September 21st, 2019
Pulaski Park is tucked away in a corner of the lower east side of Milwaukee. It is a tiny city park, barely big enough to hold a baseball field and a tennis court. There are chain link fences that are nearly three stories high near the baseball diamond. The fences are there to keep home runs from smashing into the windows of the neighboring houses. The park has a number of large, mature trees that provide welcome shade.
Oh, and Tamarack Waldorf School has a garden there too.
The Tamarack Waldorf School is only a couple blocks away from the park. Karin and I know it well. Tamarack is housed in the old St. Hedwig school building on the corner of Humboldt and Brady, on the Milwaukee’s lower east side. That neighborhood has a history. St. Hedwig’s is a still an active Catholic church. It was founded by Polish immigrants. There were Italians in that area too. Peter Sciortino’s bakery is across the street from the school. The bakery is a good place to buy cannoli.
Brady Street was an immigrant neighborhood for many years. The demographics changed in the 1970’s, and the area became a haven for hippies. Property values declined. Then things changed again. Now this little enclave is very diverse, in a variety of ways. Brady Street is a home for the blatantly hip and trendy. The street reeks of money and youth. I don’t know if that is good or bad. It just is.
Karin and I went to Pulaski Park on Thursday afternoon. Tamarack participated in the worldwide commemoration of the very first Waldorf school. That school was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919. So, we all met in park to celebrate one hundred years of Waldorf education.
What is Waldorf education? I don’t have the time or inclination to explain it all. Even if I tried to explain what Waldorf is all about, you wouldn’t really get it. Waldorf is a peculiar pedagogic culture. Unless you’ve spent time inside of the community, you just can’t understand it. You have to first step into the magic circle, emphasis on the word “magic”. Waldorf is a way of educating children that is holistic, spiritual, beautiful, inspiring, and pretty weird. Feel free to look up Waldorf online for further information.
Karin and I have a long and twisted relationship with the world of Waldorf. Hans went to a Waldorf school for a few years, until that school imploded. Then we home schooled our kids. I was involved in the genesis of the Tamarack School, and I prefer to block any memories of that time period. After a few years, Karin and I decided to send our daughter, and our youngest son, Stefan, to Tamarack. Karin eventually became a handwork assistant at the school, which meant that she helped the students to learn how to knit and sew and crochet. She did that for several years until she was told that her services were no longer required. That kind of sucked. We left the community for a while.
Was our experience with Waldorf negative? Not really. The activities at the school often touched the souls of our children. Waldorf is in many ways counter-cultural. The education is not about fitting into the economic system. It’s not about making money and getting ahead. It’s about being human. That means there is an emphasis on music, art, and just being decent to other people. Nothing bad about any of that.
Back in the spring of 2008, I helped chaperon our youngest son’s class trip to New Orleans. This was only three years after Katrina devastated the city. Waldorf schools always have an eighth grade class trip. Part of the trip always involves community service. We did plenty of that in Crescent City. I have no idea how that journey affected Stefan or his classmates. I do know that it deeply affected me.
Karin and I stood in the park at the celebration. The students from the school were all sitting in the grass, restless in their boredom. Karin hooked up with Marcia, her old boss/compatriot from the handwork class. They hugged. They talked. That was a good thing.
People gave speeches. That’s what people do at events like this. I listened, kinda sorta. One speaker talked about the diversity of the school. Yeah, there is diversity with regards to race, religion, and ethnicity. That’s good. However, don’t ever disagree with the underlying spiritual and political assumptions of Waldorf. Diversity only goes so far. I figured that out years ago.
A member of the staff unveiled the new, improved logo for the school. Apparently, the creation of this new symbol required the help of a large number of people, both in the school and outside of it. The whole ceremony reminded me of corporate America. The answer to any problem is to find a new look. Coca Cola and Waldorf have something in common.
There were heroic speeches about the beginnings of the school. Those made me squirm, because I was there for some of that. The folks at Tamarack have found their own mythology, and they are running with it. More power to them. If the school has a story that works, go with it. At this point, the early struggles don’t matter, not even a little bit.
I looked at the children sitting on the grass, and I felt like crying. Our kids were in that place once, and time has been cruel to them. Sitting in front of me was a mass of pure innocence. These kids have no idea what lies before them, and it’s a blessing that they don’t know. Yes, some of them will go on to lead happy, meaningful lives. However, I know, from bitter experience, that some of them will suffer immensely. It’s not their fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. It just is.
The ceremony ended with the children from all of the classes singing a song. It was a round. Waldorf loves a round. They sang about peace in many languages. I could make out the words “padme om”, “shanti”, “shalom”, and “frieden”. It was a good song. I can think of none better.