Narrative

by Trevor Mepham

(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.30, No.2)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The mighty opening verse of St. John’s Gospel sheds a veiled light on the mystery of creation and points every class teacher to one of the golden tools of teaching – the power and beauty of the spoken word; the majesty and creativity of language.

From whence come words? Reflecting on the primary experience through which a baby, with no knowledge of other languages, grasps the mother tongue, leads one to realize that this experience, or discover, is founded on the pillars of imitation, and the miracle of language and the understanding of language. The space between imitation of sounds and understanding of words is bridged in a beautiful and profound manner by the young child’s individual spiritual activity.

History, legend and mythology are strewn with examples of the power of words. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was also the main author of the Declaration of Independence. In one sentence a vision of a transformed society is beheld, where freedoms and responsibilities are held in mutual embrace.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Declaration of Independence, 4th July, 1776

One of the last utterances of John the Evangelist, spoken at a great age, to those gathered in his presence, stands out as an instruction and teaching the purest and most searching form: “Little children, love one another”.

In the Gospel of St. Luke, when the angel Gabriel announces to Zachariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are to be blessed in their old age with a son, and that his name shall be John, the priest expresses some doubt, if not disbelief. The angel then says to Zachariah: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). It is not until the child is born and about to be named that Zachariah’s tongue is loosed, after he affirms Elizabeth’s request that the boy be named John by writing on a tablet: “His name is John.”

Between seven and fourteen, the teacher speaks to the heart of the child. It is said of Waldorf education that it reaches the child’s head through the hands and the heart. Heart-warming thinking grounded in practical deeds is the journey and the home-coming; a way of life rather than a set of acquired faculties. The ‘listening heart’ is the threshold to the child’s soul. With what care and feelings of responsibility would a knowing messenger approach such a door!

In relation to the curriculum, the class teacher stands before the class with the task of guiding the children into the story of the world. Through the teacher the children are introduced to the Book of the World and the Book of Mankind. These vast works contain other books – the Book of Science, the Book of History, the Book of Mathematics…

As narrator of tales that are imaginatively and organically true, the class teacher brings picture-thoughts before the class that are vital, heart-warmed and nourishing to the child’s thinking-heart. When the material comes through the teacher, rather than straight from a book, it enables the children to live within the authority of the class teacher and the content is enlivened by human endeavor. This means that all subjects – whether arts, science or humanities – can be taught with artistic intention and freshness.

In a narrative sense, the teacher’s motto might be: “Conjure an image, convey a world.” Another way of putting it would be to say that the class teacher seeks to cast seeds in the loam of the child’s imagination. While it is in the nature of seems to grow and develop, one could compare concepts and definitions with fruit, in that, in terms of thinking, the concept is completed and can grow no more.

The fact that Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia is a useful piece of information; as a thought it is rather limited. On the other hand, to say that the prairies are the bread-basket of North America, to describe the Nile as the life-blood of Egypt, or to characterize 19th century Britain as the “workshop of the world” – as Disraeli did in the 1830’s – provides flavor and color to add to the underlying facts and render them more interesting and more memorable.

Through the eight years of a class’s life, a lot of leaves fall from the trees and a fair few feathers are shaken from the wing. How many stories are yarned and how many tales pulled out of the sleeve are statistics which might challenge a decent computer, but need not detain us further. The question is: What does a teacher set out to do in using the narrative, and how?

Opening the Book of Learning, Class One:-

“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Marlincheu,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird am I.”

In “Once upon a time…” fairy tales, we glimpse scenes from spiritual history, and behold prophetic pictures expressing fundamental issues of human life – hope, courage, destiny, love, truth, goodness, sorrow, suffering, evil. In Class One the children drink from a deep well of human wisdom. In the telling of a fairy tale, archetypal human moods and situations pass before us: the Queen longing for a child – a picture of the soul longing for perfection; the twelve year-old child incarcerated at the top of the tower – a picture of pre-pubescence when the child’s astral forces and emergent faculties of logic and abstract thinking stream together in an unsettling combination of innocence and awakening. In the tale of Mother Holle(1), a majestic tableau of hardship, destiny, spiritual justice and reincarnation unfolds: “I have a longing for home; and however well off I am down here, I cannot stay any longer; I must go up again to my own people.” Mother Holle said: “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and as you have served me so truly, I myself will take you up again.” Thereupon she took her by the hand, and led her to a large door. The door was opened and just as the maiden was standing beneath the doorway, a heavy shower of golden rain fell, and all the gold clung to her, so that she was completely covered over with it.”

In The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, we see a portrayal of the follies and dangers that face us if we seek to snatch unripened fruits, or appropriate evolving treasures by forceful means. This is a poignant story for these times where ‘accelerated’ development and ‘rushed growth’ threaten to leave vacuums and unfulfilled capacities in their wake.

In Rapunzel, the prince – the spiritual aspect – is torn and pierced and blinded as he tries to rescue Rapunzel – in the desolate soul-being: “He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell pierced his eyes”. The tears of Rapunzel – the tears of true love – provide the healing medicine that restores the Prince’s sight.

The Cunning Tailor cuts a figure who is capable of dealing with each and every problem in a clever and collected manner. Here we meet a resemblance of the detached objectivity of our modern consciousness in its positive aspect: “The little tailor… said that he had set his mind to work on this for once, and he would manage well enough, and he went forth as if the whole world were his.”

The question sometimes arises, “Is this true or is it just a story?” Well might the teacher ponder before a truthful reply is given.

* * *

[A selection of pupils’ work follows, written after the telling of a story or a description by the class teacher, or as a creative piece of writing in response to some incident in the narrative of the main-lesson. These examples are from Class 4 (The Elephant); Class 5 (The Violet and the Sunflower); Class 6 (The Life of a Plebeian); Class 7 (The Bushman); and Class 8 (The Industrial Revolution).]

The Elephant

The elephant is big and lives in the wild,
He’s sometimes dangerous, sometimes wild,
He makes a pillow for his head,
And then he lies down and goes to bed.
For his supper he knocks trees down,
And then he eats leaves from the ground,
He protects his wounded high and low,
Dragging and pulling very slow,
The cow leads the herd and the bull lives alone,
And when they mate he comes back home,
They flap their ears to keep them cool,
And the baby splashes in the pool,
Elephant lives for about seventy years,
He has lots of friends and not many fears,
He eats fruit and foliage and lots of twigs,
He charges trains that are very big,
He sucks up dust and spurts it out,
His tummy rumbles all about,
He is about eleven feet tall,
And he likes to run and jump and roll.

 

The Violet and the Sunflower

One day a rumbustious sunflower called Fat Fred was walking in the woods and he accidentally leant on a violet’s leaf. The little violet let out a scream and said, “Please don’t tread on me, Mr Sunflower”. Fred looked down and saw the little violet. “What are you doing down there with nobody to talk to and nothing to do?” “This is where I live and I don’t mind being in the shade, in the quiet of the wood, murmured the violet. “Well”, said the sunflower, “I could not bear it, nobody to show off to and laugh with.” “That’s true”, interrupted the violet, “But on the other hand, it’s peaceful in the wood and if you are quiet you see lots of things, hear lots of things and learn lots of things. I enjoy living in the grass with my thoughts, and after all, just because you make a lot of noise doesn’t mean you are happy. It might just mean you are loud and in need of attention”. The sunflower was silent, for once.

The Life of a Plebeian

I am a plebeian. They call me Caius. I live inside the city of Rome. I live above my small tavern – the ‘Persian Grape’ – with my wife and daughter. I had a son once, but the wars claimed him. My tavern is near the centre of trade – the forum. The forum is a great market, every important merchant has at least one stall there. The forum is good for my trade. So many traders become thirsty and come for a drink at some time of day. Even so, at night Rome can be a dangerous place. Several times I’ve had to repair the benches when young trouble makers start a brawl.

The Bushman

I am a Kalahari Bushman and I am very old now. I will tell you about my life. I go out and hunt every day. We have to be cunning. I can catch a lion, but I don’t very often. I do work with a very fierce lion. I drive my prey to the lion and he kills it and eats some. Then I drive him off and eat the rest. I use poison-tipped arrows. I kill giraffe and eland. Sometimes I find a dead ostrich and stick the legs, feathers and skin onto myself. Then I can stalk birds more easily. We use ostrich eggs as water carriers. We make a hole in the egg and eat it, then we fill it with water, plug the hole and bury the egg for the hot season when there isn’t any water.

Whenever anyone is ill – I was once – all the women sit in a circle and the men dance around them until hey enter a trance. That sometimes helps; it did for me. The evil spirits are chased off.

While I am out hunting my wife and to children stay at home and dig up plants with long sticks. Then they use a pestle and mortar to grind the plants for moisture. They scrape the skins and stretch them so we have some clothing against the cold. If we go very hungry then an animal skin is baked and we chew it for something to eat.

The Industrial Revolution

Greed, Capitalism, Exploitation

Although it could be argued that the Industrial Revolution dates back to when fire was discovered, or when the first metals were smelted, it got underway in the 1700’s in Central England. At this time the agricultural revolution was in full swing and thousands of farm-workers were being laid off as machines took their places. At the same time, large factories began to recruit large numbers of workers. Unemployed farm-workers took these jobs and moved from the land to the city.

To house the thousands of families now on their pay-rolls the factory-owners quickly threw up large housing estates. The factory-owners were interested in quick profits and low expenditure. Planning of employee-housing was seen as a wasteful luxury. The houses built were cheap, two-up, two-down buildings, often with no foundations or running water, and all extremely cramped. Almost immediately the estates deteriorated into slums, with no decent roads, and ridden with disease, particularly cholera.

The conditions in the factories were also deplorable, with children as young as four working highly dangerous machinery. The wages were a mere pittance: a day’s work – 14 to 15 hours – would barely pay for a loaf of bread. Workers were watched by overseers, who made sure there was no slacking, or even talking between workers. Unity among workers was also disallowed, the Combination Act outlawing two workers to join together to complain about factory conditions. This was an attempt to stamp out trade unions before they were even started.

* * *

“Until we learn the use of living words we shall continue to be waxworks inhabited by gramophones.” So said Walter de la Mare in 1929. Rudolf Steiner emphasized the importance of the flow of living words between teacher and pupil: “Cultivate speech in yourself and your children with the greatest care, since far and away the most of what a teacher gives his children comes to them on wings of speech.” There are many ways to try and convey the essence of the written and spoken narrative. One can talk about the part played by all the many elements – consonants, vowels, sentences, syllables, soft sounds, hard sounds; alliteration, celebration, lyricism, romanticism; imagery, comedy, tragedy, mystery; glory, thunder and woe. In truth, all attempts to define the narrative fall short. A silver thread remains for any teacher to follow, by day and by night; a quiet realization that in using a narrative that is imaginative and colorful, the class teacher can help the child to come from the sleep of infancy, towards the day-bright clarity of adulthood, through the golden land of waking dreams.


(1) All quotations from Grimm’s Fairy Tales found in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Talespublished by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

© 2018 Donna Simmons

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