On a hilltop playground in City Heights, a woman in a pink wraparound apron and straw hat is walking. She looks like an American mother of a certain period — before feminism and dual careers — but thinner, thin as a flapper, as thin as the girls in Kate Greenaway illustrations. She steps patiently toward the Waldorf School of San Diego, a raw stucco building among raw stucco buildings, barred windows, paved yards, chain-link fences, and houses, houses, houses.
“Follow, follow, follow,” the woman sings, “follow me.”
She sings liltingly, unselfconsciously, although she never sang to anyone except her own children before she got this job. She’s Miss Lea here, the teacher of one-, two-, and three-year-olds who come to the Waldorf School’s Morning Glory class once a week with their mothers, and being a Morning Glory teacher means you sing, you knit, you sing, you teach mothers to knit, you sing, you tell stories, you make oatmeal, you sing, and you bake bread. You do this even if for 25 years you had a phobia about your voice.
“Follow, follow, follow, follow me.”
The mothers sing too, though with less confidence in the results, and their children, who are disinclined to follow anyone anywhere, do. They follow.
Back in the classroom, the barred windows, paved yards, chain-link fences, and flat houses disappear. The world is reduced to a semicircle of tiny wooden chairs before a low wooden table, which serves as a stage for the story Miss Lea is about to tell. A nearly transparent silk scarf covers her props — three pinecones for the forest, a wooden arch for the house, a knitted doll, a hunk of wool. The children sit down for the rituals that precede the lifting of the silk scarf.
First the singsong chant for resting your hands:
- Open them, shut them
- Open them, shut them
- Lay them in your lap!
A song for lighting the candle:
- I can light a candle,
- God can light a star.
- Both of them are useful,
- Shining where they are.
Then, as Miss Lea lifts the scarf, she delivers the most mysterious of the daily sayings, a metafictional pronouncement: “When and where did it happen? When and where did it not happen?”
In this manner, the story begins.
The first Waldorf School was Die Freie Waldorfschule of Stuttgart, Germany, founded in 1919 by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory and an Austrian mystic named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner’s aim, in a country ravaged by the first world war, was to educate children of factory workers for what he called “a more humane existence than we have had.” More than 800 schools would eventually be founded in its likeness, 127 of them in North America, and because the schools aim to teach spiritual truth as well as the usual academic skills, they tend to convert — not just employ — instructors.
The conversion of Lea Nelson began in Lakeside 20 years ago. She wasn’t Miss Lea then. She was a 14-year-old girl riding her bicycle to a housecleaning job. Her parents weren’t religious — her father, in fact, said “atheist” when Lea asked what religion she was — but her grandmother in Illinois talked openly about her conversations with God.
As she approached a busy intersection, Lea spotted two of her friends across the street. She intended to say hello, but at that moment a drunk driver’s car struck her bicycle. Her friends watched her body fly over five lanes like the body of a cloth doll. She landed on her head. The doctor who examined Lea said she was lucky the car had been going so slowly when it hit her. That was the only explanation for Lea’s survival, for her solid unbroken bones.
But a driver who’d been on the road at the time said otherwise. That driver told police the car that hit Lea’s bicycle had been going more than 60 miles per hour.
When and where did it happen? When and where did it not happen?
After that, Lea couldn’t say there wasn’t a higher power.
She began to pursue the question of what God is. She wanted, in particular, to devote herself to some earthly cause, to do the kind of charity work her devout grandmother had always done, but she found no satisfactory means until a year or so after high school, when she saw a notice for a new antiapartheid group at Grossmont College. Lea showed up, but no one else did. Just the organizer himself. He was so charismatic that Lea became his student and did her ministry training in the Church of the Essene, a Christian sect that, like the Waldorf School, puts great emphasis on the human relationship with the natural world.
At 20, Lea Nelson married the man who would father her three children, who would work in sales, study herbology, and find himself addicted to a wide range of things. They stayed together for years in spite of that because she didn’t want it to come to separation, to divorce, to separation, to divorce. Eight years ago, when Lea was four months pregnant with their third child, it came to that. She moved back to her childhood home in Lakeside with two children and one not born yet.
But before those unhappy things, back when their first daughter was born, she and her husband had begun looking for a different sort of education. They tried a Montessori preschool, then homeschooling, then a Rudolf Steiner book group. She brought her son to his first Morning Glory class in 1993, and there she found, at last, other mothers like herself.
She found what you would find if you sat down on a tiny wooden chair for kindergarten orientation. The Waldorf School attracts people whose children are, for various reasons, not thriving in the public schools, and it attracts those who wouldn’t want their children to thrive in the public schools. It attracts iconoclasts, idealists, environmentalists, homeschoolers, and freethinkers, specifically freethinkers who would call themselves spiritual, not religious. It attracts those who question the conventions and tools of modern parenthood, who want alternatives to hospital births, circumcision, vaccinations, allopathic medicine (the kind prescribed by doctors), Ritalin, early weaning, disposable diapers, cribs, Disney videos, standardized testing, plastic toys, fast food, white flour, white sugar, and vegetables grown inorganically.