I watched with fascination these two documentary movies. Each around an hour and a half long, one chronicles the first three years of a German waldorf school, the other the three following years. They follow a class, and its teacher. A third and last film is coming out soon. I should say right away that these films contain nothing for those of you who want a critical take on waldorf education. They’re simply not about that side of it at all — indirectly, of course, one can draw the conclusions one wants from what is shown, but they aren’t about criticism. In fact, I bet they wouldn’t have been made, had those involved not been fond of what they were seeing.
So they aren’t critical of it in any way at all. What they provide though is something quite fascinating, I believe, for those of us who’ve been through it. Perhaps for some others too, but perhaps for different reasons. It’s all so deeply familiar; strangely familiar, but it doesn’t surprise me. It provides me justification for my old opinion that waldorf education doesn’t change much with time and geography. (It actually may come to change in those places where it becomes detached from anthroposophy — but that’s another story. Clearly that hasn’t happened with this teacher, in this class, in this school, so for the moment I leave that aside.)
What strikes me is something I already knew, but it strikes me nonetheless, once more, more violently: that is how different this kind of education really is. Over the years, I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to describe it — but despite my experience of it and my theoretical knowledge, I can’t bring home how different it is, I sometimes don’t manage to say much at all, because describing it quickly is impossible. Even such a simple thing as never having textbooks — it’s utterly puzzling to people. How does it even work? (I guess the banal answer is that it doesn’t. Not very well, according to the usual standards.) Or all the time spent on eurythmy or reciting odd verses or form-drawing — quite “bizarre” things, the reality of which one can harly imagine, without seeing it with one’s own eyes. The days are filled with things that are simply not done in ordinary schools. And what ordinary schools do — I still have rather vague ideas about it, not having been in an ordinary school until 7th grade — aren’t done there. Even the way that teachers speak is different. How they move is different. It’s intriguing to observe it from a distance many years later, because although it’s just a documentary movie I watch on my computer, it really comes alive to me.
I know I’ve said many times in the past — here and elsewhere — that coming from that environment to an ordinary school is a struggle. It’s not just a question of lacking supposedly normal skills and commonplace knowledge (and having skills and knowledge that means nothing, or is ridiculous, outside of the world of waldorf); it means learning to do everything differently, to be differently. Having struggled and failed during six years (or nine, including kindergarten) to achieve according to one set of standards, waldorf standards, or be the kind of person required there, you’re suddenly asked for something radically other, and you struggle to understand something foreign that is essentially as mysterious as dancing fairies in the meadow. It’s not that goal posts have moved, but an entirely different game, with a whole other set or rules and ideals, is being played.
If then, in addition, you are a child already struggling with getting to terms with the world and its inhabitants in general, mastering these two different worlds is a lot to undertake — especially when coming from one to the other with no preparation whatsoever. Watching the documentary, I have no question why I had to fight so much, why I had so much difficulty, why it made me so desperate never to understand anything, why I never achieved what was demanded of me, and why I never to managed to belong — the great mystery would have been if I had floated right through it happily and unscathed. This is not to be taken as a recommendation for others — I was a singularly weak child, nervous and frightened of the world, easily thrown into a state of imbalance by the smallest event. The ordinary, cheerful, smiling child can be tossed into anything, even horrible experiences, at any speed, during any time of his development, and will adapt and come out normal, cheerful, still smiling. For the strong human being, the strong child, who makes himself at home anywhere, the things that would shake the weak person to the core are merely bumps in the road without lasting effects. I wish I had been a Zelig character, but I wasn’t; I was powerless.