Just how many different people can I be in my head in one day? Well, at least two solid positions are staking claim to my mental landscape. One is incredibly sad that yesterday was my son’s last day at his Waldorf school, and the other is very excited for our family to become part of the local public school community.
So why the ambivalence?
E’s Waldorf school — where he spent a year in parent-child, a year in the three-day “kindergarten,” and this year, what is designed to be the first of two years in five-day “Oak Tree Kindergarten” — is a beautiful place. I love that he has been able to unfold, as they say, free of expectations to “achieve” or perform in any particular way.
Yesterday, after we admired the boat he made (and loved making!), we looked through his book of coloring from the whole year. I was in tears seeing how he’s gone from abstract scribbles to intricate drawings with clear storylines all on his own, with no direction or suggestions. At this school, he truly is learning for the love of the experience, not on anyone else’s timeline or following anyone else’s agenda. What a gift.
Waldorf education has a reverence for nature and a foundation of being in tune with the seasons. He starts the morning outside, playing for almost an hour no matter what the weather. If he’s staying until 3:00 (as opposed to noon, when the regular 5-day program ends), he plays outside again before lunch and for another 20 minutes or so before pick-up time. The playground is small, but it’s lovingly tended, and the children make use of logs and wood chips and the sandbox — and their imaginations — rather than relying on a lot of equipment, other than a small slide and a climbing wall.
Beyond questions of space and “curriculum,” it is just so clear that he is loved at this school. His teachers are so kind and thoughtful about their interactions, and he knows his place in the community. The class has 16 children, each of whom has a symbol and an “acorn child” likeness doll. He was so excited to report to me over the course of the fall whose child appeared and when, and wearing what clothing.
On the last day of school, his teacher gave each child a small book with their symbol on the front and a simple series of four pictures inside. It is such a quiet expression of love, of celebrating the simple wonder of something like flying a kite and the child’s discovery of the joy therein.
His teacher also gave the children “gems” on the last day and gave a special one to my son to remind him to take a nice rest every day. The teacher knows E stopped napping at age 2.5 (he is now 5.25) and that I fear the summer with a boy who won’t nap and a baby who has become increasingly resistant to going down for a nap unless she’s driven. (Let’s hope it a phase.) I’m grateful to the teacher for this gift and for all he and his assistants have given us this year.
I am in tears. How can I take my son away from this beautiful environment to a bigger class where academic expectations might trump magic and beauty? My heart breaks every time he talks about how he’s going to be a Tall Oak next year (when he turns six), and how he’ll get to make a sword. This year, he loved sanding his little boat and was apparently quite taken with the process, I’m told by teacher and son alike. He was the first one to finish his boat, something he seems to take great pride in. I feel awful for keeping him from more memories like this in the beautiful spaces that are his classroom and school.
But, he is not my only child, and mother is not my only role. Sometimes I wish I could approach it that way, but I know it’s no use trying to push a square peg into a round hole. I need to pursue writing and to put a significant amount of time into my health and wellbeing in order to be the best possible — and most sane — mom I can. This means I need some amount of childcare, and I need to prioritize expenses.
His school is a large expense. We’ve had him in three days of the school’s 12-3 p.m. Afternoon Program for the past two years, and while the hourly breakdown is comparable to babysitting, it adds up to a whole lot of extra money for time with just one child. I now have two. I think the program has served him well with its calm routine, and I don’t relish long summer days that depend on my willpower and energy in the face of not having any control over whether the baby will cooperate with a nap or scream unless I put her on my back.
However, we would not be able to rationalize the expense of the Afternoon Program next year and also pay for the regular tuition and for some childcare for the baby so that I can do a little work, exercise, and get to appointments. Without the Afternoon Program, my son would be home every day at noon, which means my daughter and I would have less than three hours each morning together and that her nap would probably have to once again revolve around her brother’s schedule. That, or (and/or?) her brother’s afternoon schedule might need to revolve around his sister’s need to nap. And in the middle, I will have next to zero time to do much for me, let alone house chores or preparing food for my high-maintenance diet. I expect we’d devolve into my staying up late and stressing my adrenals ever further.
I realize that there are things I can and perhaps ought to let go. However, one area I will not compromise on is food: there is no microwave in my kitchen, and very little that we eat that comes out of a container. We do not eat fast food, and we rarely go out to eat. (With the exception of a luncheon at the organic oasis of Restaurant Nora and a trip just tonight to Food Matters since it will be closing soon, I haven’t eaten at a restaurant since I started the GAPS diet at the beginning of February, over four months ago.)
My son always has — and will have — a healthy lunch, and until recently I made all the gluten-free substitutes I had to send for his school snack: bread on Tuesday and Wednesday and a muffin on Thursday. So even though his school serves only organic food, it doesn’t work well for us as celiacs.
At his new school, the day will start at 8:00 instead of 8:30, which might be a little hard at the outset, but the earlier start means his father will be able to take him to the bus, or, more likely, right to school (just two quick miles away through neighborhoods) before heading to work. This means I can continue to prepare a healthy breakfast and start to provide a calm morning environment since I will not need to get myself and the baby out of the door at the same time.
I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick E up from school at 2:41, carpool with a neighbor, or let him take the bus home, but he will be done at the same time every day, and it’s my hope that I can use some of the early afternoon time to prepare at least part of dinner so that I can be more present with him when he returns.
I hope this new schedule benefits my son, who will get time with a less harried mom and time with his dad in the morning. I hope it benefits my daughter, who will get to have a nap on her terms and (if she ever starts eating food) breakfast at home without being rushed. I hope it benefits my husband, who will get more QT with his son in the mornings and get out the door at a consistent time. And I hope it benefits me by letting me eat without stress and thus more fully digest my food and heal my gut, which I know is key to all my other health issues, physical and mental.
But it’s not just about schedules and distance from home, as compelling as those are. No, I would not entertain any of these logistical perks if there weren’t other reasons to feel good about this elementary school. But there are. A lot of them.
The school uses a portfolio-based assessment instead of grades. The curriculum is hands-on, an Expeditionary Learning approach that is patterned after Outward Bound. Students participate in multidisciplinary units that are several weeks long. The K-1 (multiage) classes have tables and centers but not desks. The school principal never once mentioned standardized tests on the tour I took, and during the open house my husband attended, she said something to the effect of test scores not being a reason to come to this school.
She refers often to the school as a “community,” and it’s clear from the beautiful grounds and the lively gardens that it’s not just talk. Last year the school donated 100 pounds of lettuce to Arlington Food Assistance Center, and I’m told the children also enjoyed their harvest in salads at lunch, which is served in classrooms rather than a cafeteria. I know several people who send their children here and love it.
Everything the principal has said on tours and in conversation with me conveys an openness to seeing each child as an individual. The school utilizes the Responsive Classroom model that includes a community meeting at the beginning of every day. So much talk is not very Waldorf, but I do think it will serve my chatty son well.
The playground is large and open. There is a tricycle path, logs for climbing on, and, when I dropped off my son’s paperwork in April, I noticed a group of girls digging in the dirt with pails and shovels. The school sits next to a nature center with which there are ongoing talks about more collaboration and married landscape construction. (I understand these things don’t move like lightning, but at least the desire is there!)
All K-1 classrooms have doors to the outside, and children go out twice a day (or at least get to go to the gym in bad weather). I’m expecting that my husband will walk E to the school from down the street so that he will have exposure to the elements every day. Oh, and I think I will take E on Fridays so that I can attend the whole school community meeting. Maybe then I will take the baby to the nature center or for a walk on the nearby bike trail after that.
Assuming we are happy enough to keep him there, E will have the same teacher for grades two and three and then will loop again with the same teacher for fourth and fifth grade. The continuity is something I value. Teachers in Waldorf schools stay with the same group of children for years.
I also like that E will be getting music and Spanish in school, and the art in the hallways is beautiful. You can tell the children all had the same assignment, but they were given the freedom to find their own way into it. I didn’t see photocopies of the same sheet just colored differently.
But beyond all these assumed-to-be-great things about this particular school, I am also compelled to join the ranks of public schools because I think it’s important from a social justice perspective. I want to be an advocate for all children, to give them the opportunity to have healthy choices. Last night I attended the documentary What’s on Your Plate at Barcroft Elementary School as the culmination of the PTA-organized spring Farm to Table Week. It’s exciting to see people bringing awareness of healthy eating and sustainable farming to public schools, but it’s not going to happen without involved parents. I feel I ought to be one of them.
I also don’t want E insulated from the community in which he lives. He is certainly exposed to many cultures and languages at the Waldorf school, but it’s not the same as the rest of the county. Having taught high school nearby and having worked on issues of diversity in honors vs. regular classes, I feel it’s important for my son to get to know a wide variety of people and to learn from an early age that people don’t all think and talk the same.
Of course, I was comforted by a lot of sameness at the Waldorf school. If you’re a parent who eschews most TV and electronic media, it’s great to know that other parents around you do, too. Being on the same page with people is great, and I honestly do think the world looks prettier without big plastic toys or cartoon characters on backpacks. My son is a sponge, and he does notice everything, and sometimes even the smallest exposure translates into wanting things I don’t want him to have or even know about.
But I can’t keep him in a bubble forever on that front, and I can make choices I feel good about at home. I just need to stick to them! And my hope is that our new schedule will make it more possible for me to interact with other Waldorf-inspired friends and homeschooling moms so that I can make my home environment more in line with my values. This is quite a learning curve!
On that topic, I should at least mention that it is not for lack of interest that I’m not homeschooling. Sometimes I think that would be ideal. I just don’t think it’s right for my family at this time, mostly because of my temperament and some because of my son’s super-social nature and his intense early attachment to me that seemed to call for interaction with other adults. I do feel that he benefits tremendously from interacting with other caring adults and with other children in an organized setting on a daily basis.
I still don’t think it would be the right dynamic for him and for me, and it would be hard for me to manage with the baby since I still don’t feel like I know a fraction of what I’d like to know about creating a home. However, if he struggles mightily with this transition or if I feel that public school is wringing out his sense of fantasy and magic, I will consider it until there’s a spot open at the Waldorf school or until we decide it’s time to try public again.
Although I do worry about him having sensory overload in the chaotic and cluttered public K-1 classrooms, E has been in plenty of mainstream settings with camps and other programs, and he always does fine. He usually asks to go back!
On Thursday, I kept him home from his penultimate day of school because he fell out of bed the previous night and split open his lip, which was still incredibly puffy in the morning. I expected that I would skip visiting Barcroft that day even though I wanted to take photos to write an article about Farm to Table. Around 11:30, the baby had woken up and nursed, and I decided we’d just go ahead and go anyway.
On the way in, we saw our friend who works there part-time, which was a treat. In the cafeteria, E was happy to try snap peas with peanut sauce and yellow squash with a yogurt dip while I chatted up the guest chef and snapped photos (with the baby on my back). He stopped to admire student art in a case on the way out, and when we got home, he offered of his own volition that he had a really nice time and was glad we went.
I felt relieved that he was not freaked out by the setting — the bigger kids, the bright lights, the loud cafeteria — and that he actually felt quite comfortable. Later we picked peas from the garden made an accompanying peanut sauce (which he said tasted just like the one at the school even though I totally made up the recipe). And he was so excited to buy a “yellow cucumber” at the store later that day! I’ve promised to make yogurt dip tomorrow with the yogurt we got at the farmers market on the day Barcroft kicked off its week last Sunday.
While we were there, we saw the outgoing PTA president of the school he will be attending in the fall. E remembered her and her son from the open house he’d attended in February. I whispered to her that he would be going to the school but that we weren’t sure if we’d come to the picnic later this month since we haven’t told E yet. She offered that he would probably be excited to see the big playground. Of course, she also dropped as “carrots” face-painting and ice cream, which are the opposite of a draw for me! But Waldorf parents enjoy their sugar, too, so that’s not a new challenge.
The public school picnic will take place a week after his last day of Waldorf school and three days after the end-of-school picnic, which will be the last big time to see his Waldorf friends and teachers. Of course, we do plan to stay involved in the Waldorf community and to stay in touch with people through playdates. But I wonder if E will feel sad if he goes to the Waldorf picnic without knowing that this is goodbye to the school. His teachers suggested not to talk about next year until August, but I just don’t think that will work for E. He may play “in the moment,” but he also has one heck of a memory and at the same time is often thinking and planning for the future. He is his mother’s child.
We could wait to tell him after the Waldorf picnic but before the new school picnic. Or we could just let the new school picnic seem like another open house; I’ve already sort of mentioned it in that light after seeing the PTA parent. But another little boy down the street is going to the same school in the fall, which I think E will be very happy about, and I’m sure the other boy will probably talk about them going together. And I expect that the other people at the picnic might say things like, “Are you excited to come here next year?!”
So what do I say? How and when do I break the news? Should I skip the picnic and deal with it later, after we’ve gotten back from vacation and he’s settled into his summer camp? I don’t want someone else to tell him before we do, and some of his friends may have gotten the word by now or will soon.
I have wavered from confident to crying and back again many times writing this post. It is beyond long at over 3000 words, and I still haven’t found a place to say the things I blubber to my husband like, “How can he possibly be as loved by teachers who have over 20 students and who have to prepare kids for standardized tests?”
I started this post early this morning, over 16 hours ago, and my snippets of time to write have been brief. Since then, we’ve accommodated E’s request to go to Home Depot to buy some lumber. He suggested maybe it would be right for making a sword. I’m hopeful that we can make some decent efforts to offer him some of what he liked best about the Waldorf school, honor his emotions without mixing them with ours, and present to him a confident decision that the new school is the perfect place for him to go to kindergarten.
I welcome any and all advice on how best to serve his needs in this transition!