The Golden Age

Unity School

The Emerson Street school From Alan Cunningham in Denver

In a satsang in Los Angeles on his father's birthday in November, Guru Maharaj Ji told how he had taken the kids from Unity School in Denver to see a movie not long before that.

It was one of the many gestures Maharaj Ji has used to show his love for the youngsters - there are now about 76 of them - who go to that small school in Colorado. As small private schools go, it is just one of many in Denver's Capitol Hill area. You could walk by it many times and not notice anything special about it. But it is special. And that trip to the movies provided a pretty good clue as to why.

It's his school.

It is also one of the most enduring premie institutions in the world. As premie history goes, 1972 is almost prehistoric. And it was in that year, at the Guru Puja festival in Montrose, Colorado, that Maharaj Ji spoke to Sharon Keller, a young teacher from Philadelphia. In a manner characteristic of his terse instructions on many things in that period, he told her simply, "Start a school." The details were up to her, and to the small circle of premies who quickly gathered around her as the project began under the name Shri Hans Educational.

They were all young, and they counted their experience in terms of years, not the decades one would hear people boasting about in the education departments of most universities. But between them they had been exposed to a wide range of philosophies and experiments in education. And they all shared the belief that there is something lacking in most schools today, and that a better way could be found through a collective understanding of love and consciousness.

For a year, they had no pupils to teach. The immediate goal was to find a system of teaching that seemed compatible with the practice of Knowledge. They meditated, fought,argued, discussed, read much and talked about most of it, puzzled over the problems, tried out many ideas on each other - and shared a sense of frustration as the answer continued to elude them. Then a clue came from the readings of Edgar Cayce, which suggested that teachers seeking to follow a path of truth could benefit from the training given teachers in the Waldorf school system, based on the teachings of an Austrian-born educator named Rudolf Steiner.

Sharon's group found that the spiritual roots of Steiner's teachings were strong. Where the Waldorf curriculum used stories from the life of Jesus as its illustrations, the Denver group realised it would be possible to adapt these messages to a universal theme of reverence for life.

Such an adaptation was necessary to fulfill one of the few points on which Maharaj Ji had been specific: he didn't want the project to be identified as a religious school. Neither did he want it to be a vehicle for teaching a catechism about him or the Knowledge. He said it should be one to which any parents in the world, knowing it for what it really was, would be happy to send their children.

The result was a partnership that has continued happily to this day. Waldorf leaders agreed to help launch the project, and to allow would-be teachers from Shri Hans Educational to go to the Waldorf training institute. At the same time, all parties agreed the new school wouldn't operate under the Waldorf label.

Mimsy Kessler, another Philadelphian, arrived in Denver for what she thought was a brief visit in the summer of 1973, shortly before the first classes began with a dozen pupils. There was a first grade and a sixth grade - hardly a logical arrangement, but it filled a need based on the ages of the children in the community whose parents most wanted them to go to the new school.

Mimsy found three youngsters already in residence at the ashram across the street from the cottage where classes were about to begin. She decided the place needed a housemother. So she and her tiny son, lam, moved in. They didn't move out again until the "children's ashram", as it became known, was formally dissolved in the Spring of 1975. At times, it housed nearly a dozen youngsters, some of whose parents lived in other cities.

The children loved it there. Visitors found themselves not wanting to leave. Many premies got their first glimpse that something special was going on in the tiny school


Unity School Winter Festival

The Golden Age

when they found an excuse to visit the house where those youngsters lived.

The first class - a group of children who today are fourth-graders - had nine pupils. Three more, all girls, made up the sixth grade. The latter class (a clear exception to the Steiner philosophy, which insists that Waldorf pupils must start from the beginning and work through all the grades to get the system's full value) lasted for three years, disbanding after its members were graduated from the eighth grade last Spring.

In its earliest days, the school sought to be self-supporting. Several premie businesses - one of them a legendary venture known as the Next-to-Godliness Janitorial Service - contributed their earnings. But, like a tree that seeks to extend its roots to more and more solid ground, Unity avoided over-reliance on anything which, in the fashion of premie activities of that era, could dry up overnight. And so Sharon Keller and her colleagues moved slowly, taking measured steps and resisting the urge to let the new school grow too fast.

It wasn't always easy. Premie parents flocked to Denver from all over the country. Some found, to their dismay, that there wasn't room at the school for their children. Even today, some of those youngsters are going to school elsewhere. In the bargain, there were some more lessons about expectations and accepting things as they are.

Soon, Divine Light Mission assumed responsibility for funding the on-going project. It was one more sign that Guru Maharaj Ji wanted the School to survive.

Since then, it has grown and grown. After starting out as Shri Hans, the school got a new name - Unity. It came from Maharaj Ji, of course. And, before long, Sharon knew she would have to find another building to replace the tiny cottage. A search got underway, with the mission taking a close look at every medium-sized building that was for sale - or might be - throughout Capitol Hill, where Denver's greatest concentration of premies and premie activities has always been located.

A fund drive in 1975, with more help from DLM, led to the purchase of a four-unit apartment house last year. The building, as it turned out, is only five blocks away from the community centre which was acquired by the Denver premie community a year later.

Hopes of moving in by the fall of 1975 soon faded due to a number of problems, financial and otherwise. This gave way to plans for a move at mid-year - but that didn't happen, either. What did happen was that Sharon Keller came to the conclusion she had done what she could do to get the school moving, and that it was time for a change.

Quietly, she groomed Brian McDermott, onetime head of the mission in Canada (and, before that, a teaching assistant to Marshall MacLuhan at the University of Toronto), as her successor. Then she turned it over to him and moved to the Washington D.C. community.

Taking charge quickly, Brian soon put his own stamp on the school. He breathed new life into such projects as the Unity School PTA, which was in its first year. And he began to stress the importance of weeding out the catch-phrases and in-group concepts which might make it hard for non-premies to relate to what was going on in Maharaj Ji's school.

While still small, the number of Unity School families who aren't members of Divine Light Mission is growing. Some are from other spiritual groups. Others simply view Unity as a desirable alternative to the public schools.

After many delays, remodeling got underway on the new building last summer. Work nearly came to a halt in July - about the same time DLM's financial plight became serious. It appeared that the mission might have to withdraw financial support from the school permanently.

It was a shock, but hardly the first one to hit the school in its short history. Hardly a year had passed without at least one crisis that threatened to shut the doors of the little cottage. Months before this crisis hit, the faculty had drawn up an emergency battle plan to keep the school afloat if things came to the point where it had to be wholly self-sufficient. So, when July's bad news arrived, teachers and parents, along with many others in the Denver community, met the problem head-on. A fund drive was already underway to buy the community centre. And, after the school's supporters made it clear that they were ready to do their part, community director Allen Imbarrato agreed to make it a two-pronged fundraising effort.

Happily, the drive was a success on both fronts. The community got its new satsang hall and, at the same time, raised $9,000 for the school. Work went on.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, after a break of a week and a half to make the move, Unity resumed classes in its new home, which had been transformed from a drab and aging apartment house into a shining, bright home for a kindergarten, all four of the present grades and - when they're needed - a fifth and sixth grade as well.

Parents and teachers had, by then, spent many hours assisting a full-time premie crew in knocking out walls, tearing up an asphalt parking lot so it could be made into a playground, steaming old wallpaper off the walls, painting and laying carpet, as well as hauling things from the old location to the new one.

But nobody, it seemed, was really prepared for the surprise that awaited the huge crowd which poured through the new school building when Brian and his colleagues held an open house one Sunday in late November.

All agreed afterward that something magic had truly bloomed for everyone to see on that day. It seemed that the whole process which had begun in Montrose on that day in 1972, had somehow come to fruition.

What the visitors saw and heard that Sunday in November was a confident, smiling young faculty, explaining in simple and understandable terms how the essence of the Steiner philosophy had woven its way through the consciousness of men and women steeped in the clarity of meditation - and how all this had produced something very simple and, at once, very beautiful. In each classroom, teachers explained to the visitors how numbers and letters, music and foreign languages, crafts and colours, all merged in stories, songs and games which the children loved. Visitors beamed and wished aloud that they could have gone to a school such as this.

And the love was there for everyone to see. Without a doubt, Maharaj Ji's love.