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Sunday, June 4, 1989

Childhood in a Cocoon
The children who attend Waldorf schools are sheltered from the outside world's noise and haste. So what happens to them when childhood ends?

Kids who attend the Waldorf Schools don’t watch TV, don’t play with plastics, don’t learn to read until they’re ready. How do they survive in the real world?

It is 8:45 a.m. at the Waldorf School in the hills above Santa Cruz. Daniel Martinez, who has been appointed to guide 12 second-graders in their archetypal journey through childhood, is singing. “Gaia Daum, are you here?” “Yes, Mr. Martinez, I am here.” “Laura Hencke, are you here?” “No, Mr. Martinez, she’s not here,” comes the response, in the pure lilting voices of singing children. Then, they push their desks to the side of the room and stand in a circle, a blue bean bag on every head. Plop plop plop. The bean bags fall into waiting hands. But Martinez is not satisfied. He is listening for the single loud plop that signifies group unity in the synchronous fall of 13 bean bags.

That accomplished, the children march in complex patterns—forward, backward and in a circle, counting rhythmically in unison: “3, 6, 9, 12… “ all the way to 36. Martinez, like all Waldorf School teachers, regards the numbers 3 and 4 as archetypes that live in the unconsciousness, in music, poetry and children’s bodies. So the teacher explains the uncanny ability of his students: As long as they move and count in rhythm, unthinking, they can rattle off the numbers to the 12s table with ease. If they’re forced to sit and think about it, their natural cleverness comes to a quick halt. (“The body thinks, the body counts,” said Waldorf School founder Rudolf Steiner. “The head is only a spectator.”)

Martinez holds aloft a forked oak branch draped with purple ribbon for a dramatization of the fable about the fox and the grapes. He told the story yesterday. Today—in accordance with the three-day cycle in which all learning here takes place—the students retell it themselves. Tomorrow, they will put their lesson to paper. “Oh, oh, can I be the fox?” cries Galen King. He jumps for the grapes, which remain just beyond his reach. He jumps again. “Ah, they’re sour anyway!” he mutters, just like the fox in the story. Then it’s a game of London Bridge before the overhead light is turned off. Story time. A boy named Dante lights a candle, and Martinez picks up and strums a lyre before beginning a story about gruff King Divide, Queen Minus, and their fearful subjects.

After recess, it is time for handwork. In first and second grade, the children knit because, as Rudolf Steiner said, “Thinking is cosmic knitting…. A person who is unskillful in his fingers will also be unskillful in his intellect, having less mobile ideas or thoughts.” In third grade, they crochet, and in fourth they learn to cross-stitch. Ama Baer has just completed the red-and-blue flute case that every second-grader is required to knit for the Swedish flutes they practice daily through Grade 8. The children congratulate him with a song in German. And from that moment on, their singing never ceases. “I’m in a ditch, I lost a stitch,” sings Sky. A moment later he is followed by a singing Tristan: “Ho ho ho, I finished a row,” and the echo of the class: “Ho ho ho, Tristan finished a row.”

If these children appear different, it is because, in many ways, they are. The act of placing one’s child in a Waldorf School is essentially a decision to remove him from mainstream society. Families are strongly encouraged to get rid of their televisions and keep their children away from movie theaters. Some parents, while professing a great love of music, go so far as to sell their stereos; they believe recorded music is unhealthy for young children.

Waldorf parents don’t shop at Toys R Us, and they don’t keep Fisher-Price in business. Plastic has no place in a Waldorf home; indeed, Waldorf children are urged to carry their lunch to school in hand-woven baskets. Dolls are handmade and devoid of facial features because, as Steiner said, “Children should have as few things as possible that are well-finished and complete and what people call ’beautiful.’ “ Blocks in a Waldorf kindergarten are not the machine-finished wooden shapes that well-heeled parents find in quality toy stores, but rough- hewn tree stumps of varying sizes.

Here at the Waldorf School, grade school children sing without a trace of self-consciousness, skip to London Bridge and other games that are usually left behind in kindergarten, and revere their teachers as we Americans thought only the Japanese still did.

Where do these children come from?

As babies, Daniel, Galen and Benjamin King were sheltered in a cocoon spun and shared by their mother. Except for the occasional visit to a neighbor up the road, the three boys rarely left their home in Bonny Doon. “A young baby doesn’t need socializing in the world,” says Jessica King. “A young baby needs to be surrounded by gentle, loving, caring people.” Until last year, when Daniel, then 10, asked permission, none of the boys had ever played at the house of another child. They never accompanied their parents to the grocery store until they were well past the toddler years: The fluorescent harshness of Safeway’s aisles was something that Bruce and Jessica King deemed inappropriate to young minds. When the Kings went out for the evening, it was only after the children were tucked into their own beds—usually no later than 6 o’clock. “I did not demand-feed my babies,” says Jessica. “I listened to them, saw a pattern and responded. I never had to wait to be told what they wanted; it was always ready for them.”

As Jessica sits in her living room overlooking the Santa Cruz hills, surrounded by a celtic harp and a piano, 10 acres, two donkeys, persimmon trees and poison oak, she exudes maternal poise. There is no sense of self-doubt about Jessica King, and if she sometimes appears to deprecate her strong convictions on mothering with a “silly old Jessica,” it is always clear that she doesn’t think herself the least bit silly. This is a woman who has found total fulfillment in the role of mother, the kind of mother whom other mothers call for emergency counsel, like how to remove a tick from a child’s scalp. The house is humming with quiet activity, as Christine, the German au pair, prepares dinner in the kitchen, and the boys play quietly in their bedroom. The guitars that hang on the wall are a physical reminder of the days in Europe, when Jessica’s husband, Bruce, worked side by side with a classical guitar maker near Florence.

Jessica Rukin and Bruce King met 16 years ago in Sussex, England, at Emerson College, at the culmination of personal odysseys that brought them from opposite corners of the Earth. At Emerson, people from around the globe come to study water color, sculpture, music, farming and education—all within the context of Steiner’s philosophy. Permeating the college is anthroposophy, the mystical, Christian-based religion that has grown up around Steiner’s philosophy and to which most Waldorf teachers subscribe. Although a Waldorf education is non-denominational, it has an unmistakable Christian spirit characterized by pictures of the Madonna in the kindergarten and a schoolwide celebration of all the Christian holidays. While neither Bruce nor Jessica King is a anthroposophist, they acknowledge that religion’s influence on the way they live and raise their children.

“Meeting anthroposophy awakened in me new ways of looking at reality,” says Jessica, now 42, an alert and elfin woman with long graying hair and tiny hands. “It expanded my horizons and turned me inside out. It brought a lot more reverence into my life. The way I look at nature, at children —it’s totally altered the way I look at children. I see them now as very precious, unfolding flowers.”

By the time of her arrival at Emerson in 1972, Jessica, who was born and raised in New Jersey, had already graduated from George Washington University with a degree in speech therapy, traveled throughout Latin America and lived in Spain. But it wasn’t until she returned to the States and visited her 5-year-old niece’s Waldorf School in Spring Valley, N.Y., that she discovered the direction that was to shape her life.

Bruce graduated from a university in his native New Zealand in 1965 with a degree in electrical engineering but never worked as an engineer. Instead, he delivered mail by bike for months, until a book, God Is My Adventure, set him on a path of spiritual enlightenment to California, Canada, India, Italy and, finally, England. By the time of Jessica’s arrival, Bruce had been studying at Emerson for two years and was deep into the design of NightStar, the soft plastic map of the constellations that he now markets worldwide out of Santa Cruz.

The Kings came to the U.S. in 1975. Looking for the right place to settle down, they chose Santa Cruz, where they helped found the Waldorf School in the fall of 1976. She taught its first kindergarten class; together, they designed the school’s bookshop and toy store. But after the birth of Daniel, their oldest, Jessica withdrew from the activity of the school. And when he began showing signs at age 3 of the muscular disorder that now nearly cripples the entire left side of his body, she and Bruce spent the next two years seeking out therapy in Israel, Massachusetts, and, finally, with an anthroposophical doctor 200 miles away in Fair Oaks. Jessica became Daniel’s primary therapist, devoting several hours a day to the regimen, and home-schooling him until he turned 9. Galen was home-schooled up to the age of 8 when, like Daniel, he was enrolled in the second grade of the Santa Cruz Waldorf School.

Though there is room to spare in the Bonny Doon ranch house, the three brothers share a bedroom—in accord with their parents’ conviction that there is too much isolation in the world today. Natural oak beds, plumped with eiderdown quilts, are built directly into the walls, each one on a different level. There are few toys in the room and nothing plastic—not even Legos. (“I don’t like Legos,” says Jessica, decisively. “They’re too intellectual. I don’t mind their playing with them when they visit a friend’s house, but I can always tell when they’ve played too long with them.”) Above Galen’s bed hangs the mobile that his mother made for his fifth birthday. An oak branch dangling hand-sewn silver stars, a crescent moon and a crystal, the mobile reminds Jessica of the days when she designated a special symbol for each of her sons. Daniel was the sun; Galen the moon; Benjamin a star. In this way, she labeled their drawings without resorting to “the written word, which I considered premature.”

Now, as the business is growing, Bruce has begun urging Jessica to become more actively involved in NightStar. She resists. “I can never really follow through,” she says. “If I feel myself losing control of the overall gestalt of the family, then this becomes my priority. NightStar is Bruce’s creative work; this is mine.”

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Copyright 1989 San Jose Mercury News
Knight Ridder