Testimonial By Suzanna Slack

By Suzanna Slack

March 4, 2004

I would so much like to offer a testimonial to your site.

I was involved in a Steiner school for quite a few years, as we started to attend a mother and toddler group which was very healing for myself and a wonderful environment for my daughter who was just 18 months at the time. She still didn’t walk, then, but she spoke a lot and was very advanced in terms of words and language and ideas and interacting with people, especially adults. She liked other children but mostly liked to talk with adults, and it was made clear to me that the mother and toddler group would be a kind of ‘reprieve’ for both of us – which it was. Lots of singing, and not so much going on with the head for a couple of hours a week, and she met some little children who became her friends.

It worked so well for us we sometimes went three times a week, I became dependent on the place and its ideas and found that it represented something I had been missing in my own life, which of course had nothing to do with my daughter but I told myself it was all about her. Women with young children andtiny babies formed a community sharing their troubles and there was nothing else like that around.

My daughter’s name went down for a kindergarten place and her toys were very Steiner-friendly, the books she’d had an uncontrollable lust for I was able to replace some of the time with Steiner-type play, and the tv went out of the window. I even painted a room peach. Just before she started kindergarten she developed an interest in hydraulics – kept noticing hydraulic systems at work, say in the doors of the bus for example – and it was then I had my first pangs of doubt. It felt really weird not to give her the information she wanted, but I knew it was too material, too sciency, way too old for her. I remember sitting on the bus and answering her questions but feeling that I was already ‘going against’ something. And she was only three!

The kindergarten was a disaster, so I wasn’t that torn. But I was torn enough to let them persuade me try her again the following year, when she was four and a half. What went on in that kindergarten is still coming out now, and she is seven, and I do believe she may be affected by her experiences for life.

The bullying was awful. The teacher ignored it, capitulated in it, or simply showed all these little kids how to do it best. One time my daughter told her kindergarten teacher a little boy had kicked her, hard, right then as they were sitting there, and the kindergarten teacher had said in her sing-song voice “Oh, I don’t think he did, did he?”

The other little girls in the kindergarten would systematically group around her and criticise her drawings at the beginning of each session. She is still very nervous and eager to please around any girls of the same age as her. This was supposedly a place where no figurative drawing or age-specific tasks took place, just a few rounded-edge crayons and some sheets of paper. But no, every morning she was drilled “that doesn’t look like a heart!” and mocked, until she could do the perfect Princess-heart up to the standard of every other smaller girl. The bigger girls were off doing their own age-specific put-downs.

Still at the age of three. Before then she’d never given a monkey’s what she drew looked like to anyone. At the time I presume the teacher was lighting her candles, putting on her apron, and making sure the apple and cinnamon cooking to eat with rice pudding would reach the noses of the parents when they arrived later. Or arranging some gnomes.

The teacher often gripped my daughter hard on the arm when she was displeased with her. My daughter peed her pants almost every time she was there. The toilet was through a cold stone passageway (lovely old church though, very pretty) and in another kindergarten. She had to go alone when she needed to – through these big heavy arched church doors and into another noisy kindergarten full of more scary kids and another weird kindergarten teacher busy making dough or arranging gnomes. So she didn’t bother, and she peed her pants and sometimes poohed them every day. The other little princesses laughed at her about this. Did I say she was just three and a half? And four and a half the following year. Still tiny. During breaktime, when she was getting teased for peeing herself sometimes (often, those kids had no idea how often it was really happening – neither did the teacher, she’d be handed back to me in a change of different clothes but those would be soaking too) – well I suppose that same teacher was just making sure the kids didn’t write their names in chalk, as I saw some do illegally once. Making sure they did less harmful things, like fight and beat the crap out of each other.

The kids at that school were and are so angry because the parents were so busy arguing and getting exhausted and keeping up appearances and trying to hold down jobs as well so they could afford a certain kind of right-on organic wholefoods yoga-mum lifestyle in North London AND the Steiner school fees as well AND the time they were supposed to put in…it made them all totally wired-up, short-circuiting really, quite crazy and paranoid and twitchy to be around, all of them, but slightly more comfortable around others exactly like them. Around anyone who vaguely didn’t belong – like myself who was challenging the place and questioning it, and for which I was criticised for ‘not letting my daughter go’ and for ‘making it worse for her by not letting it get sorted out in the kindergarten by the teacher and the other children, like a family’…..I finally realised my daughter had a family which had given her so much confidence already, and to expect her to have any faith in this furious, dog-eat-dog, peach-painted Lord of the Flies daily hell and to see it as a ‘new family’ was the most twisted way to confuse a child.

And the behaviour of the jumpy, over-earnest, bitching parents made their children unsurprisingly snappy, nervous, embarrassed, self-conscious, status-seeking, aspirational, depressed, agressive and violent. Across the board. I’ve seen countless angelic toddlers go into that kindergarten and emerge only a few months later furious confused little monsters. My daughter has certainly never recovered, and she did six weeks one year and six weeks the following year when I hadn’t learned my lesson and thought it might work out a second time!

After the second six-week disaster I really realised nothing about that school in particular could ever do my daughter any good, despite our heavenly first encounter when she was a baby. I’d even selectively forgotten aspects of that mother and toddler group that hadn’t been so good, because of my own self-esteem problems. Hardcore Steiner followers who didn’t acknowledge me, or others I knew, time and time again, who would look straight through us, and only talk to each other. People who ran the school who mocked me when I offered to run a mother and toddler group, and said I’d need to do teacher training, and then asked others to stand in and run it if they had done a bit of it here and there. I understood what was going on, finally – the whole soul incarnation thing had to be understood and read about, and I hadn’t done that. You had to go through a trial by fire, you had to let your child be taken hold of by the kindergarten teachers, and the doctors if there was a problem ( I know one child who wouldn’t accept the injustice of it all and was ‘seen’ by a Steiner doctor and ‘a way was found’)….you had to put in some hours, some serious hours (we did that: my partner put classroom floors down, I made gnomes)….you had to give whatever money you could and if you were a ‘concession’ (as we were) you had to listen to suggestions that you should perhaps put more time in in exchange for your reduced fee! You had to listen to class reps say that “This is the way we do things in a Steiner school and there is no other way, everybody takes their turn”. Even if they don’t want to? Even if they think there might be another way? Even if they have new, exciting ideas to offer? I disagreed. I said I didn’t belong, then. That was it. If you don’t belong, I was told, your daughter will never feel that she does either. You are making the problem for her, I was reminded. I was grateful for this explicit advice, because however ugly it might be it is certainly the truth.

Don’t send your children to Steiner school unless you are happy about conforming entirely to the beliefs of the majority, placing your trust in a sea of sometimes disturbing and odd beliefs, and ‘letting go’ of your children and your own intuition into that sea. If you don’t belong, neither will your children. And if this is OK with you, then your children probably didn’t have much chance of being themselves anyway, so you haven’t got much to lose, and you may as well participate in the cult and have many happy days weaving and singing those lovely songs! Just keep concentrating on those happy things, and try not to pay too much attention to the darker, more sinister aspects of Steiner, because then you might not belong to a wholesome community no more, and that would never do, would it? After all, we’re a world without communities anymore, and you’ve got to grab one where you can get one, and pay no mind to the creepy stuff that might go on within one – just so long as there’s songs, weaving and festivals!