Tomorrow, my daughter graduates 8th grade, bringing an end to her twelve years of Waldorf education.
She’s been a student at Green Meadow Waldorf School since she was three years old, longer than she can remember. To her, Waldorf school is school, a Waldorf childhood simply what life was like when she was younger: dreamy, pastoral, timeless.
Sending her to private school has cost, in the very roundest of figures, about $140,000 (not including the cost for her younger brother, which will more than double this figure over time), a jaw-dropping amount of money even to me, and I wrote the checks. We did it on two public educators’ salaries, and I won’t bore you with the details of all that we have sacrificed to give our children this gift, other than to note that when my husband’s Dodge finally joined the choir invisible last summer, “trade-in” was not really an option.
$140,000 could have bought a lot of other things instead, and certainly would have meant much less household debt. Over the years, my husband and I have occasionally looked at each other over a pile of bills and said, “If it weren’t for their school…” If it weren’t for their school, by our reckoning, we’d be rich. Or maybe, if it weren’t for their school, we would have just spent the money on a lot of stuff we didn’t need. But as we prepare to say goodbye, I find that I have no regrets at all about what we got for $140,000 or what we could have had instead. We got so much for our money.
Attending a Waldorf school gave our children an education and a childhood very far outside the mainstream of American culture. Waldorf schools begin with an entirely different set of assumptions about the purposes of education. Teachers are not preparing students for a test, or to meet the state standards, to get into an exclusive college (although many do), or even to compete in the workplace (although, of course, Waldorf graduates do that, too). The purpose of Waldorf education is to prepare students for their freedom and their destiny, and fulfilling those goals requires an expansive definition of education. Children’s relationships, physical health, spiritual development, artistic expression, and imagination are given as much attention as their intellects (more, really, in the multi-age nursery-kindergarten), as is their ability to work and play with their hands, limbs, heads and hearts. The aesthetic of a Waldorf early childhood–the handmade toys, natural materials, and soft colors, the endless hours of free play in woods and fields in every kind of weather, the candle-time and gnomes and fairy tales–all contribute to the cultivation of a sense of beauty, ritual and wonder in the little ones. These capacities take time to develop, and the children have all the time in the world. Academic work of any kind, even the alphabet, does not begin until first grade, when the children are six or seven.
Because Waldorf schools have a media-free policy, meaning that children in the early grades should be exposed to no television, movies, computer games or any other kinds of electronic media at all, Waldorf also gave us a much quieter home than most and freed us from the constant demands consumerism makes on families with young children. Once, near Christmas, an adult at a friend’s house asked the preschoolers there what they wanted Santa to bring them. One little girl rattled off a list of brand-name products word-for-word from commercials she’d watched. When it was my daughter’s turn, she thought for a long moment, and finally came out with “Toys!” and a big smile. I won’t say her lack of consumer sophistication saved us money, because the gorgeous handmade dolls and toys that captivate the heart of a Waldorf child are expensive, but knowing that her head was filled with stories instead of commercials seemed worth the price difference between a Barbie and a Kathe Kruse. We vacationed at cabins in the woods and shacks near the beach instead of in Disneyland, enjoyed the occasional quick dinner out at Whole Foods instead of McDonald’s. If advertisers hoped to imprint their brands on our children’s brains for life, they got a late start. Their desires arose from their experiences and observations, rather than from being rammed into their brains by the relentless advertising against which young brains have no defenses.
The media policy is less about protecting children from consumerism, though, than it is about privileging unmediated experience: play, imagination, interaction, working, moving, feeling, and thinking in three dimensions. To me, its greatest value was where it directed their attention, or rather, where it didn’t direct it. My children weren’t fixated on corporate-created, color-coded characters like the Teletubbies or the Wiggles, and they didn’t believe they were having a personal relationship with Elmo or Clifford or Steve from Blues Clues. They were relating to their family, teachers, classmates, and each other (for better or for worse). The imaginary friends with whom they had relationships were products of their own imaginations. Because all the other families, to varying degrees, were attempting to follow the media policy in their own homes, none of the children felt excluded or weird.
Being a part of this community of like-minded, though quite diverse, parents drawn to Waldorf education was in itself worth much of that $140,000. Keeping a private school operating takes tremendous parent volunteerism: organizing class activities, assisting at festivals and fundraisers, chaperoning, serving on committees. It’s difficult for me to get to know new people in social settings, but working side-by-side for hours with the warm, lively mothers and fathers of my children’s classmates created community and friendship. We are from a variety of countries, religious backgrounds, careers and life experiences, but we share certain values that bring us together. Since many of us moved to be close to school, the children have grown up in a quaint sort of village environment, where at the Co-op, the pizza place, the swimming pond, the Café, and all over the 400-acre campus of various Anthroposophical institutions here, they know nearly everyone they see. (When they were little and we occasionally had to go to the mall, they skipped off away from me. I would call them back, ask them to look around, and tell me who they saw that they knew. When they realized, shocked, that they didn’t recognize a single person, I would remind them that the mall is not the Co-op, and that they needed to stay close to me.) $140,000 bought a feeling of absolute belonging.
It also, of course, paid for the core of my daughter’s education, presided over by Jane Wulsin, a teacher of over 30 years’ experience, who, in the traditional Waldorf way, taught the class from their first day of first grade through today, their last day of eighth grade. She taught them everything from the alphabet to algebra, fairy tales to the French Revolution. She structured their days in a rhythm that alternated periods of quiet concentration with movement and singing. She took them on weeklong camping trips, on outings to New York City, and on walks to her house for treats. She supervised these children, who have become more like siblings than classmates, from hopscotch and jumprope through their first awkward school dances, always making sure that they played fair, took care of one another, and talked out their problems when they weren’t getting along. She had them reciting Tennyson in first grade, performing Julius Caesar in sixth grade, and singing The Magic Flute in eighth grade. She believed they could do anything they set their minds to, so they did. Mrs. Wulsin retires tomorrow, the day of their graduation, and none of us can imagine life without this loving, earnest, gifted teacher, this third parent, lighting the way to their next accomplishment.
What else did we get for $140,000? My daughter and her classmates possess a marvelous confidence that they can figure out how to do difficult things. They can sing, dance, play the recorder, some guitar, and an orchestral instrument, draw very well, paint, make dyes from plants, knit wonderful socks, crochet, embroider, sew their own shirts, carve wood, sculpt, and garden. They can spell their names in Eurythmy. They can run a fundraiser and put on a play and teach younger children and pilot a canoe. My house is full of my kids’ handwork, all made from natural materials: the little knitted animals they made in first grade, the swirly watercolors with the corners of the paper rounded off, their pottery and candles and felted mats. I can’t bring myself to throw out a scrap of anything they worked on so hard and brought home to place in my hands so proudly. So much of who they are and who they will become resides in those little projects.
Waldorf education is not perfect, and it’s definitely not for every family. I won’t pretend, not even on this last day, that we haven’t had questions and problems over the years, and that there weren’t times we thought we might have to leave. My daughter will attend a public high school next year. Perhaps she will return to Waldorf before she finishes high school, and perhaps she won’t. Waldorf high schools have their own unique and fascinating curriculum, but she needs to go to school next year somewhere she hasn’t been known since she was barely out of babyhood and where she doesn’t know everyone she sees. She’s ready for different challenges, and we definitely need a break from paying for two private school tuitions. Financially, we have a lot of catching up to do.
It was hard to give this gift. It still is. We went without a lot of things we wanted, and sometimes, things we needed.
But for $140,000, we bought our daughter a beautiful childhood. It was worth every penny. And now, it is over.
A few more posts relating to Waldorf education can be found here.