The maypole ritual seems as anachronistic as the Waldorf School where it takes place.
Every first Saturday in May for the past quarter century, in the ancient village of Costa Mesa, hundreds of children have marked the arrival of spring by dressing in white, weaving flower headdresses, and dancing with bright ribbons around a maypole. Waldorf School of Orange County started locally in 1988 with the stated mission to provide “academic excellence through awakening in our students genuine enthusiasm, an interest in the world, a love of learning, and a sense of purpose in life.” But what began as one kindergarten class in a church basement has morphed into a K through 12 operation with a waiting list and a who’s-who parent list. The recently added high school was built mostly from upcycled shipping containers.
I’m not a Waldorf parent, though I have a half-dozen good friends whose kids attend the school, and I explored it for our family as an alternative to the test-centric public schools. Waldorf parent and fourth-grade teacher Brooke Trudeau says each of the Waldorf Schools—there are nearly 1,000 in 60 countries around the world—has a distinct identity. In Orange County, she says, “they’re independent thinkers, not necessarily liberal thinkers, but people who are entrepreneurs and are thinking and looking for something that’s not the norm. It’s beyond conservative or liberal—it’s an openness. An independence.”
We are independent, but many of Waldorf’s other values run counter to so much of what we in Orange County hold dear. Let’s be real. We adopt technology early, embrace the virtue of competition, and train our kids young that shopping is a form of play. Waldorf is so not-any-of-that. It’s about hanging onto childhood, easing up on the tension in the classroom, avoiding technology, and making your own stuff. It’s about slowing it all down and shutting it all off.
I complained once to my neighbor, Sara Chesters, about the homework load at our neighborhood school. She told me her Waldorf daughter was knitting a scarf. Another time one of my kids wasn’t achieving first-grade level on the nightly computerized reading tests. She wondered why I was worried; she said Waldorf didn’t even think about teaching kids to read until second grade.
The school’s growth tells Denise Ogawa, the development director, that Waldorf has strong local appeal.
“Times are changing quicker than anyone could have imagined in this modern digital age,” she says. “To have things you can hang on to that are the same as they were a hundred years ago, that’s a really cool thing.”
At May Faire, the children of Waldorf aren’t just grounded in a beautiful annual ritual of spring—they know they’re surrounded by something very close to extended family. They look around the grounds at the maypole ceremony and see people they know. Waldorf parents have earnest discussions and come to agreements about issues such as access to cell phones and video games.
“They know they have all those aunties and uncles,” says Brooke Tomblin, whose kids have attended Waldorf for 11 years. “We used to have communities like that. Orange County is very mobile. How many people are actually from here? If they didn’t grow up there, this is their family. This is our village, and May Faire is our village celebration. We’re raising these kids together.”
Our first child, now in his first year of college, was subjected to everything: a megaphone directed at my belly playing Mozart, a developmental class where we pushed sand around in tubs, padded rooms where he tumbled beneath giant colored parachutes, the first computer games.
The next two kids—you know the story. It’s just lucky we didn’t leave them behind in the restroom at Tommy’s on the way to Baja. But the first son. Of course we checked out Waldorf.
At a Waldorf mommy-and-me class, I met mothers nursing toddlers, big ones, and saw a lot of colored chiffon scarves being waved. I tried to speak in a soft voice like everyone else. Although a bit on the Sister Moon side of things for me, it was incredibly reinforcing to be in such a nurturing environment when the preferred child-rearing method at the time was to shut the door on your baby and let him cry.
I inevitably chose the chumminess of the neighborhood school, but I’ve gravitated toward Waldorf parents as friends. They tell me May Faire helps them slow down time. The maypole serves as a measurement of their children’s growth. The youngest children simply circle the pole. As they grow older, they learn more complicated patterns to weave with the ribbons.
Neighbor Sara—a licensed marriage and family therapist—tells me it’s difficult to be a Waldorf mom in Orange County, because the children live far apart from each other. “It’s difficult to raise a child with limited (exposure to) technology in a place like this, where the next-door neighbor is sure to have it.” (Uh, that would be us, the corrupting neighbors with the cache of video games.)
I’m not surprised such a place can survive in aggressive, competitive, rootless Orange County. But the fact that it’s growing makes me sit up and straighten my laptop. One of these years I’m going to slow down, get off the couch, go to Costa Mesa, and watch them circle the maypole. As soon as I’m done binge-watching “House of Cards.”
May Faire, a community event open to the public, takes place this year from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 2 at Waldorf School, 2350 Canyon Drive, Costa Mesa.