By: Becky Larson
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” -Socrates
The sunglasses and hat may have disguised Jenny Nelson at first, but her bright smile and humor come shining through in this photograph of her from 1988. A California girl, born and raised in San Diego, Jenny came to Minneapolis to attend Carleton College where she studied Religion and Asian Studies.
A friend and fellow student told her about his elementary school education, where he learned math with gnomes in the forest, and she was intrigued. “I made a mental note, where is this, what is it, where can I find it,” recalls Jenny.
Life took her to Austin, Texas, where she became involved with the Austin Waldorf School. “They had this rough and tumble playground, with wild woods behind, and I thought, How do they play without a jungle gym? What would one do?” she laughs. It didn’t take long for the students to show her.
The After Care Program she managed was devoted to giving the kids a break, or an out breath, after a long day of lessons. She was struck by the depth of creativity the students expressed on that tree-lined playground with little equipment. Their play seemed more meaningful because they created the games and activities themselves. “I watched the kids climb to the tops of Cyprus trees. I’d never seen kids climbing trees like that -and there was freedom to do that. I saw how they could rise to the occasion to make beauty, and how with freedom, they could really go deep,” says Jenny.
Looking back, she recognizes how that experience laid the foundation for her own parenting, well before she had children of her own. She recently took a Biography course with Linda Bergh which helped her to better understand the journey that brought her to City of Lakes Waldorf School. “It taught me things I forgot I knew about myself,” she says. “Seeing the teachers work with such integrity made me realize that I can bring spirit into my work. In fact, you might even have to,” says Jenny.
Her husband’s work brought them to Houston, where they first became parents themselves. She led a Waldorf-inspired Parent/Tot class and discovered a new perspective as a mother. “I saw how children learn to accomplish more when they have space,” she says, “and I learned how to chose my battles.” After four years in Houston, they made the decision to return to Minnesota because there were more options for Waldorf education for their sons.
She jumped right in as a dedicated parent volunteer at City of Lakes Waldorf School, where she saw Waldorf education thriving in an urban setting. “The school is really of the world- between the McDonald’s and the bus stop- but there is such a mood of connection and kindness that comes with that,” she says. “Working here has only deepened my appreciation for the incredible work the faculty do to keep everything smooth and beautiful,” she says.
Throughout the school, the strong emphasis on preserving childhood means that adults and children alike participate in creating moments of wonder. On St. Nicholas day, the carpets were strewn with gold glitter, which the children immediately recognized as a sign that he had been there to deliver treats. In their classroom, the excitement lingered all day- along with the glitter! “The sparkles were everywhere,” Jenny laughs. “There were sparkles in our soup, by 3:oo it’s in the crinkles of my eyes and in my hair- and the poor janitors vacuuming it up! But prolonging childhood really does give them time and space to be. The literacy, numeracy, small and gross motor skills- it’s all there. But it’s about the pace, taking time to slow down and imagine and have wonder.”
She believes the two-year Kindergarten program creates balance for the older and younger children. “You have 6 year olds growing up, and you see when they choose to be helpers and when they don’t. You see those who need to be helped benefiting. They are all learning generosity, and there is this feeling that we may not all be in the same place, but we all want to be together.”
Patience and humor are words that come up again and again as Jenny talks about her work, and her cheerful laugh comes easily. These are great skills in Kindergarten, where children are still learning to practice their manners and be kind to one another. “Elena and I laugh a lot- there is a lot of funny, meaningful eye contact at the snack table,” she says with a wink.
“The other day, the kids decided to have a joke club- so they gathered in a circle in the yard, and there was a rather long moment where no one had one yet- and then someone said ‘Why do elephants paint their toenails red?’ -he could hardly get it out he was laughing so hard- ‘So they can hide in cherry trees!’ and I loved it so much, because I used to tell that exact same joke when I was 5 years old!”
Jenny also works as an English Language Teacher with Minnesota Literacy Council, primarily with adult immigrants. She spent a lot of time hunting for the connection between two seemingly disparate worlds. Working with the very small children, in this beautiful setting, seemed so different from working with adults from a foreign land. “And yet,” she says, “these grannies from Africa, who aren’t literate in their own language- they are just beginning their journey as students too. I love the patience and humor you need to send someone on their journey and I use that in both places, ” says Jenny. We are delighted that her journey brought her to us at City of Lakes Waldorf School.