Saturday, February 7, 2015

Rituals of welcome

Through the summer holidays I had been sewing, plying my needle through tough canvas, to prepare for this special day. Now that the little one was to begin in Class One at the Steiner school, she needed a chair cover with a deep pocket across the back. At the end of last year each child was asked to choose one of the colours of the rainbow, and given a chair cover for someone to decorate.

What shall I put on it? I wondered as the chair cover was entrusted to me. No problem, the little one knew exactly what she wanted: a tree, an owl, some grass and a moon. Oh, and the night before I was informed that her name had to be on it, so some hasty chain stitch was produced.
 We stood outside in the cool breeze of early morning - well, early for me, to be out driving at the one time of the day I avoid: the rush hour, when workers, and parents taking their kids to school are all out driving here there and everywhere. But this was a special day, and I had to be there.
 For on this, the first day of school, the little one was about to receive a special welcome. She wore a pretty new cotton dress, and slung her not-new back pack over her shoulders in readiness.

The whanau was gathered around her. Whanau is a Maori word for family, picked up by Pakeha ( New Zealanders of European descent) when describing a warm and nurturing family unity. And that's what we were: Chinese granny, Pakeha granny (me), father, and mother with the new babe in her arms, and the little one in our midst.
 The Steiner School is robust on caring, and this means creating ceremonies of transition. While the philosophy began in Germany, there is a strong Maori influence in this school. Together with the other families, we waited. The children from the kindergarten were shepherded into a circle by their three teachers. Then we women—mothers, aunties, and grandmothers—were called to follow the little flock, and the men asked to walk in behind. We walked a few steps towards the beautiful school hall.
 Then we waited again. A dignified Maori woman wearing a korowai, a cloak woven from the muka, the fine fibre inside the flax plant, waited in the doorway. Then the moment came that we were waiting for: the beginning of the powhiri, the ritual of welcome.
 A ringing chant known as a karanga resounded across the space between us, and we slowly stepped forward, beckoned by the smiling woman, across the threshold and into the hall with its high stepped seating, like a steep amphitheatre. It was full of pupils and teachers; in fact the whole school was waiting for us.
It was at this point that my tears welled up as if they would never stop.
The cluster of young children was shepherded some more, on to mats on the floor.  There they sat with their kindergarten teachers, to whom they would soon be saying goodbye. Every now and then a little girl crept into the embrace of her teacher, cuddled up for a while, then bravely made space for another to do the same.

Meanwhile one of the Maori teachers began his oratory, welcoming the children in, speaking of the transition that they were soon to make, to Class One in the main school. He referred to the kindergarten as a kohunga, a learning nest, and that's just how it seemed as I watched those clusters of little children on the mats.

All the teachers then gathered around him to sing a waiata (song), and a Maori man on our side, representing the visitors, gave another speech. They went on a long time, these men, all in Maori, for they were brothers showing their skills to each other as well as to us.
And then came the moment that brought more tears. A candle was lit on a special table, an invocation was spoken, and through this wooden archway, threaded with flowers, the little ones were led, one by one. Each, when her/his name was called, was met by a senior student who gave them a posy of flowers, took their hand, and brought them through to their new teacher, Mr. Wigley (yes!), who is an award-winning musician and writer of children's songs.

The children now sat on benches with Mr Wigley, who then led them away through a doorway, off to their class room.

Meanwhile the three kindergarten teachers sat on the empty mats.

It was shortly after that when new tears began to flow, and not just from me. The seven years of magical childhood are almost over and a new phase is beginning. I felt as if the Pied Piper had appeared and led the children away into a mountain, where they would never be seen again.

A ritual of welcome can also be a ritual of loss, depending on where you stand.

18 comments:

Cottage Tails said...

Totally amazing! Your little Mira will thrive in such a school I am sure.

Juliet Batten said...

Leanne, she has been thriving already, making lots of friends and happy to go to school each day. She's had 1 1/2 years in the kindergarten and has been very nourished there. Thank you.

Vicki Lane said...

How absolutely gorgeous! Would that my children could have experienced such beauty at that important moment.

Juliet Batten said...

Vicki, I wish that too. The little one is very blessed. She is surrounded with so much beauty. Thank you.

silkannthreades said...

What a beautiful start to Class One. A day the little one will remember I hope. I remember my first day too but for all the wrong reasons. The Class one teacher had fallen ill and there was no one to take her place. No one told my parents. I turned up for school, so excited and ready, only to be told I had to go home again. I was devastated.

Juliet Batten said...

Gallivanta, what an awful start to school for you. That's a terrible story. I think I would have just trotted off with my older brother and sister, no big deal. But it is a big transition and I was so happy to see this moment honoured so fully for the little one.

Anonymous said...

How very interesting....such a nourishing environment and memorable rite of transition. I hope your little one will remember it as a very special day. The chair cover is quite creative. You have taught her well and you did a great job in the making of it.
Farm Gal in VA, USA

Juliet Batten said...

Hi Farm Gal, the school environment is very nourishing and those children are so fortunate. Thank you.

Hotly Spiced said...

I love her back-pack. What a wonderful way to welcome children into a new year of school and I love how the older children were there to shepherd the younger children into their new class. I do love the chair pocket you have made - very clever xx

Juliet Batten said...

Charlie, it was touching to see the older children doing this, knowing that many of them would be remembering their moment as 6/7 year olds stepping across the threshold. I've just seen a photo of all the chair pockets & they are all gorgeous. Thank you.

Friko said...

What wonderful memories to remain with the child forever. And the grown-ups too. Is this common practice in NZ or just in the environment you have chosen to live in?

It is all so memorable, so unfrightening, so warm ad nurturing, I wonder why not every school on earth is adopting some form of ritual like this.

Juliet Batten said...

Friko, yes there are rich memories for all of us. This is a special school, based on the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner (German). There are many Steiner/ Waldorf schools in NZ, where the philosophy is on caring and attention to these rituals. If only every school was like this, I agree (sigh).

Penny O'Neill said...

Oh, Juliet, this is one of the most meaningful rituals I have ever read about for such youngsters. This transition times often give a tug at the heart as they pull our little ones forward, don't they?

I love the idea of the chair cover, and your part in sewing it.

I've just come back from a trip up North to see my own little ones; blissful exhaustion. :)

Juliet Batten said...

Penny, it was so full of meaning. Transitions do indeed tug the heart, as you know so well with your little ones. How wonderful that you've been to see them. Thank you.

Ruth P said...

Such a beautiful post Juliet. Such a threshold for Mira. Sounds like she will be able to walk strongly and creatively into her new world with such a loving whanau and supportive school. I hope the coming weeks are peace and intriguing as you watch your not-so-little one stretching into her news days. Fond thoughts from one granny to another!

Juliet Batten said...

Ruth, she is surrounded with love and support, and flourishing after crossing the threshold. Thank you for visiting - fellow granny.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Juliet - what a lovely post - reflecting the community spirit, family love, respect for all and how we can all help others - no wonder you were feeling so emotional - what a great start in life at school for Mira - loved the post - cheers Hilary

Juliet Batten said...

Hilary, it was certainly emotional, and wonderful. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you are resting and recovering well. Thank you.