The teacher and traveller
When I first saw Ute-Charlott Meuser from a distance, I instantly wanted to know her. To be accurate, I wanted her to know me. I remember looking at the teachers and students around her with a sense of envy. And a desire to be part of the circle.
Ute likes to be called Ute by everyone she knows. She is an institution in herself for the many schools and organizations in India, Nepal and Bhutan where she has volunteered as a mentor and a trainer. One such school is Ukti—The Delhi Waldorf School in Noida, where my nine-year-old daughter has been studying for the last two years.
Ute is always busy, and yet Ute always seems to have time for everyone. Whether she is in a doll-making workshop with parents, a German or music class with children, or a training session with teachers, Ute exudes an effortlessness and sense of quiet that creates an aura of peace in the entire room.
When I finally began to listen to Ute narrate the story of her life, I already knew that she had been a teacher at a Waldorf school in Flensburg, Germany, for 25 years, and that she had been visiting the subcontinent as a trainer and educator for almost 10 years. I wish I knew a way to write Ute’s words in her German-English accent, but for now the reader will just have to imagine the halting rhythm of her words.
“Actually I never was to become a teacher. Never,” Ute starts. “Never ever. It was the last thing I wanted to do.” We laugh together at the vehemence of her expression.
“Life taught me as I went along. I am open to take the train that comes and stops in front of me,” she says. “If I like the destination, I go in.”
“The first studies I did after school was a course in photography. Then I studied chemistry to be able to apply for a course in oceanography, which was my main agenda in life,” Ute shares. When she reached the university, she discovered that the course had been discontinued temporarily. She found herself applying for fine arts at the Muthesius University of Fine Arts and Design instead.
Ute gets up from her chair to demonstrate how ill-prepared she felt when she went for her three-day entrance exam and interview. “All the other aspirants looked like real artists, dressed in bohemian clothes and carrying elaborate portfolios. I had walked in timidly with a drawing book in which I had made 30 sketches after following instructions from a how-to-learn-sketching guidebook. In the interview, I apologized for wasting everyone’s time. I confessed that I had copied instructions from a book to create my drawings.
“I couldn’t believe it when I was accepted. I said, but the others are better than me. They said you are free. You are open to learn everything new. That makes you a suitable student. They saw something in me that I didn’t know about myself.”
Ute completed her training as an artist and created her own studio as an independent ceramic designer and potter. As she entered her 30s, Ute found herself drawn towards eurythmy—a performance art of rhythmic physical movements to speech and music. Eurythmy is often called “visible music” as it seeks to bring both the performers’ and audience’s feelings into harmony with a musical piece.
Ute snaps her fingers with joy as she recalls her discovery of eurythmy. It was the fourth field she was choosing to study. “I was like, oh this is what I am born for.”
Ute discovered that although she loved her work, the heavy lifting involved in her pottery studio was hurting her back, and training in eurythmy was healing her, both physically and psychologically. She was the mother of a three-year-old son when she decided to study and train for four years again.
Ute’s training in eurythmy led her towards Waldorf education. Eurythmy is part of the curriculum in Waldorf schools, which are based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian founder of anthroposophy—loosely defined as the “wisdom of the human being”.
“When I first began to train in Waldorf education at Alanus University, it was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes. It seemed like the only pedagogy that made sense. It brought my training in science and arts together. It explained to me why I was drawn to talents and disciplines that seem so disparate.”
“What is the relevance of Waldorf education today?” I asked Ute, bringing her to the present.
“Ninety-nine per cent of children are born geniuses,” Ute answered in her forthright manner. “And yet, what is left by the time they are 10 or 12 years old? How much is our education system killing in them, sometimes even literally? Children are so scared of failing that they begin to believe their life is worthless if they don’t do well in exams.
“If I look at the world today, I realize my generation has failed,” Ute adds. “We didn’t develop the social skills, the morality, the ethic to solve conflicts, or to understand the environment. There is enough food in the world, there is the logistical know-how to take it everywhere, yet people die of starvation.
“We need a kind of education to master the problems of the near future,” says Ute, paraphrasing educationists like Steiner, Sri Aurobindo and J. Krishnamurti.
“Education needs to develop the whole human being, not just the intellect. The Waldorf curriculum focuses on multiple intelligences. Primary schoolchildren create things with their hands and body. They learn that you can change something by doing it. Music and art is a part of every day. In middle school, they develop the morality that every action has an impact not only on themselves, but on the world around them. In high school, they become independent thinkers as their actions, feelings and analytical abilities come together.
“Later in life, when you have an idea, you also have the skills and the will to make it happen. You don’t just do something because you can. You understand consequences. Is it good for society, for the environment?”
Ute says the Waldorf system is gaining popularity all over the world, particularly in Japan, China and India. People are looking for alternatives to an education system that has stifled creativity and happiness.
Finally, I had to ask Ute what brought her to India. What keeps bringing her back?
“When I first touched the ground of Ladakh 19 years ago, it felt like I was coming home,” Ute says. “I fell in love with the mountains. Trekking felt like rest for my soul.”
Since then, Ute has been in Ladakh every year. Whenever she had holidays, she would come to India, living with families in villages and exchanging skills with local artisans. She describes how well she bonds with Ladakhi women without a spoken language in common.
As we talk, Ute’s hands are busy creating dolls, knitted animals and props for upcoming storytelling sessions at a Winter Fair that Ukti School is hosting in Noida on 10 December.
“I find it very interesting to be between continents, between cultures, religions and languages,” Ute says. “I have learnt to not pay attention to the surface, but to see what is behind. What is the heart of this?
“I find that behind all individuality, if we are open, we all feel the same. We all long for love and peace. This is being human.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
The writer tweets at @natashabadhwar