Shaya melted into the warm embraces and back-pats of his classmates, now 4th-graders, in front of their new classroom, shimmery green with beautiful wooden windows through which first-day-of-school sunlight streamed in radiant.
In the hallway, they seemed taller, and so happy, embracing their friends, classmates together for yet another year, all familiar and eager to begin together. We parents were equally embracing, happy to see one another, all radiant smiles, arm-strokes and eager hellos after a summer apart.
I’d dropped off Asher in front of the high school, Eliana at her friend’s house to walk together to 7th grade, and then Shaya and I trekked downtown for his first-day drop-off at Detroit Waldorf School, laughing at Macklemore’s song, “Downtown” as it played on the radio.
Today was a day of firsts, but Shaya was not among them. My first child to go to high school (if only for two classes). My first time not dropping off at the middle school (my daughter walked with a friend). My step-daughter’s first day of middle school, at a new building.
Shaya was returning not only to a familiar school, in yes another grade, but everything was familiar – his classmates, his teacher, the parents of this grade. Waldorf schools keep teacher and students together from first grade through eighth, a key element of the Steiner philosophy to educating children.
So why, exactly, tears filled my eyes as Shaya happily ran off with his chums was beyond me. On the phone with my husband afterwards, I said, “I think the whole world should be a Waldorf school. I just love it there.”
I’ve been happy with all the schools my kids attend, but there is something about Waldorf that makes me feel at peace.
The Waldorf curriculum focuses on a child’s developmental stages rather than external markers of success. Reading is not formally taught until third grade. All children play violin starting in third grade. The age cut-off is June 1st because Rudolf Steiner believed there was a significant detriment to pushing ahead too young.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about Waldorf that makes me so happy and whole. Perhaps it’s the way I feel that I am completely accepted exactly as I am by all the families in my child’s class. In the school, really.
I walk down the hall and people I don’t even know say good morning with a shining smile. Everyone assumes the best, of everyone – children, parents, teachers, administration. It is a place filled with joy, optimism and encouragement. Acceptance reigns supreme.
As does celebration of differences.
Along with all this, there is consistency and fluidity in learning. The children stick together from very young until graduation, with their teacher leading them, as a family. They truly know one another; they truly care. And that is a safe place to be yourself.
My other children have some sense of familiarity in the friendly faces they know well, greeting them today on the first day of school. The hallways, at least for Eliana and after the first two classes, for Asher, are familiar. Some teachers are the same, but many are new. Even shuttling from the high school back to middle school, Asher rides alongside nine other middle-schoolers, so they are together in their discomfort and newness.
When I compare my children’s experiences today with our adult world, I want real life to be like a Waldorf school. And I feel that it is not.
The Waldorf’s true encouragement and heartfelt devotion is not an automatic home base in the real world. The strength of doing things differently, according to a philosophy you believe in, that too is missing from the modern world. We conform. We comply. We follow.
Not everyone is nice in the real world, nor in my other children’s schools. Many are – most, I believe – but the reality is that self-preservation drives the masses in most of our settings. Not at the Waldorf. It is as if a net of peace and well-being envelopes the place and the minute you step inside the gate, you are awash with it, too.
I see that when I take Asher and Eliana to pick up Shaya. The gripe and whine and give me all their teenage angst in the car. Once the doors open and they step onto the grass outside his school, their affront disappears and they run for the wooden playscape to climb and kick balls and play joyously together, no pretense, no attitude.
There are people in our world who live by their frenzy, who are driven by their lack of peace, their chaos, their busy schedules.
And there is a small pocket of people who shun that pattern, choosing instead to focus on meaning, philosophy, a reason for being. Those are the people who wake early to stretch into yoga poses, or meditate, or some other spiritual pursuit that frames their reason for being.
It is the latter who find great inner peace and sense of community connection throughout their lives. This is what I see, what I feel, when I immerse in the Waldorf community. The automatic attitude of a Waldorf devotee is one of love for the world, priceless and essential.
In a way, when I observe my religion’s holidays, I am in perfect alignment with the Waldorf philosophy – celebrating the seasons, disengaging from the rat race of the real world to immerse in what I believe. That is a break from the world that we all need.
And yet, we don’t cherish ourselves enough to make it happen regularly.
Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf Education is based on an understanding of human development that addresses the needs of the growing child. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head.
When do we do that for ourselves? And isn’t it about time that we did?