Parents and teachers at the Tamarack Community School, a nondescript building in a historically white-ethnic Milwaukee neighborhood that once served as the city's hippie epicenter, do their best to protect the innocence of children.
That includes never saying "the three-letter word"--war, administrator Jean Kacanek said.
But as the demand for preschool grows in an ever-competitive society bent on giving children the brightest future possible, that future increasingly looks like war with Iraq.
The lawyers, gourmet chefs and doctors who pay $1,728 to $5,400 annually to send their children here can't help wondering: For what kind of world are we preparing our children?
"I'm generally not a pessimist or a fearful person," said Malcolm Woods, 44, of Milwaukee, as he left his children--Hannah, 5, and Austin, 8--at the school one morning last week. "But, certainly, world events concern me. The situation in the Middle East is a tinderbox and requires considerable delicacy. I'm not sure we're providing that."
Tamarack, a school for children in preschool through the 8th grade, is a place where parents and teachers attempt to reconcile preparing their children for the future and protecting them from the frightening vagaries of the present, Woods said.
Amid the hard questions of morality, politics, conflict and discord in today's changing world, much of the responsibility of preparing children for the future has been thrust back to parents.
"It kind of intrudes when we're driving around and see war protesters," said Woods, a writer and the editor of Exchange magazine, a food and wellness journal published by Outpost Natural Foods. "It's an opportunity to discuss how people can disagree, to teach that disagreements aren't bad or something to fear.
"One day we were out driving, and both kids were in the car. It was a day with lots of demonstrators, people with placards standing on the street corners. I explained that there were other people in the world who didn't agree with this country.
"And Austin said, `They don't like American cheese.'"
Woods' daughter, Hannah, does not yet have a sense of world affairs, her father said, nor will she learn about them in her preschool classroom at Tamarack.
Waldorf schools, started in 1919 in Germany by the owner of the Waldorf Cigarette Factory, were conceived as a way to protect children from the emotional ravages of war--"a healing impulse to the kind of situation we're looking at from the other end now," Kacanek said.
The Waldorf teaching method, which is used at Tamarack, is a softer, less structured alternative to the popular Montessori approach and disdains early academics for an approach thought to nurture the imagination. Teachers eschew plastic toys and discourage watching television, which some families happily accomplish by not having one. Early-childhood reading skills are not pushed.
Some critics of Waldorf schools, which promote fantasy and imagination in a quest to let children be children, dismiss them for being too ethereal, mystical or occult-like.
"It's not la-la land, but in today's world, where the news is full of fear and reality, you walk in the door and you don't want to leave," said Susie Bertran, 41, who has three children in the school of 144.
Jill Cheek, 39, a naturopathic doctor who lives with her husband, a lawyer, and five children in suburban White Fish Bay, Wis., said the family put a lot of thought into preschool, trying out the Montessori and public varieties before settling on Tamarack.
"We made the choices we did to give them opportunity and experience," Cheek said.
"As far as the world, I'm a bit confused. Richard, my husband, I think he more supports the war. I don't support war in Iraq. I support war on the terrorists.
"I just see us as that ugly superpower that I hate to be a part of."
Cheek's 5 1/2-year-old son, Noah, turned 4 on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the terrorists attacked. They were at a mall for the usual birthday routine, having his picture taken and eating lunch, when the mall closed.
"People are just kind of waiting to see how all this is going to play out," said Guy Davies, an executive chef at a French restaurant who was marinating chicken quarters in wine and juniper berries as his preschool-age daughter, Maya, played at school a few blocks away.
Some of the children playing in the crosshairs of light and shadow created by the blinds in Ms. Rose's classroom are thinking about bad guys.
Active imaginations abound in Rose Wessel's early-childhood class, where boys with cowlicks and bottlebrush eyelashes often breathe life into fictional miscreants.
Yamil Bailey, a precocious preschooler with tousled blond hair, pretended to shoot a missile. His target: Darth Vader.
Real villains such as Saddam Hussein don't intrude here--not even as an invasion of Iraq comes closer.
"The real world doesn't have bad guys," one pupil said.
MILWAUKEE: School tries to soften the world's hard edges
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