At the beginning of this week, over on Facebook, I promised a back-to-school blog post. Well, it’s now Friday, and I’ve been a little busy, well, getting the kids back to school. This post may ramble somewhat as I ponder the evolution of that phrase in my own life. Our kids have been in a Waldorf school long enough now that I no longer experience the autumn new-erasers-and-Pee-chee-folders-so-sharp-they-cut-your-finger sensations that are the residue of my own education.
My kids mark the start of the school year with new or up-sized cellos, new rain pants and jackets, and the perennial ‘where did you put your sun-hat’ question. It sounds weird to say that no, I don’t buy notebooks or pencil cases, that we don’t troll the Back-to-school ads for the best deal on reams of college rule paper. “Their supplies are included in the tuition,” is the easy phrase. And the explanation works well until someone asks: “which supplies?” “Ummm, beeswax crayons and a recorder…”
By the time the kids reach the upper grades, I no longer feel compelled to defend our weird back-to-school routine. Caitlin does have binders, pencils, and pens -- they just happen to be provided by the teacher. And, no one who listens to her rattle off the conditions leading to the fall of the Roman Empire or watches her juggle fractions like beanbags is going to question her academic credentials. Well, they can, but she’ll just quote Shakespeare at them.
And even Aidan, now in 4th grade, can hold his own against any pedagogical inspection. He multiplies double digit numbers in his head. (I don’t know if that’s considered impressive or not, but I have a doctorate, and I can’t do it!) And, though penmanship may be considered a dying art, his is truly art. Perhaps he can find a job illuminating manuscripts with some monks…
However, it is in the 1st and 2nd grade years that parents find themselves stuttering and hedging at cocktail parties and family reunions. As Sierra came home this week announcing that in her first days of 1st grade they had practiced “drawing straight lines and wiggly lines” during Main Lesson, I wondered what some of the new parents in the class were feeling as their children made similar revelations. I’m past the defensive evasion of the Waldorf parent. I will say it aloud. Yes, Sierra is six. No, she can’t read. No, we aren’t worried. No, she doesn’t have any learning difficulty. She will read when she is ready and that probably won’t be for another year or so, and that is just how it is meant to be.
Veteran Waldorf parents can translate “straight lines and wiggly lines.” “Oh, so you’re doing form drawing,” my husband replied without missing a beat. In 1st grade, the symmetric, repeating forms give the children a feel for the shapes (lines and curves) that make our letters. The form drawings also build a sense of symmetry and scale. On a more esoteric level, the form drawings help the children to use and integrate both sides of the brain. As the kids get older, the forms become more and more complex – by 4th grade, the interlocking forms take on the shape and intricacy of Celtic knots.
“Great,” someone usually says about here “but what about reading?” The kids will progress from the form block into the beginning of the alphabet blocks (side note: Not wooden blocks with painted letters. Waldorf schools begin the day with a roughly two hour Main Lesson. During that time period, one subject is focused on for a block of several weeks.) Confident in their abilities to draw (what did you think writing was?) symmetrical lines and curves, the children will begin to use their ability to make letters. The letters take on forms that represent the sounds in a way that makes sense to the children. A ‘D’ may be also drawn as a dragon; an 'S' becomes a swan. As they progress through the year, 1st graders learn not only how to draw and
recognize their letters, not only the sounds made by the letters, but also how those letters interact to form the sounds that we recognize as words.
Caitlin attended a parochial school for kindergarten and 1st grade. She began reading in kindergarten. At the end of 1st grade, she declared, “I hate reading. Reading is stupid.” I’m the daughter of a school librarian. When we move, among the first things Mike and I unpack are the boxes (and boxes and boxes) of books. Long story short: I cried, wrote a polite but irritated e-mail to the school principal, received a ‘this is how we do it; nothing is going to change’ response, and Caitlin switched schools. Midway through 2nd grade, she had inhaled the first 5 books of the Harry Potter series and never looked back. The change? Many of her classmates were still learning to read; there was no pressure to regurgitate the dry bones of plot points; and every lesson – from reading to math – contained a story. Caitlin learned to love the story.
Children are individuals. I do think some kids will learn best in a more traditional school setting. Some learn by repetition, others by experience. But the one thing I do know, and, looking back on it, have known since my own childhood – the age of reading onset does not determine the reader. I picked up, and spontaneously read, The Cat in the Hat the Christmas before I turned four. My younger sister, like Caitlin, rejected the notion of learning something “because you’re supposed to” and did not read fluently until she was eight or nine. The title before both of our names -- Dr.
The weird thing about parenting is that despite the volumes of books, magazine articles, lectures, and blog posts, there is no handbook. This thing that humans have done for thousands of years is still entirely experimental. Beyond some general guidelines such as: feed, water, clothe, clean occasionally, do not submerge for prolonged periods, do not leave near open flame, there is little about parenting that is hard and fast. None of us has any way of knowing the value of the childhood we provide to our offspring. Sometimes, we just have to trust the process and go with what feels right.
For me, that ‘right’ feeling involves not hearing “I don’t want to go to school.” It means shedding more than a couple of tears as I watch Sierra receive a red rose from her 8th grade buddy as she makes her entrance into the school as a 1st grader. It means shedding another tear or two as I realize that next September, Caitlin (who is now never without a book) will hand a rose to some lucky 1st grader and lead her new charge on a tour of a campus that has become a home.
Once upon a time, back-to-school meant, for me, the anxiety of purchasing the perfect supplies and outfits, the have-I-made-the –right-decision angst as I watched the classroom swallow my kids, the worry about how other parents would view me, my family, our parenting, or even our car. This week, back-to-school meant writing a newspaper article about the 25th anniversary of a school my children love. It meant reuniting with people I call friends after a summer apart. It meant sewing placemats and crayon holders for the 1st grade, organizing a camping trip for the 4th, and critiquing an essay for the 7th grader. And, it meant hearing as I dropped my kids off in the morning, from Sierra, “You can drop us off here, Mommy. I don’t need anyone to walk me to class. I know my own way.” Of course she does. This is her school.