THE FIRST TIME I saw the Waldorf School, my friend, Monica, drove me. I sat in the passenger seat as we inched down the entrance ramp and merged into the left lane of the Eisenhower Expressway among the stalled cars of commuting bankers, construction workers, and computer programmers. I could see harried women staring into their rear-view mirrors while they applied mascara and dipped plastic spoons into cartons of Dannon yogurt. Later, we left the Eisenhower and got onto the Kennedy. Huge trucks hauling milk and gasoline thundered by in the adjacent lanes. Forty-five minutes later we parked in front of an ugly building on a small residential street in a commercial section of Chicago. There were a few apartments, a few brick bungalows, and rows of abandoned warehouses.
We had driven in from our homes in suburban Oak Park for a monthly orientation meeting offered by the Waldorf School for prospective parents. Monica had read about the school in one of those free alternative-parenting magazines you find littering the floor of the children’s department of the library. She wasn’t seriously considering sending Celine, her precocious six-year-old daughter and my daughter’s current best friend, to a school that required a difficult commute on two expressways. We were here, she explained, to explore all the educational alternatives and “see what was out there.” But my interest in the school was more tangible. For the past six months, I had been looking for a school where my daughter, Sara, could fit in. I had pretty much rejected all the choices close to home, so I remember being disappointed on realizing just how far the school was from where I lived.
If it seems neurotic to put so much energy into finding a school for a first-grader, keep in mind that this was 1987, and already the twenty-first-century hyper-vigilant brand of parenting was in vogue among privileged people. Very little about a child’s life was left to chance. Every option was obsessively debated, and each decision was made with deliberation. Should the baby sleep in a crib or in a “family bed”? Should we sign up with the Italian pediatrician who recommended no solid food during the first year or the one in the next office who believed babies should eat cereal before they could sit up? But the questions that claimed the most reflection and debate among parents were the ones about education. Mothers had heated discussions about the relative merits of progressive versus traditional education. The ability to discover the best school for one’s child became a touchstone of parenting.
This was quite a shift from when I was a kid in the 1960s. Back then, adults and children lived in parallel universes. On weekends and summer mornings, every kid I knew left the house right after breakfast and disappeared into the woods or the fields until lunchtime. While I was away, my mother ironed, hung out the wash, or worked in the garden. Sometimes, she played bridge with neighbors. As long as I showed up for regular meals, she really didn’t care if I spent the whole afternoon blowing the puffy seeds off a dandelion head or riding my bike into town next to a fairly dangerous highway. I was supposed to call home if I decided to visit a friend, but the rule usually wasn’t enforced because my father had a peculiar telephone phobia that made it difficult for him to recognize his own children’s voices (“It’s me, Daddy,” I would say, and he would respond, “Who? Who? I’ve never heard of you, and don’t call here again!”). When it came to educational matters, both my parents expected me to do well in school, but they didn’t see it as their responsibility to manage my education. My mother, like many women in our neighborhood, didn’t even know how to drive; the idea of transporting a child to a distant private school would have struck her as bizarre.
In some ways it was fortunate that my daughter was born in an era of over-anxious parenting. At first, it made me stand out less; my obsessive preoccupation with finding a place for Sara made me seem like all the other mothers. Except I wasn’t, exactly. My daughter had a nonverbal learning disability, a condition that made her both quirky and delightful. At home, my husband, my son, and I learned how to understand her and anticipate her needs. We loved her. But at school, she seemed odd, baffling.
Sara had already attended two schools by the time she was six. Her first one, a Montessori school housed in a low brick building, was all windows and light. In the classrooms and in the hallways, two hundred and fifty children worked with an antlike purposefulness in the very areas in which Sara was most challenged: motor skills, social independence, and the ability to master academic information visually. When my daughter failed repeatedly with what seemed to her impossible tasks, she stopped talking altogether and spent two years in silence, exiled at this lovely school. Sara’s second school, an old-fashioned preschool with dolls and dress-up, was a better fit. But this school only enrolled children through the age of six, and now I needed to find a place where Sara could attend first grade.
At first, I considered only well-known schools; but when I mentioned my daughter had certain challenges, there were suddenly no places available. One school said they already had two children with Down Syndrome, and they couldn’t overburden their teachers with another problem. Next, I looked at new experimental schools. I spent one morning seated next to a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary while ten children, the fledgling school’s total enrollment, circled around a concrete pillar in response to some unfathomable pedagogical exercise. At another parochial school, I watched a volunteer grandparent make chocolate lollipops in the shape of Easter bunnies while she described for the group of children how Christ was nailed to the cross for their benefit. I considered all these religious schools because I hoped the teachers would be especially compassionate, but they only advised me to try the public school where there were more resources. The harassed principal at the public school told me children with challenges belonged in special education; but the special education class where the children ran around the room while the beleaguered teacher ran after them didn’t seem quite right for my daughter, who had an unusually long attention span and loved to sit still listening to stories. She was so quiet and withdrawn that I worried no one would get around to her. I felt like an educational Goldilocks; every school too this or too that, and none of them just right.
The same year I visited the Waldorf School, Emily Perl Kingsley published her classic disability essay, “Welcome to Holland.” The piece is sentimental and simplistic, but I can understand its appeal. Most parents, Kingsley writes in the essay, find that having a baby is like planning for a trip to an exciting country like Italy. Having a child with a disability is like a change of travel plans. Instead of going to Italy, you find yourself in Holland, where you haven’t prepared to go, and where you might be disappointed. Give up your ambivalence, Kingsley counsels, and appreciate what you have. The essay tries to be reassuring. It sends a message that beauty is everywhere if you look long enough, and you will find your way if you follow the right signposts.
This travel metaphor resonates with me. If I were to choose a travel metaphor that sums up my experience, though, it would have to be driving to the Waldorf School. Transporting Sara back and forth between the north side of Chicago and our home in the suburbs dominated our lives for eight years. In truth, traveling twice a day in heavy traffic to the Waldorf School was nearly as fatiguing as an overnight flight to Holland. I estimate we made approximately 2,000 trips between the years 1987 and 1995. Like explorers hoping to discover the best land route, we tried every possible way to get there. Driving to the Waldorf School became one of the defining activities of my life.
We made our maiden voyage on a hot and rainy September morning. Sara was excited as she settled into the back seat next to her two-year-old brother, John, who was too young for school. She was dressed in a pink gingham dress with smocking, and her hair was French-braided into two long plaits. As I backed out of the garage, I felt like a stage mother taking her to some crucial audition, and I prayed she wouldn’t forget her lines. I prayed she wouldn’t be cast out. A friend had suggested we try a series of broad avenues instead of the expressway, so that morning, we made our way through clogged city streets, where we were delayed at every intersection by red lights and cars turning left.
We finally arrived just as a teacher was opening the front door. We parked in a space a few blocks away, and I undid the car seat straps and released the kids. John was too tired to walk, so I carried him while Sara ran ahead.
The school was in a decrepit brick building that resembled a Dickensian workhouse. I opened the heavy front door; and Sara, John, and I stepped into a small vestibule tiled with aging linoleum. Directly in front of us, a steep narrow staircase led precariously up to the second floor where a dozen classrooms were located along a single corridor. Even though it was the first day of the school year, the floor was already thinly coated with dirt. Children of all ages trooped in and out of the building, their feet shod in rubber boots, their hair misty with raindrops, their cheeks pink from the humid air. The separation between the outside and the inside world seemed to blur as they marched in and out with sticks and collections of leaves and deposited them in the corners of the classrooms. Rocks and crystals were displayed on tables, and glass jars in the sink were filled with richly hued liquid paint and large wooden paintbrushes with black bristles. Menageries of tiny animals formed from colored beeswax—sapphire horses, slumbering green alligators, sulfur-colored elephants—lined the window ledges. The old-fashioned blackboards were decorated with hand-drawn murals and the powder from the colored chalk covered the wooden desks with a mixture of red, blue, and yellow dust.
John and I waved goodbye as Sara awkwardly mounted the steep staircase with the rest of her new class. Older children swarmed up and down the steps on either side of her. There was apparently no right of way, and I worried someone would knock her down and break her neck. She still could not alternate her feet when she went up and down stairs. But I held my breath as John and I waved goodbye.
I will never forget how I caught sight of her as she descended the steep staircase at three o’clock as I waited in the tiny vestibule. She grasped the railing as the same crowd of children swarmed on either side. “I love it here,” she told me. “It is so much fun, and I love the kids. It’s the best school ever, and it’s going to be great!” Sara’s teacher, a bespectacled bearded man, appeared from out of the crowd of boisterous children. “Yes,” he told me, “everything went well.” The only reply I could manage was to smile, grab Sara’s hand, and quickly exit the building.
We drove home through crowded streets. It was my fourth trip that day. In total, four hours of my day had been devoted to driving. Delighted for Sara, exhilarated by success, I was already exhausted and sick of the whole driving routine by the end of the first day of first grade. “Do we have to go there again tomorrow?” John wanted to know when we finally arrived home.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. All the tomorrows blurred into weeks and months, a fusion of driving and living.
Most of my friends thought I was quite mad. Despite all their parents’ flirting with educational options and school visits, most children ended up attending the public school. We lived a block away from the neighborhood school. In winter when the trees were bare, the playground was visible from our front steps, and we could hear the sporadic clang of bells and the whir of children’s voices. My friend, Monica, seriously considered joining me in my daily journey. In the end, she could not reconcile the idea of her child being so far outside her grasp.
“What would you do if there was a nuclear war?” she asked me.
Friends let me know they believed I was exaggerating my daughter’s condition. “I don’t see anything wrong with her,” they would let me know. “We all have deficits,” others would say, and I could not convince them that mysterious deficits on top of more typical deficits were a heavy burden for one small girl. Some recited comforting platitudes about how things always turn out all right in the end. How their blind sister or deaf cousin grew up happy and fine. Sometimes, I felt like I was surrounded by a magnetic field that attracted criticism. I was overprotective and over-involved. I drove to the Waldorf School because I was hysterical or snobby. I was overwrought; I was worry on steroids. All this criticism helped me be a better parent because I could not completely dismiss it. It made me more reflective about my actions, my mistakes, and my observations.
At first, I was not good at defending myself. Figuring out the technical language and learning the right words to describe Sara’s condition was like putting together the pieces of huge, intricate coffee table puzzle. I couldn’t say then what I know now: how the world of learning disabilities is filled with acronyms and controversy, and how NLD, an exceptionally controversial diagnosis, is the abbreviation for Sara’s particular set of difficulties. Not many people have it, so teachers are unfamiliar with it and little is known about how to help these kids.
The term, nonverbal learning disabilities, might lead you to believe that kids who have it are incapable of speaking. But actually, the nonverbal part of the label refers to their inability to understand visual, or nonverbal, information. Sara’s choice to remain silent in Montessori school was a conscious one. At home, she spoke in the typical effusive way of kids with NLD, but she didn’t always recognize the familiar faces of our friends and she got lost in her own house. Literal and naïve, she was particularly poor at understanding the visual language of gesture and facial expressions, so every friend she made was a hard-fought victory.
Children with NLD are not stupid, but their intelligence is unevenly distributed. Some experts believe they act like someone who has suffered an injury to the right hemisphere of their brains. On intelligence tests, kids like Sara generally ace the verbal parts but bomb the subtests that deal with space, pictures and numbers. In extreme cases, their verbal IQs can reach into the stratosphere of genius while their nonverbal IQs can dip down to equal that of the simpleton in a fairy tale. Sara was an extreme case, and every day I watched as my fearless girl tried to balance life’s puzzling equations with her unequal aptitude and her overachieving left hemisphere.
I hoped our daily drive to a nurturing environment would protect Sara from the worse effects of NLD. I wanted to chauffeur her away from the high rates of depression and anxiety to which people with NLD are prone due to their disorientation and the loneliness that results from poor social interactions. I would drive her to a place where she had friends and where she would never fall victim to the grim statistics found in five scary articles in the March 1989 issue of The Journal of Learning Disabilities which describe how NLD predisposes individuals to higher rates of suicide.
Between the ages of thirty-four and forty-two, I drove to the Waldorf School almost every day. It was one of the most generous things I have ever done, but it was also one of the hardest. I was never meant to drive long distances. I get carsick easily and dislike speed and expressways. I didn’t even learn how to drive until I was twenty-five and then somewhat reluctantly. But more than the actual driving, I disliked the way our daily trips took us far from the life of our community and transplanted us in another frequently strange and unwelcoming community. Our daily trips set us apart, and all the mundane aspects of daily life—working, planting a garden, buying groceries—got crammed into a narrow margin of time. Our family’s life took on a frenetic air, and I often wished for a daughter who could join all the other children as they walked across the street to the local elementary school.
Like so many things in life, the Waldorf School sounded better on paper than in reality. The glossy brochures displayed photographs of contemporary children involved in timeless, appealing activities: scribing their own textbooks, listening to storytellers, dancing around medieval maypoles. Certainly, this was a place worth braving interminable distances if by the end of eighth grade, Sara could speak two foreign languages, perform in plays, and learn the basics of mathematics and science. On top of all this frenetic learning and imagination expanding, the kids were supposed to master organic farming and eurythmy, a class that involved mysterious movements, piano accompaniment and flying copper rods.
The brochures assured me that the teachers were exceptionally well trained and dedicated. They had all attended special Waldorf training centers, where they mastered how to paint with the special translucent watercolors from Germany, draw with thick beeswax crayons, and play the recorder. And they vowed to follow the same class of children through eight years of schooling. This meant, if all went as planned, Sara would have the same main lesson teacher for all eight grades. Her classmates would also remain the same, moving forward as a group through each advancing grade. The only thing that changed every September was they moved into a new classroom and were assigned a new desk. All this continuity really appealed to me, since one of Sara’s biggest problems was with novelty. She struggled with new experiences and new ideas, so the prospect of having the same teacher and classmates for eight years sounded ideal. She also had problems with social skills, and I put a lot of hope in the many opportunities for forging friendships that eight years with the same people might offer. Sara would have ample time to get used to them, and they would have time to get used to her. With time on our side, I believed they would learn to see beyond Sara’s challenges, to see how much she had to offer when she was comfortably ensconced in her surroundings.
For a child with NLD, the right environment is everything. Put a child like Sara in a situation that stresses her weak areas and she will respond with terror, anxiety, or sadness. This was how she reacted to her first school, the one where she stopped speaking for two years. It was an experience I hoped she would never repeat. By the time she was six, I was good at recognizing situations and tasks that would be problematic for her. I learned how to compensate for her weak areas without thinking, and I could structure our home so she was comfortable. For example, if the doorbell rang unexpectedly, I could explain in words what she couldn’t fathom for herself. “It’s the UPS man. You know, the guy who wears the brown suit and drives in the brown van coming to deliver a package.” As much as permanence and continuity, words were a source of solace, her seeing-eye dog, her road map to understanding when she couldn’t follow nonverbal cues. So when the brochures promised us an educational Utopia, a place where everything stayed the same and teachers told stories in an outpouring of words, I wanted to believe that this gritty, urban school had the power to make good on every one of its promises.
One of the things the brochures neglected to mention was the school was basically a cult. It took me awhile to figure this out because I had always believed cults existed on a continuum of evil: either assemblages like Jonestown who signed up and killed off as many members as they could, or at their most benign, groups like the Hare Krishnas. The Waldorf School was a totally different type of cult: benign and snobby, it was as exclusive as the eating clubs at an Ivy League college and was just as difficult to gain admission. I began to refer to Sara’s school as a “country-club” cult, and they weren’t interested in recruiting my husband and me as members. I think we asked too many questions. Plus we lost a lot of points for living in the suburbs; it made us seem too conventional. This was definitely an urban crowd. The parents who were chosen for the inner circle sat on committees and were in charge of the annual Christmas fair and May Day festival. The women in this exclusive group all knitted sweaters and toy gnomes, only wore clothes made from natural fibers, and spent a lot of time learning how to make Waldorf dolls. Inner circle men also wore natural-fiber sweaters, but they did woodworking and sat on the finance committee.
Their cult’s leader was Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian mystic who died in 1925 and invented a philosophy called anthroposophy. Several small, unobtrusive black-and-white photographs of Steiner hung in the office, at the top of the staircase, and in several of the classrooms. In each, his obsidian eyes contrasted with his pallid complexion and seemed to bore right into you like one of those unnerving people you accidentally sit down next to on the subway and then change your seat at the first opportunity. There were very few disciplines to which Mr. Steiner did not turn his attention. In addition to Waldorf education, he was responsible for biodynamic farming (which entailed growing things organically, burying cow skulls in corners of the garden, and consulting the alignment of the stars), anthrophosophic medicine, and a mystical Christian religion.
I found comfort in the fact that the school never taught the children anything about anthroposophy. It was as if there were two schools: the normal one advertised in the brochures where the kids learned how to paint, put on plays, and learned about nature and mythology, and the subterranean one where a select group participated in a whole set of mysterious rituals that they tried to keep secret from the rest of us. Of course, they were not always successful. For example, my friend, Bev, once signed up for a gnome knitting class. The class was officially billed as a way to produce a selection of knitted gnomes that could be sold at a school fundraiser. My friend overheard a gnome knitting cult member reveal that the teachers believed if they faithfully practiced a series of meditative exercises, they would gain the power to see real gnomes. Mr. R., my own son’s first grade teacher, was reputed to have recently seen a gnome, dressed in a striped sweater and matching bell-festooned hat, walking in a nearby park.
So why did I do it? Why did I make the endless drives to take my beloved daughter to a strange and distant school? Nuclear war never struck, but flat tires, bad weather, and fires did. I often drove too quickly, so Sara would not be late. Once, in an effort to make a traffic light, I drove over a cement barrier into the left-hand turn lane when a policeman stopped and scolded me. He peered into the back seat where my two children sat. “Where are you going in such a hurry so early in the morning?” the officer asked me. I sat speechless; I had no explanation. He repeated the question and then just gestured for us to move on.
When Sara was in third grade, an unexpected Valentine’s Day blizzard dumped several feet of snow on the ground. As she and I passed car after car overturned in ditches, I feared we would never make it home alive. Six hours later, when we finally pulled into our garage, I resolved to find a closer school for her to attend. Several times, I arrived to pick her up and found the school cordoned off, surrounded by police cars and fire trucks. An abandoned nearby warehouse was on fire, and smoke poured into the window of Sara’s classroom.
The journey became intertwined in our family history, a source of stories. Do you remember the time we got a flat tire and had to rent a car, or the time a friend’s ferret escaped from its cage on the expressway, or when Michael Lipton threw a bag of Doritos out the window and the police stopped us? And each time something happened, I seriously considered putting a halt to the daily commute. Every week, I asked myself, was the Waldorf School really as indispensable as I believed?
In retrospect, I think the Waldorf School provided Sara with a kind of “psychological safety” that allowed her to shake off and compensate for the worse effects of NLD. As the years passed, she grew stronger. Because of NLD, she was not particularly observant, so much of the school’s bizarreness went right over her head. Instead, she took in only the good things. Not the belief that flesh-and-blood gnomes scampered in the public park, but the ability to understand that gnomes lived in stories and folktales where they serve as metaphors for the dark crevices of the Earth. She learned to speak clearly by reciting verses and singing songs in unison with the same children she had known since first grade. She spent two weeks on a biodynamic farm and didn’t notice the cow skulls or the position of the stars. Instead, she learned to find her away around the acres of fields, milk cows, and sleep in a hay-filled barn. She mastered the art of watercolor, transforming the puddles of translucent primary colors into castles and trees. Wearing the rose-colored glasses of NLD, she took in the benefits of Waldorf and, in the process, learned to evade the psychological pitfalls of her disability, the loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
When Sara turned fourteen, the drives that had dominated our mornings and afternoons suddenly came to an end, and we settled into a less frenetic routine. Strong enough to attend a more conventional high school, she didn’t need the Waldorf School anymore. When she returned home after the first day, she remarked about how her new school was like visiting a strange foreign country. There were no crayons or fountain pens. The kids didn’t spend half the day outside. No one danced or sang. Most of all, she said, no one decorated the borders of their papers with vines and garlands of red berries. Still, it was interesting, she said. More business-like and serious. She decided she could get used to it.
Marilyn Martin holds an MFA from the Bennington Writers Seminars. Her work is forthcoming at the Southern Indiana Review. She also is the author of a book about raising a child with a nonverbal learning disability.
“Front porches make me think of my first landlord, Mr. Hubble, who didn’t believe in leases or in renting to University of Chicago students. However, we were four undergraduate girls determined to move out of the dorm and somehow talked him into promising us the four-bedroom apartment on the second floor. However when we returned in September, Mr. Hubble informed us the second floor apartment was no longer available, but we could have a smaller apartment on the first floor. Without a lease, we really couldn’t argue. Since none of us wanted to share a bedroom, I agreed to sleep in the tiny sun porch just off the living room. For a whole year, this glass-enclosed front porch was my bedroom.”