by Ron Petrou
Three-and-a-half years ago I moved from Kimberton in Chester County to Mt. Airy in order to introduce the ideas of Rudolf Steiner to people in the Philadelphia area. For 33 years I lived in Kimberton surrounded by people who had dedicated their lives, inspired by Steiner’s ideas, to teach children at Kimberton Waldorf School or live with and help children and adults “in need of special care” in four Camphill communities. But few of these Steiner enthusiasts had the desire to share these ideas with residents of Philadelphia.
Having seen how Steiner’s ideas had transformed the lives of myself, my wife, my daughter and many of my students and friends, I wanted to introduce others to these ideas. To explain the transformative power of Steiner’s ideas, I will briefly tell my story.
In 1971 I moved with my four-year-old daughter and my wife from Suffolk County, Long Island, to Chicago. She was a nurse, and I was a public high school English teacher and child welfare caseworker. My wife, a fiery, red-haired Scotswoman, Martha, a former Catholic whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute and had grown up in a repressive Catholic orphanage in Glasgow, had encountered a Waldorf teacher and the ideas of Steiner in England when she was a student nurse.
She wanted our daughter to attend a Waldorf School. I was 33, a former Episcopalian and committed agnostic, leaning towards atheism. One day soon after arriving in Chicago, I was driving my four-year old daughter, Catherine, in the car when she suddenly asked me, “Daddy, where was I before I was born.”
The question totally threw me. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I couldn’t dump my lifeless, negative atheism on her innocent, honest curiosity. I went in search of someone, some church perhaps, where she and I could find out the answer. Every Sunday for several months thereafter we would visit churches of various denominations. Eventually we met a German woman, Rosemarie Bergmann, who knew about Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf education and the wisdom of fairy tales. Catherine and I immediately were drawn to her and her storytelling.
Soon after this discovery our family, especially Catherine, experienced a traumatic event that every parent dreads. One night an intruder broke into our apartment, entered Catherine’s bedroom while she was sleeping, pulled down her sheet and blanket and was pulling up her nightgown when Catherine suddenly awoke, screamed, woke me up and frightened the intruder enough to run out of the apartment before I got to him. The front door was open, and I saw his footprints on the snow-covered front steps.
Catherine was terrified. After that she couldn’t sleep. She was constantly checking the windows and doors. Martha and I didn’t know what to do.
We asked Rosemarie for help. She advised us to tell Catherine in her bedroom, lit by candlelight, an unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tale every night. She said that gradually from these profound, life-giving stories, Catherine would acquire the courage to overcome her fears.
I took on this task every night for the next four years. I entered with her into the magical realm of childhood’s fairytale consciousness. Gradually, as Rosemarie predicted, Catherine overcame her fears.
Significantly, in 1976, Bruno Bettlelheim, an Austrian-born American psychiatrist who had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II and who worked with emotionally disturbed children in Chicago, published a book, “The Uses of Enchantment.” The book won a National Book Award in 1977. It described the therapeutic power of fairy tales, especially Grimm’s Fairy Tales, to assist children who have experienced trauma.
From this beginning my family’s destiny took a creative and exhilarating turn. We with other parents started a Waldorf School, which is now the K-through-12 Chicago Waldorf School. I earned a Master’s Degree in Waldorf Education from Adelphi University in Long Island, moved to Chester County and became a high school English teacher at the Kimberton Waldorf School. Catherine graduated from Kimberton in 1986, earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia Medical School and is now a psychiatrist in Los Angeles and co-author of a book entitled “Principles of Trauma Therapy.”
I have now been an active student of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas for 42 years. From my own experience I can understand why the Waldorf School movement is the largest non-sectarian private school movement in the world with over 1000 Waldorf schools, including 150 in America and one in Mt. Airy. In addition, from Steiner’s ideas have arisen more than 100 Camphill communities world-wide, serving those “in need of special care.”
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) gave more than 6000 lectures and wrote more than 35 books, most of which are in print in English and many other languages.
Ed. note: Ron Petrou will present a six-week course on “The Ideas of Rudolf Steiner” that will meet on Tuesdays, starting Feb. 12, 10 to 11:30 a.m., at the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment, 8431 Germantown Ave. More information at 267-421-7749 or email@example.com