"For you have no idea how unimportant is all that the teacher says or does not say on the surface, and how important what he himself is, as teacher."
- Rudolf Steiner
There's a long tradition of self-reliance in the Whistler Valley: from Myrtle and Alex and their bold pioneering spirit to the long-haired ski bums who built squatter palaces in the forest; from the visionary folk who created a resident-housing solution all their own in MDC to the downhill-crazy Weasel Workers who initiated a whole new course-prep paradigm with their enthusiasm, zeal and unimaginably hard work.
Still, there's one story that gets far too little play around here. And that's the one about the three women who joined forces and launched a new school in Whistler. Not a pottery school or a yoga school or even a snowsport school — although two of them had extensive experience in the latter realm. No, these strong, stubborn, independent-minded women decided to launch an alternative primary school.
I mean, talk about a long shot. A school in Whistler based on the mind-body-soul philosophy of Rudolf Steiner? A curriculum that stresses a holistic approach to education: where learning about music and art is just as important — maybe more — than math and grammar? No way. Not in a sports-crazed town like this one.
And yet... this September The Whistler Waldorf School will be welcoming 145 students to its current "campus" in Spruce Grove Park. The school now has a full-time staff of fourteen (with three additional part-timers) and a handful of portables to house its students. It's certainly a long way from the guerrilla home-schooling that launched the whole thing.
Think about it for a moment. It nearly defies the imagination. Thirteen years after the three local moms — Michelle Kierkegaard, Vicky Bunbury and Peggy Vogler — launched their unlikely initiative, the little-alternative-school-that-could has exceeded all expectations.
"There have been a lot of 'Ah-ha!' moments during those years," laughs Vogler. "We've all learned so much..."
We're sitting in Aphrodites, a funky little restaurant on the western fringe of Vancouver's Kitsilano district. Famous for its vegan pies and fresh-from-the-farm organic fare, the restaurant was launched by Peggy's father, Alan Christian. She inherited it in 2008 when her dad passed away.
As we share a coffee together, the 40-something mom tries to explain to me how she juggles her responsibilities at the restaurant with her obligations back in Whistler. You see, she's still the Director of Development at the Waldorf School. Crazy, eh? So how does she manage it?
"Well," she starts, "I spend the first half of the week in Vancouver — Sunday, Monday Tuesday — and the next half of the week working at the school." She chuckles at the madness of her own self-imposed work schedule. "Luckily [husband] Stephen is a pretty good cook and an amazing dad. Being a writer and all, he works at home..." She laughs again. "So he keeps things going while I'm away."
Hmm. Sounds to me like she's cramming two 40 hour-a-week jobs into two three-day blocks. "That's about right," she says. Sighs. "But it's good, you know. I like to be busy — particularly with projects that mean something to me. I'm pretty good at compartmentalizing my life, which helps me stay organized."
She must be. But we'll get back to all that.
She grew up in North Vancouver. Started skiing at Mt. Seymour when she was six. But the big new ski area up north kept calling. "We had family friends who owned a cabin on Rainbow Drive," she recounts. "And they kept inviting us up. So..."
Whistler Mountain in the early '70s was still something of an acquired taste. The runs were rough and mostly ungroomed, the lifts were slow and ridiculously over-crowded. "I remember waiting in the gondola line-up," starts Peggy, "and agonizing over our lift selection. Would the olive chair be faster?" She laughs. 'That's what really sticks in my mind — lots of waiting. Calling "single" at the Green Chair. Oh yeah, and us kids misloading on the lifts, you know, dangling from the chair, riding on someone's lap..." She laughs. "Or going around the bullwheel at the top."
But she loved every minute of it. "Skiing really resonated with me. It wasn't so much the speed, you know. It was more the sense of freedom. These vast open mountains, the quiet — the feeling that I was free to do anything I wanted up there."
She started racing with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club in 1980. "It was a whole different level of commitment," she explains. "It's not like I was an accomplished racer or anything. But I had a lot of fun."
So much so that by 1984 — and her graduation from high school — Peggy was living full time at Whistler. "I worked my tail off," she says. "I had three jobs — I pumped gas at the Petrocan, worked at the Keg , and for a time (not long!), I was a dishwasher at Dusty's." But it wasn't all that bad. "I was planning a trip to Europe, you know, so I figured every $20 I earned was another day on the road."
She ended up spending the next winter in Verbier, one of Switzerland's premiere ski resorts. "But there was no snow," she moans. "The skiing was terrible... but at least the social scene was good."
Canada's West Coast was still home, however. And by the winter of 1987, she was back in the valley and working as a kid's instructor for the Whistler Mountain Ski School. "I've always loved children," she says, "And that, combined with my ski racing experience, well, it just seemed like a natural step." Still, there was a steep learning curve. "I thought I knew everything I needed to know about ski teaching." She laughs. "But when you're teaching a three-year-old, it's really different!"
Peggy would spend the next 22 years a ski school employee. First with the Whistler Mountain Ski Scamps — where she would meet future sister-in-law, Vicky (Vogler) Bunbury — and then later when the two mountains were joined, as a manager and trainer/recruiter for the new WB Whistler Kids program. "I never thought the amalgamation would work," she admits. "The two schools had such different cultures. But Vicky and Theresa Bouchard did an amazing job of bringing it all together. Within a year, we had a cohesive team."
Meanwhile, Peggy had married Vicky's brother, local writer-musician Stephen Vogler, in September of 1995. They already had one child, Jonathan, and two more, twins Katie and Melissa, would soon be on their way. Though she didn't know it at the time, Peggy was about to embark on her biggest adventure yet...
Mike and Michelle Kierkegaard moved here from Denver in 1999. A schoolteacher by training, Michelle had sent her daughter to a Waldorf pre-school during their U.S. sojourn and had fallen in love with the program. "She was devastated that there was no Waldorf school in Whistler," recounts Peggy. "So she stalked the hallways of Myrtle Philip elementary school looking for others who might be interested in launching one here."
Peggy was interested. Her son was just the right age. So was Vicky's. So they decided to go for it. "We home-schooled our three kids that first year," remembers Peggy. "They'd each spend a day at the others' homes. Stephen was the main teacher in our house." She laughs. "I was too busy working for the mountain..."
But they all knew that couldn't last. So the three women started making the rounds of the community, as Peggy says: "Talking and organizing and promoting." They must have devised a good pitch because they managed to round up ten kids for the next year's program. "And so we were able to hire a real teacher," she adds. "And she was amazing! A true pioneer. She was feisty and wise and totally committed. We were lucky to have her for those first crucial years."
One of the parents — Olympic medallist Shannon Smith — had generously volunteered her basement suite as a stopgap classroom. But by the end of the second year — even with an added classroom — it was clear the students needed more space. 'That's when we approached council," remembers Peggy. "And they were generous enough to lease us a corner of Spruce Grove Park." Although the relationship would have it's up's and down's — "lots of politics!" sighs Peggy — the affiliation still endures today.
Next week: The Waldorf school grows and evolves, Aphrodites enters her life and Peggy has to make some hard choices.
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