Reflections on Anchorage Waldorf School’s Twenty Years: an Interview with School Founder Mary Lee Plumb-Mentjes

Interview by Annette Marley

As Anchorage Waldorf School enters its 21st year, it seemed most appropriate to visit the school’s well-known founder, Mary Lee Plumb-Mentjes, to hear her reflections on the history of our school and her recommendations for developing it. Mary Lee is regarded by many as being among the most influential in our school’s history and over the years many have turned to her for her advice on various critical matters during the life of the school. As things have unfolded for Mary Lee recently, she has retired from her job in Anchorage and plans to move out of state to Austin, Texas. I felt lucky to have a few hours of her time as she packed up her house and tied up loose ends with her life in Anchorage.

It’s hard to keep track of Mary Lee’s multiple educational degrees.  There are four in all, a BA in Psychology from Antioch College; a MA in Botany from University of Texas- Austin; a Ph.D. in Botany from University of Wisconsin Madison; and a MS in Animal and Range Science at New Mexico State University, all of which she deems to be “not that important” in the scheme of things. In addition, Mary Lee studied one year at Emerson College in England, a college based on anthroposophy: the educational, therapeutic, and creative system established by Rudolf Steiner. She worked as a social worker, then a plant ecologist, and has just recently retired from a career as an environmental regulator for the Army Corps of Engineers. These jobs would seem enough to count for one’s work in the world. However, as Mary Lee tells of her nearly life-long engagement with Steiner’s ideas and specifically her twenty-two years of work to grow a Waldorf community in Anchorage, one realizes that she has pursued a parallel career in anthroposophy as well.

So what was the seed that first began germinating Mary Lee’s interest in Rudolf Steiner’s works? Soon after she enrolled at Antioch College, when she was eighteen years old, she took a co-op job at Camphill Village, a community for those with special needs in upstate New York that is based on Steiner’s ideas. She says she felt drawn to how it was an intentional community and has been connected to this approach ever since.  When Mary Lee first arrived in Alaska in 1987, she posted a newspaper ad offering a study group on the many offshoots of Steiner’s work. A year afterward, Ellen Ranlett called Mary Lee expressing interest and inviting her to a lecture at UAA by Joseph Chilton Pearce, an author of a number of books on childhood development invited to Anchorage by his friend, Diane Reisman. At the registration table, Diane had placed a sign-up sheet for those interested in Waldorf education.

The first glimmers of a Waldorf school in Anchorage could be found in a series of meetings in Diane Reisman’s living room. Mary Lee recalls the floor being filled by lots of mothers and very young children. She was the only one with any background in Steiner’s ideas. The group was slow to formulate ideas for a starting a school, but in the meanwhile developed a rich yearly calendar of seasonal festivals for the children, with many workshops on everything from doll-making, eurythmy and Werbeck singing, to Waldorf education, with invited speakers from outside. A Steiner study group started in 1988.

Jump forward to the next significant step in this fledgling period when Carol Nordeen of the well-known “Carol’s Cabin School” (then Carol Cloud) hosted a “play group” in her home and many early Waldorf group members had their children there. This metamorphosed into a child care business at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church taught by Carol and her colleague, Ann Bryson.  At this point, the Anchorage Waldorf Education Association (AWEA) incorporated and took responsibility for this class. A group started a first grade with six children; Roger Fusen was the teacher. For various reasons, Mary Lee recounts, this first grade was not sustainable.The group then moved to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at Lake Otis and Tudor. There was a drive to try a first grade again, and this time they used a different approach with a “root group”, or parents who proactively dug in with a commitment to pay for a teacher’s year-longs alary. Bette Montgomery was that first grade teacher. This fledgling group was located in the basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church right next door to St. Mary’s own preschool class.  St. Mary’s didn’t allow the school to have a sign with the Waldorf name so recruitment was all word of mouth. Nonetheless, the spark was kindled and a flame of life began. This was a pivotal time in the life of the school, Mary-Lee explains, because parents moved from a stance of waiting to see what the school would provide them to together making the leap to a new level as a school.

From there the school grew grade by grade and moved to several other churches in the process. From St. Mary’s the school moved to the RLDS Church on Baxter. When more space was needed, they moved the upper grades to the Native Friends Church in Airport Heights and held a kindergarten at Emanuel Presbyterian. During these first years Mary-Lee worked as the administrator of the school outside the hours of her full-time job, mostly helping the school comply with government requirements, answering phone calls, and taking care of the bills. She describes the school at this stage of growth with the example of a time when families were holding a St. Martinmas celebration in the basement of St. Mary’s whilst a wedding was underway above them, “There was so much life force you could barely contain it, even if you closed the doors and pressed yourself against them it was as if it would burst out anyway.”

She explains that the school in those days had a rich festival life including a celebration of St.John, Michaelmas, Martinmas, and an advent garden. She says, “The school distinguished itself from the mainstream by making these festivals carry a deeper message, one of renewal.Often, there would be a group who would study the theme of these festivals for a time before the actual festival occurred. The school once tried to have an Easter Festival but it didn’t feel or look any different than any other Easter celebration so they dropped it.” Once the board took over the management of the school, Mary Lee says there was a shift among the leaders of the school from holding their own individual opinions to thinking and acting on behalf of the best interest of the school. At one point during these early years the families at the school had an open conversation about whether the school should be just a Waldorf methods school or whether it should become an authentic Waldorf school; they made a conscious decision to become a real Waldorf school. Mary Lee reminisces, “The school was an organism, and it grew and got bigger and was very alive. I liked coming in the evenings and on the weekends to clean the school or iron the silks in the kindergarten in order to pause and experience the being of the school.”

Mary Lee’s wisdom of growing a Waldorf school comes from not only nurturing Anchorage Waldorf School but also from having worked for four years with a community that eventually started a Waldorf school in New Orleans. The beginnings in New Orleans were similar for several years—first a Steiner study group formed and then a Waldorf group actively created a festival life for children and sponsored workshops.  With reference to our school’s heart and soul, Mary Lee says, “People would ask me, ‘Do you expect everyone to be an anthroposophist?’ and I would answer, ‘No. But just Waldorf methods? No.’ What distinguishes us as an independent school is our freedom to do things differently than the mainstream. We don’t do things by cookbook. We need to develop ourselves for every new moment and every child. What worked back at the beginnings of ourschool may not be the right answer for now. That said, it is important for those at our school to have an inner life as the foundation of the school. The teachers especially need to have a connection to anthroposophy. They meditate on their children before they go to sleep at night.  They need access to their higher ego. Steiner is hard to access sometimes.  Even I have read certain texts of his and found them difficult and even disagreed with him, and then I would read it again, maybe several times and sleep in between. After this, often it would start to make sense to me in a way I never would have imagined. For those who find Steiner too dense,I suggest reading a contemporary, like Torin Finser.”

Among Mary Lee’s various roles as administrator, mentor, donor, and as a tuition assistance committee member, she has also led many Steiner study groups and the occasional contemplative group for those interested in taking on a question related to the school’s benefit; an example being when one group took on the question of whether to move the school to a new location.  Mary Lee accepts Winterberry Charter School for what it is. Although it is not perfect, she says,it offers many children a better education than the standard public school system. Currently,Mary Lee and other people from both Anchorage Waldorf School and Winterberry are working on a high school initiative. At first, Mary Lee was in favor of extending Winterberry’s existing charter to include a high school, but upon reflection decided that an independent Waldorf high school is what is needed in Anchorage.

In a parting letter to the Board following Meg Gorman’s recent talks about a Waldorf high-school initiative, Mary-Lee eloquently lays out our school’s assets as an independent Waldorfschool in contrast to a publicly funded school under government control.
“My concern harkens back to the different basic images of the human being we each hold:in his (Dr. Jim Browder, the recently resigned superintendent of Anchorage School District) instance to a child that comes as a blank sheet to be written on by whatever is deemed the correct curriculum by the State, filled up like an empty vessel, or that we recognize the child as coming to us as a real individual person with a destiny that the unfolding of which we are trying to support. It is understandable to want each young person to be able to find a job when they graduate, but we want each young person to be able to follow their own particular star, to be able to bring their gifts to fruition that our world needs, perhaps something that has never been seen before, new answers, new ideas, not to serve government/industry needs that exist now or 20 years ago. Anyone conversant with any area of science knows that the textbook explanations given in textbooks of even just ten years ago are outdated; memorizing those will not serve the needs of the future, likely not even the present. We need young people who are able to observe phenomena accurately, analyze what is there, and imagine what might be and exercise good judgment that includes concern for nature and humanity. “

With regard to Mary Lee’s parting recommendations for the school, she says, “I am excited about the current board. There is an openness to listen. Keeping five main lesson teachers rather than four was an example of that. It felt like real listening was happening.” She believes time should be found for a retreat for the board, faculty, and possibly the marketing committee. She believes new ways need to be created for parents to have more input in school decisions. She would like to see more substantive information disseminated to the community regarding new initiatives and different points of view regarding issues. She affirms that teachers can feel overworked and overwhelmed with all their responsibilities and that it would be wise to develop a trusted group of parents who are not board members or administrators to take on some important work. She eschews those who have come to her as if she is “holy” and says, “anyone can do this (develop an inner life and an anthroposophical foundation) if they are a human being”. She adds that she hopes that Steiner study sessions continue with reading anthroposophical texts, and that contemplative groups occasionally ponder big questions facing the school, like, “What is that keeps our school from increasing enrollment beyond 100 students?”
Mary Lee recommends a “care group” be formed that dedicates itself to figuring out what a person or family who is facing a struggle needs at the time and to coordinate that care.  With regard to the school’s financial status, she recommends people read the book, Money Can Heal by Siegrid Finser , and in concert with the development of a Waldorf high school in Anchorage, she believes that our school needs to “fill the bus”, or boost our enrollment, by making tuition more easily affordable for any committed family.

At this major transition in Mary Lee’s life, she is now in England partaking in a ten week course at Emerson College. It is called “It’s My Life” and involves Werbeck singing, eurythmy,and Bothmer gymnastics—all arts based on the work of Rudolf Steiner. At the time of our interview, she was eagerly anticipating this opportunity. “You wouldn’t believe how many dollheads I have collected. I coordinated so many doll-making workshops over the years but was so busy making sure everything went smoothly for all the participants that I never got past making the doll’s head. Now I’m going to make some time for me.”

When I asked Mary Lee who would take her place as a source of anthroposophical wisdom in our community, she referred to those who have attended the Steiner study group she has led but no one person in particular. To the relief of many, she does say she will be back to visit Anchorage regularly, as early as this next fall. As we parted ways in the parking lot at Café del Mundo, she reminded me of the importance of “asking the question” as found in the story of Parsifal and when I told her I wasn’t sure how I was going to write up this interview, she advised me to ”sleep on it”. I, as I know many, feel so grateful for all that Mary Lee has offered our school all the years before my own children enrolled and up until the present, and find myself admiring her as she enters her own era of renewal.