast my ignorance was, how much I would have missed. Nor have I encountered any other school, public or private, that impressed me with its wisdom. I've seen other schools with tremendous faculty, and talented students, and beautiful facilities, and engaging curricula, but none of them ever manifested such a complete understanding of how to nurture the development of a complete human being. Â