In my experience, school has not been a safe place. There is school violence and bullying to start, but there is more. Feeling unsafe, sometimes physically, and often emotionally, I found school to be a place of conflict, antagonism, defensiveness, and isolation. Learning, too, but that took second.
I started out in urban public schools. As a student and later a teacher I remember a tension in the air that could spark into hallway fights, sometimes with weapons, in an instant. Kids were used to noise at all times; yelling was primary for communicating and students told me that at home the TV or noise from the street was so loud at night they couldn’t sleep, let alone do homework. There were teachers unable to manage large classrooms, where a need for toughness prevailed over the vulnerability required for answering challenging academic questions posed in class. As a teacher I learned this was a systemic failure beyond an individual teacher’s reach. Physical safety and emotional safety were lacking to say the least.
Later, in an elite private high school, I found it not much better. If you weren’t rich enough, blonde enough, driving your own car to school, then you entered the student lounge at your own risk. When teachers called me out to answer in front of the small “intimate” classes, and then persisted, I felt humiliated in my self-consciousness. I couldn’t think straight in front of these peers who could mock my difference with a glance or with a baiting boast about their AP classes and SAT scores.
As an adolescent, going to school felt risky, unsafe, even scary. Not fun. Not an environment where I could relax enough to discover, explore, question, discuss, argue or learn with ease.
Now, my daughter attends a Waldorf-inspired preschool that will grow into a K-8 school. The peace and tranquility of the physical space alone bring tears to my eyes. PEACE. I can’t believe it. It feels like the difference between life and death. The main room has the perfect pale color of paint and flowy curtains to instill calm and restfulness. The toys are simple and sparse, no distractions. The back garden is a haven of dappled green light and thriving flowers, vegetables, birds, butterflies. Children are inspired not only to simple trust and openness with each other but to revel in their dreamy state without being awakened to adult reality by raised voices, gun shots, shrill TVs. I want to cry. This feels like the difference between life and death.
And then there’s the curriculum. The goal is not whose child can achieve more, better, and faster than yours. The curriculum is empathy, community, taking care of each other. The teachers provide this with such skill and patience, and with such care and sensitivity for each child. I heard a Waldorf parent once say that his family chose this path because there was no bullying in his child’s middle school. No bullying, in 7th or 8th grade, the pinnacle of daily struggle at the schools I know!
But it is more complicated for me. This school is a refuge. I think I feel a kind of survivor guilt because my daughter gets to go here. Why do I get to have this? Do I really deserve this? I can’t believe that I do. Unless I work as hard as I can to make this available to others. And our school has named that as a top commitment, to make the school accessible and inclusive. I hope this is possible.
A safe and loving school should not exist in a bubble, saved for the sheltered and privileged few. This, too, is a matter of life and death for me. Because feelings of exclusion are incompatible with emotional safety.
Perhaps a Waldorf school is not for everyone. All this peace and tranquility would be culture shock for many, would be constraining and not comfortable, maybe too much of a leap all at once. But so many aspects can be flexible or gradual. We can let go of the pressure to have the right toys and the right clothes (and they are expensive ones). Many families come to the US or to San Francisco to expose their children to a bigger world and to have a better life through academic achievement. So we can discuss and inform why limiting media exposure and delaying academics until age 6 or 7 may seem weird but really do lead to better outcomes in the long term. It may seem like a return to our grandparents’ subsistence past, and not a step upward in status, to spend our days digging in the dirt and baking bread. But we do it side by side and it nurtures our connection to each other and to the earth. Although, can I really accept that the strong beat of our family’s favorite salsa and samba music are not right for children? 🙂
This is not for everyone. But it should be for anyone, regardless of color, culture, educational background, income, or immigration status.
I ask myself, what does it take to make an alternative private school truly accessible, both logistically and emotionally?
At the same time, I hope and pray that at last my children have found a school that is safe for them.