IN I PASSED THIS WAY, Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes of her "innate disposition to become other people . . . their feeling became my feeling contagiously." As an educator she had the ability to listen to her students and to elicit their deepest concerns. Now, in her autobiography, she is both listener and voice, drawing freely on memory and feeling to illuminate her life and work.
She was born in New Zealand in 1908, sixth of nine children. Moving frequently as her teaching mother changed jobs, living in country isolation with a large, cheerful, close-knit family, she grew up independent and imaginative. She is affectionate, sometimes sentimental about her childhood, but in the idyllic picture of barefoot siblings wandering the forest, weaving stories, are the seeds of an inner creativity and confidence that shaped her later character and philosophy. "None of us wasted life there," she writes of an austere rural school. For Ashton-Warner throughout her life, physical isolation meant a chance to build her own resources, to push the limits of her imagination. As a teenager riding alone 11 miles to school each day she used the time to compose poems, to study history, to dream: "The road was rich in unprofitable ways, in the blood of ideas. My solitary mind was a boundless scrape full of things I wanted."
Such self-reliance, energy and unconventionality in student or teacher did not fit comfortably into the established educational system. Ashton-Warner progressed, however, praised for her drawing talent. She chose teacher training college for practical reasons, postponing what she expected to be a career in art or music, met and married Keith Henderson, and began teaching with him in remote Maori schools. Quickly realizing the limits of traditional British Empire education, she wrote her own Maori language reading books, searching out the words her student cared most about, most wanted to read. There began her development of "organic teaching," and her lifelong conflict with an educational system that encouraged "no variations of the human theme." Ashton-Warner's work has never been accepted by the New Zealand school system, and for a woman of both deep feelings and deep convictions, this rejection has been a painful theme.
Yet she has been able to live with both pain and conflict, perhaps because of her early ability to sustain herself no matter what her surroundings or circumstances. The remarkable strength of her inner life shows itself even in the shaping of her autobiography. She concentrates on feelings and personal growth, on family and important friendships rather than external events. Though she writes of the period from 1908 through 1978, there is little mention of both world wars, and only briefly of the Depression as it separates her family. She does not describe the births of her children or the death of her mother. Nor does she discuss most of her students individually, or detail the writing of her famous books Spinster , a novel, and Teacher , about her theories of education, or dwell on any classroom experiences, teaching methods or formats until she writes about her work in Aspen, Colorado and Canada at the end of her book.
Rather, she builds her self-portrait through a series of images that hold for her a special meaning. It is autobiography as art, selective and visionary, grounded in impressions, memories and dreams as much as fact. This is in keeping with her work in "organic teaching," and her emphasis on the "key vocabulary" of a person or group -- listening for, searching out those words that "touch the true feeling,'" in a child, supplying "the conditions where the native, inborn imagery of our child can surface under its own power to be captioned or named, harnessed, put to work" for reading, learning and growing.
Ashton-Warner is concerned with what is essential to people, what moves their spirits, fuels their imaginations and encourages their potential to be lively human beings. She is also aware of the structure and discipline necessary to fully realize this potential. For her, lack of structure was a failing of the "experimental" education she experienced at Aspen, and she is as frank in her criticism of aspects of American education as she is of New Zealand's.
Ashton-Warner stresses that she did not want to be a teacher. She saw herself first as artist, and as the years passed -- as she became, in fact, a first-rate teacher -- she still dreamed of a career in art or music. Yet it was in the classroom that her talents for drawing, music and writing forged with her self-confidence and understanding, making the process of education a fine art.