I don’t often write about my kids — not from a lack of pride but more of a sense of humility and, I’ll admit, a desire to remain credible. Every parent when he starts talking about his children comes under a haze of skepticism. It’s not that we expect her to lie, we just know that every parent is skewed, with a biological imperative, to view hers as the strongest, bravest, wisest and most beautiful.
My three daughters either have or currently do attend the Alabama Waldorf School here in Birmingham. Waldorf education was founded early in the twentieth century by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a contemporary of many of the more esoteric Western philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He rubbed philosophical elbows alongside names like Aleister Crowley and Maria Montessori.
By many accounts Steiner was a bit of a whack job. A mad genius with a finger in almost every pie. He made contributions in education (Waldorf), agriculture (bio-dynamic farming), philosophy (anthroposophy) and movement (eurythmy). Modern detractors point out his affinity for clairvoyance and ability to reach the spirit world directly as proof of kookiness and reason to downplay his accomplishments.
However, like many a mad genius, he’s often right and his contributions, more often than not, prove helpful.
Having had one daughter complete her nursery through eighth grade education and two more making their way through. I’ve seen first hand the benefits of this system, as well as experienced my own reservations and doubts over it’s kookier elements that fly in the face of conventional “wisdom.” The benefits have far outweighed any concerns I may have had over what ultimately came down to “what will the neighbors think?”
My children are bright, strong, highly capable young women with fully intact egos and self esteems that most other educational systems seem hell bent to destroy. I have no doubts that they will emerge as well prepared adults more than ready for any task life sees fit to place before them.
I will be well taken care of in my old age.
At present I’m enjoying a well earned break, sitting in my well padded “Papa’s chair” in the corner of my office. I’ve just returned, like a veteran off campaign, from participating in a unique rite of passage, particular to Waldorf Education that helps bridge the transition from childhood to adolescence, the Waldorf Pentathlon.
I’ve attended two prior to this one. Each time showing up to fulfill my fatherly duty of cheering on each daughter in her champion year. This time, however, I took a deeper involvement and served as chaperone, offering to help shepherd a group of students. I honestly had no idea what I was signing up for.
I knew the basics. I knew the Pentathlon was based on the original Greek games of Javelin, Discus, Long Jump, Wrestling and a Foot Race, run as a relay. I knew that on arrival each student was grouped according to temperament (more on this later) into the city-states of Corinth, Sparta, Athens and Thebes. I knew that parental involvement was minimal save for observation the final day of the event and that many adult volunteers were needed to make the event successful. Birmingham had played host in the years of my first two daughter’s and this year we were in Nashville.
What I didn’t know was how drawn in I would become, how in two short days I would come to care for and take a special interest in kids I’ll probably never see again, or how vital I would come to see this experience and how awesome it is I have a wife who’d be so insistent that this is the way our children would be educated.
Part of Steiner’s kookiness is that he grouped people into one of four personality types. This isn’t anything new, but anytime someone tries to put out an idea like this, unless it’s couched in Myers-Briggs-science-y-mumbo-jumbo it’s pretty much poo-poo-ed.
Steiner really needed a good PR gal. He took names like melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic to denote the four types. Actually he was Austrian, so he probably had even more undecipherable names that English and American Waldorf scholars translated into the ones we’re stuck with now.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. The concept gets even more complicated when you consider we’re not all one type or another, but actually a blend of all four attributes. We just tend to gravitate toward one end of the spectrum more than the others.
So when the various schools get together for this annual event the children are all grouped according to similar temperaments. Each of the four city states corresponds with one of the four temperaments.
Now I’m the least qualified guy to give you a full on discussion of the types and temperaments, but this is what I observed.
People, by and large, look like their personalities. This isn’t entirely new to me. Elliot Hulse in his Strengthology talks about this and it comes to us also from the works of men like Alexander Lowen and Wilhelm Reich. The body is a physical manifestation of our inner selves and as our moods and ideas shape our posture, over time they come to shape our bodies, too.
Getting to see it first hand, though, is pretty cool.
The Spartan kids, despite coming from places as far away as New Orleans and Miami all looked like they belonged together. This is the choleric group, natural athletes, the gifted ones who have to try really hard to understand why others don’t always get things as easily as they do. Ruddy complexions, with compact, capable bodies, they are natural predators, who need lots of of direction and activity to keep their easily bored minds from preying on the weaker ones for sport.
Corinthians are melancholic. They’re the artists, the exact opposite of Sparta, sensitive types, not necessarily any less physically, but completely devoid of a killer instinct. Many of the Corinthian boys wished to be Spartans, they fantasized over the stories and histories, seeing themselves in the lead, brave victorious and strong, not realizing that their capacity to dream is what makes them so solidly Corinthian.
Athenians’ feet don’t quite touch the ground. These are the sanguine kids. They’re very much in their heads, slighter of build and as focused as a room full of butterflies. These are the ones I know the least, mainly because this lack of focus drives me crazy. As such it’d probably be good for me to get to know these kids. There’s not much sanguine in me and a better understanding would probably be good for my soul. That said I think I’ll wait until I’m certain enough of myself that I won’t squish ’em until their eyeballs bulge out of my own frustration. Jail, I’m pretty certain, would not be good for my soul.
Thebans are the salt of the earth. Heck, they are the earth. These are the phlegmatics. Yeah, that word makes me think of phlegm, too, but these kids are solid. They are rooted to the earth. Remember the Campbell’s kids? The ones used to sell the soup? Those kids were plegmatic. Solid, well built, strong kids with full faces and hearty constitutions. They’re easy going and follow directions. Of all the kids on the field this was the group that when you asked them to form a straight line, knew how to form a line.
I discovered this weekend that my own tendencies fell toward the Corinthian and Theban camps. As a child I squarely belonged among the Corinthians. Watching one of our Corinthian girls, at the close of the final ceremony, crying with her parents, I totally understood. The sadness that it was all over was too much to contain. Luckily I also know that type of thing isn’t permanent and before she’s home she’ll be on to something new.
As an adult, I’ve become more Theban. Watching my own Theban daughter and her fellows as they competed in the long jump, I reminded another spectator, “We’re heavy. We don’t fly.”
Except when we excel. Watching my daughter and her fellow Thebans throwing the discus and wrestling, you could see their strength put to it’s proper use — and there they soared.
Which is what’s so cool about this event. Each event is a strength for a different temperament. Each kid stands alone and here on the precipice of mini-adulthood learns that she can stand alone and perform admirably.