In a satsang in Los Angeles on his father's birthday in November, Guru Maharaj Ji told how he had taken the kids from Unity School in Denver to see a movie not long before that.
It was one of many gestures Maharaj Ji has used to show his love for the youngsters there are now about 76 of them - who go to that small school in Colorado.
As small private schools go, it is just one of many in Denver's Capitol Hill area. You could walk by it many times and not notice anything special about it. But it is special. And that trip to the movies provided a pretty good clue as to why.
It's his school.
It is also one of the most enduring premie institutions in the world. As premie history goes, 1972 is almost prehistoric. And it was in that year, at the Guru Puja festival in Montrose, Colorado, that Maharaj Ji spoke to Sharon Keller, a young teacher from Philadelphia.
In a manner characteristic of his terse instructions on many things in that period, he told her simply, "Start a school." The details were up to her, and to the small circle of brothers and sisters who quickly gathered around her as the project began.
They were all young, and they counted their experience in terms of years, not the decades one would hear people boasting about in the education departments of most universities. But, among them, they had been exposed to a wide range of philosophies and experiments in education.
Sharon, for instance, had evaluated experimental programs in the public schools of Philadelphia. Others in the planning group had worked with the Montessori system. Still others had helped put together a parent cooperative. All shared the belief that there is something lacking in most schools today, and that a better way could be found through a collective understanding of love and consciousness.
For a year, they had no pupils to teach. The immediate goal was to find a system of teaching that seemed compatible with the practice of Knowledge. They meditated, fought, argued, discussed, read much and talked about most of it, puzzled over the problem, tired out many ideas and each other - and shared a sense of frustration as the answer continued to elude them.
A clue came from the readings of Edgar Cayce, which suggested that teachers seeking to follow a path of truth could benefit from the training given teachers in the Waldorf school system, based on the teachings of an Austrian-born genius named Rudolf Steiner.
Sharon's group found that the spiritual roots of Steiner's teachings were strong. Where the Waldorf curriculum used stories from the life of Jesus as its illustrations, the Denver group realized it would be possible to adapt these messages to the universal theme of worshipping life.
Such an adaptation was necessary to fulfill one of the few points on which Maharaj Ji had been specific: he didn't want the project to be identified as a religious school. Neither did he want it to be a school for teaching catechisms about him or the Knowledge. He said it should be one to which any parents in the world, knowing it for what it really was, would be happy to send their children.
The result was a partnership that has continued happily to this day. Waldorf leaders agreed to help launch the project, and to allow would-be teachers from Shri Hans Educational to go to the Waldorf training institute. At the same time, all parties agreed the new school wouldn't operate under the Waldorf label.
Mimsy Kessler, another Philadelphian. arrived in Denver for what she thought was a brief visit in the summer of 1973, shortly before the first classes began with a dozen pupils. There was a first grade and a sixth grade - hardly a logical arrangement, but it filled a need based on the ages of the children in the community whose parents most wanted them to go to the new school.
Mimsy found three youngsters already in residence at the ashram across the street from the cottage where classes were about to begin. She decided the place needed a housemother. So she and her tiny son, lam, moved in. They didn't move out again until the "children's ashram," as it became known, was formally dissolved in the spring of 1975. At times, it housed nearly a dozen youngsters, some of whose parents lived in other cities.
The children loved it there. Visitors found themselves not wanting to leave. Many premies got their first glimpse that something special was going on in the tiny school when they found an excuse to visit the house where those youngsters lived.
The first class - a group of youngsters who today are fourth-graders - had nine pupils. Three more, all girls, made up the sixth grade. The latter class (a clear exception to the Steiner philosophy, which insists that Waldorf pupils must start from the beginning and work through all the grades to get the system's full value) lasted for three years, disbanding after its members were graduated from the eighth grade last spring.
In its earliest days, the school sought to be self- supporting. Several premie businesses one of them a legendary venture known as the Next-to-Godliness
8 Divine Times, January 1977
Janitorial Service - contributed their earnings. But like a tree that seeks to extend its roots to more and more solid ground, Unity avoided over-reliance on anything which - in the fashion of premie activities of that era - could dry up overnight.
In fact, a key quality of Sharon's young faculty at that point was its gritty determination to avoid the pitfalls which were being experienced by many projects in Divine Light Mission at that time.
Like skyrockets, some of these grand schemes soared into the sky with great expectations. Every couple of months, premies would find another bold way to change the world overnight. Maharaj Ji never got swept up in such things, and he usually just smiled as his devotees watched the rockets fizzle and learned the appropriate lesson which went with each one.
But a school … well, that's a different story. Children need to know that there is something constant in their lives. Even premies knew they couldn't afford to send up skyrockets with the needs of the children riding on them. And so it was that Sharon Keller and her colleagues moved slowly, taking measured steps and resisting the urge to let the new school grow too fast.
It wasn't always easy. Premie parents flocked to Denver from all over the country. Some found, to their dismay, that there wasn't room at the school for their children. Even today, some of those youngsters are going elsewhere. In the bargain, there were some more lessons about expectations and accepting things as they are.
Soon, Divine Light Mission assumed responsibility for funding the on-going project. It was one more sign that Guru Maharaj Ji wanted the sapling to survive.
Since then, it has grown and grown. After starting out as Shri Hans, the school got a new name - Unity. It came from Maharaj Ji, of course. And, before long, Sharon knew she would have to find another building to replace the tiny cottage. A search got underway, with the Mission taking a close look at every medium-sized building that was for sale - or might be - throughout Capitol Hill, where Denver's greatest concentration of premies and premie activities always has been located.
A fund drive in 1975, with more help from DLM, led to the purchase of a four-unit apartment house at 1225 Emerson Street last year. (The building, as it turned out, is only five blocks away from the community center which was acquired by the Denver premie community a year later.)
Hopes of moving in by the fall of 1975 soon faded due to a number of problems, financial and otherwise. This gave way to plans for a move at mid-year - but that didn't happen, either. What did happen was that Sharon Keller came to the conclusion she had done what she could do to get the school moving, and that it was time for a change.
Quietly, she groomed Brian McDermott, one-time head of the Mission in Canada, as her successor. Then she turned it over to him and moved to the Washington, D.C. community.
Taking charge quickly, Brian soon put his own stamp on the school. He breathed new life into such related projects as the Unity School PTA, which was in its first year. And he began to stress the importance of weeding out the catch-phrases and in-group concepts which might make it hard for non-premies to relate to what was going on in
Maharaj Ji's school.
While still small, the number of Unity School families who aren't members of Divine Light Mission is growing.
Some are from other spiritual groups. Others simply view the school as a desirable alternative to the public schools.
After many delays, remodeling got underway on the new school last summer. Work nearly came to a halt in July - about the same time DLM's financial pinch became serious. It appeared that the Mission might have to withdraw support from the school permanently.
It was a shock, but hardly the first one to hit the school in its short history. Hardly a year had passed without at
Divine Times, January 1977 13
ABOUT THE SCHOOL
To provide an education for all that man can become.
The subject areas are chosen so that a child has a balanced experience of life. In the morning, the focus is on the academic skills of language, science, and arithmetic. Midday two languages and music are taught. And the day ends with activities such as painting, sculpting, gardening, and physical education.
Type of School:
We are an independent, private and nondenominational school based on principles developed by Waldorf educators.
There are five class teachers and nine special teachers. For the class teachers we require a university degree and teacher certification, whereas in the special areas we look more toward competencies, though the majority of our special teachers are also certified.
Places Available for September 1977:
Grade 1 -10
Grade 2 -12
Grade 3 -2
Grade 4 -5
Grade 5 -6
Kindergarten - $700/yr. Elementary - $1,000/ yr.
Materials and Registration Fee:
$35 per year per student.
No additional scholarships will be available for the coming year.
Both this and the medical form are available by writing to Unity School, 1225 Emerson St., Denver, Colo. 80218. Please fill out both forms and return them. Then an interview will be scheduled with the teacher. If you can meet the basic requirements listed below, if we have places, and if your child does not have exceptional needs (eg. perceptual problems) then there is every likelihood of being accepted. If there is some difficulty in one of these areas please forward a letter of explanation.
1) An interview with the class teacher during which he decides whether or not he has the ability to work with the child.
2) The willingness of the parents to work at the school 5-10 hours per month. It is because of this work that we are able to keep tuitions as low as possible.
3) The ability to pay tuition promptly.
Correspond with public schools.
Main Lesson Subjects
These are subjects taught in the first two hours of the day by the child's class teacher. This list is taken from "The Waldorf Approach to Education, Questions and Answers" by John F. Gardner.
Large and small letters are learned thoroughly is forms and sounds. Reading is taught as a by-product of writing. Writing, in turn, is evolved from painting and drawing. Simple spelling … Numbers from 1 to 100 … Elements of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division … Fairytales and nature stories are told and retold or dramatized by the class. These, together with poems and stories coming from daily life, form the material for considerable writing.
Reading. Spelling, first elements of grammar, diction, simple composition … Arithmetic, including the simpler multiplication tables Fables and legends, nature lore, and acquaintance with natural home environment.
Reading. Spelling. Compositions and grammar. Cursive writing begun … Through stories, trips, nature walks, study of farming, housing, and other activities, the sense of practical life is fostered. Arithmetic, including higher tables and learning of measures … Old testament stories.
Reading. Spelling. Composition, including letter writing. Grammar. Arithmetic, including fractions. Map-making, Denver and Colorado geography … Norse myths and sagas … introduction to zoology.
Composition. Grammar. Spelling. Reading. Arithmetic, including decimals and calculations of area … Geography . Ancient history through Greece (Indian, Persian, Egyptian) … Botany.
Composition, including business letters, and further development of the feeling for style. Grammar. Spelling. Literature dealing, among other things, with the realm of folk-lore, and supplementing historical studies … Arithmetic, including an introduction to practical business mathematics: interest, percentage and discount. Geometry … Geography … Roman and Medieval history … Physics: acoustics, optics and heat. Mineralogy.
Composition, including poetry. Grammar … Spelling. Literature. Arithmetic; algebra and geometry. Geography … Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Discovery … American history … Astronomy. Physics: electricity, magnetics. Inorganic chemistry. Physiology.
Composition, including business English. Grammar. Spelling. Literature, especially the epic and dramatic forms … Arithmetic: algebra and geometry. World geography . History from the 17th century to the present … American history … Physics … Organic chemistry … Physiology.
Note: Special subjects - such as foreign languages, music, eurythmy, art, gym, and handcrafts - are studied, after the main lesson, in periods of normal length. They are usually taught two or three times per week.
least one crisis that threatened to shut the doors of the little cottage. Months before this crisis hit, the faculty had drawn up an emergency battle plan to keep the school afloat if things came to the point where it had to be wholly self- sufficient.
So, when July's bad news arrived, teachers and parents, along with many others in the Denver community, met the problem head-on. A community fund drive was already underway to buy the community center. And, after the school's supporters made it clear that they were ready to do their part, community director Allan lmbarrato agreed to make it a two- pronged fundraising effort.
Happily, the drive was a success on both fronts. The community got its new satsang hall and, at the same time, raised $9,000 for the school. Work went on.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, after a break of a week and a half to make the move, Unity resumed classes in its new home, which had been transformed from a drab and aging apartment house into a shining, bright home for a kindergarten, all four of the present grades and - when they're needed - a fifth and sixth grade as well.
Parents and teachers had, by then, spent many hours assisting a full-time premie crew in knocking out walls, tearing up an asphalt parking lot so it could be made into a playground, steaming old wallpaper, painting and laying carpet, as well as hauling things from the old location to the new one.
14 Divine Times, January 1977
But nobody, it seemed, really was prepared for the wondrous surprise that awaited the huge crowd which poured through the new school building when Brian and his colleagues held an open house one Sunday in late November.
All agreed afterward that something magical had truly bloomed for everyone to see on that day.
It seemed that the whole process which had begun in Montrose on that day in 1972 and continued on with a year of intense planning and three more years of classes in that tiny cottage, climaxed by a summer's work in the new building, had somehow all come together.
What the visitors saw that Sunday in November was a confident, smiling young faculty, explaining in simple and understandable terms how the essence of the Steiner philosophy had woven its way through the consciousness of men and women who were steeped in the clarity of meditation - and how all this had produced something very simple and, at once, very beautiful.
In each classroom, teachers explained to the visitors how numbers and letters, music and foreign languages, crafts and colors, all merged in stories, songs and games which the children loved. Visitors beamed and wished aloud that they could have gone to a school such as this.
And the love was there for everyone to see. Without a doubt, Maharaj Ji's love.
- Alan Cunningham