Wikipedia has two entries for the word “epiphany” – epiphany (feeling) and Epiphany (the holiday.) Deriving from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning ‘manifestation, striking appearance,’ epiphany encompasses that feeling of the “aha!” moment, the often fleeting instant when everything clicks. In Christian tradition, Epiphany falls on January 6 and celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles as the Christ, primarily through the visit of the Magi or “Wise Men.”
Maybe it’s the time of year, but my brain can’t help combining these thoughts into my own definition of epiphany – the visitation of wisdom. To call me an intuitive thinker might be an understatement; my brain has a hard time tracing a thought from point A to point B in any sort of stepwise fashion – it tends to be easily distracted by shiny objects. As such, I often rely overmuch on moments of epiphany as admittedly lazy intellectual shortcuts. It’s easier for me to look for the flash of insight than to work my way stepwise through a problem. Sometimes this approach works, giving me the perfect spark of creativity or a brilliant moment of clarity. Often, though, it leads down a path of false conclusions.
As in almost everything else, it comes down to balance, leaving room for the moments of epiphany – the “Aha!” bursts of creativity and insight – yet still doing the work to verify the conclusion. And, as in so many things, I’m beginning to learn this lesson from my children.
Waldorf parents often find ourselves in a perpetual state of justification – justifying paying private school tuition despite cutting every other corner of the family budget (a particularly difficult justification in a city like Davis with a renowned public school system), justifying why our 7 year olds can’t yet read, justifying the weird aversion to television and video games, justifying school festivals layered with incomprehensible overtones of both Paganism and Christianity. Much of the time, these conversations hinge around the points that draw most parents to Waldorf education, the pieces from the beginning.
Nurturing, creative, appreciation for the arts, peaceful, wholesome, low-tech, age-appropriate – these terms and many more are thrown about when the parents of young Waldorf students gather. Waldorf education is hugely attractive to parents who worry about their children being “taught to the test,” to parents who have read horror stories about over-scheduled, over-stressed children since the line on the stick turned pink, to parents who fear the influence of a fast-paced, “violent” culture on their sheltered darlings, to parents who bemoan the loss of arts classes in traditional schooling.
Don’t get me wrong, these pieces are all a part of Waldorf education, and for the most part, pieces of what our family appreciates and part of our justification for the seeming insanity of our family budget. But, I listen to these phrases, hear sentences like: “Well, I’m glad they’ve had that creative foundation in the lower grades, but I don’t think it’s necessary as they get older” and I shake my head. Something is missing.
Maybe it’s the pastel-walled classrooms or the assignments that look way too fun and involve far too many colored pencils to be intellectual that make people see this curriculum as something designed for young children, as something artsy and light, but hardly rigorous. After all, if the upper grades students aren’t bringing home 6 hours of homework a night, they can’t possibly be learning anything, can they?
I think part of the problem most people have in understanding the Waldorf curriculum is that it is an education formed of interwoven ideas and principles, a complex model that doesn’t mesh with our modern “Insert Tab A into Slot B” or educational menu thinking. When Waldorf teachers talk about the curriculum being child-driven, this isn’t some sort of airy-fairy “let the kids do whatever they want and they’ll educate themselves” system. The curriculum is child-driven only in that it has been crafted to link so inextricably to the physical, mental, and emotional development of the child that everything becomes part of the education. Waldorf students don’t have a lot of homework because, if it is being done right, they are always in the classroom – or, rather, the classroom is always in them.
Believe it or not, I haven’t strayed that far from my original theme. I’m coming back to epiphany. Most epiphanies can only be accurately assessed from behind. After time passes, we are able to review the evidence, to see if that flash was indeed truth or if it was fool’s gold. When our children are in the lower grades, most Waldorf parents get only flashes of the whole picture – a form drawing here, the magic of the Michaelmas pageant, classroom songs sung around the house or in the garden. It isn’t until our children are almost graduated, until our bank accounts are nearly depleted, that we see the pattern, the threads connecting every aspect of their education.
“Art,” “Creativity,” “sweet puppet plays” – I’ve heard the parts for years, and shook my head. Nope, I thought. That’s not it. You aren’t getting it. There’s more.
Two nights ago, our school held its annual Winter Concert. Only grades 2-8 perform, but for the last few years, I’ve made it something of a crusade to invite the parents of pre-school – 1st graders to the concert. “It’s so good to see what your kids are working towards,” I say. But, as the words leave my mouth, I know they are incomplete. I know that the other parents will hear me and think that I am saying – “Look, someday your child will play an instrument like that.” or “Someday your kid will be able to sing a round in multi-part harmonies.” But, these are parts.
Friday night, I listened and watched as Caitlin and the other 6th-8th graders played holiday carols as the audience filed into their seats. A random observer dropped into the hall would never have guessed the degree of year-round grumbling about practice or the missed notes at home or emanating from the strings room at school. Someone listening to a recording would picture a far more mature orchestra.
On my left, my son and his best friend chatted before the performance started. I listened to their conversation and something clicked. “No, I don’t want to be James Marshall anymore,” said Aidan in response to a comment from his buddy.
“He wasn’t in the Bear Flag Revolt, and I really want to re-inact that.”
“He wasn’t? Oh yeah, you’re right.”
The conversation then drifted to John Sutter, and early California. I believe passports were mentioned. School had just ended for winter break, yet these two 4th graders were planning the details of the roles they will assume for their class trip to Sutter’s fort in February. They were out of school, but school was not out of them.
The Winter Concert always makes me cry – odd, since I’m hardly the type to be overwhelmed by the Hallmark moment. But, this year, I saw something different. Yes, the 2nd graders earnestly singing “O Tannenbaum” in German were adorable in their shiny black, white, and red outfits, but as I watched each class perform, something began to unfold. As expected, the performances grew slightly more complex for each class. 3rd and 4th grade both performed pieces reflective of their curriculum, 5th and 6th grade joined in singing more complex choral pieces than the lower grades can manage. And, then near the end – came two performances that blew me away. ‘This. This is why,’ my mind said.
I’ve written about Caitlin’s class before. They haven’t been labeled an ‘easy’ class by even the most doting of parents. Intelligent, active (very active), strong-willed, enthusiastic – this class has historically been shy on one leadership quality. Discipline. This state began to change last year. Over the course of the year, the parents watched in no little awe as their teacher began to challenge them, force them to work together, and generally began to make them view discipline as something coming from within rather than imposed from outside. Dr. Rick Tan has shown these kids, through his own example, the balance of brilliant creativity and disciplined work. Friday night, it all came together as the class performed a piece written and composed by Dr. Tan, “Winter Angels.”
In Waldorf education, there is a philosophy that while not every child will excel at everything, all children are good at something. As the 7th grade performed “Winter Angels” this philosophy shone. Some sang, some played the instrumental part, and some danced. Yes, danced – a choreographed, beautifully timed performance. These pre-teen and teenaged boys and girls worked together to perform not goofily or with shuffling embarrassment, but in a coordinated and professional manner I would never have guessed possible several years ago. I always knew they had the talent, the creativity, and the pizzazz, but discipline?
As I wiped my cheeks after watching my oldest child and her class take their bows, the 8th grade took the stage. Their piece was listed in the program simply as “Mystery Song.” (Caitlin later told me that the 8th graders had developed this piece independently even of their teacher.) Dressed in white shirts, blue jeans, and an assortment of geek-chic hats and glasses, with flags jammed nonchalantly in front pockets, the 8th grade took the stage with their bodies proclaiming louder than any words – “We are teens. We have come into our own. Watch.”
K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” began in the background. And the 8th grade came into its own. “When I get older/ I will be stronger/ They’ll call me freedom. Just like a waving flag.” Singing, dancing, clapping overhead, drumming on plastic buckets, these kids showcased unity, discipline, and the raw power of youth. ‘Here we are,’ they said. ‘This is who we are. This is what you have produced.’ These teens held an audience of parents, grandparents, and younger siblings captive, and they knew it. They owned the stage, and in that moment, they owned us.
“Give me freedom/Give me fire/Give me reason/Take me higher.”
Fittingly, it took the 8th grade, in a very non-Waldorfy (as my family likes to say) performance, to give that epiphany. This, this is what it is all about – that balance of creativity and discipline that produces a moment of absolute confidence and power at an age where most kids feel lacking in both.