Anneliese Schimmelpfennig's family--extended, to be sure--is composed of a husband, about 5,000 children, two of whom are her own, an overweight pygmy goat, 15 flop-eared rabbits (at last count), and a wallaby named Sidney. And while they don't all come back to their spiritual home for the holidays, enough of them do to make this time of year both hectic and joyous at the Laguna preschool that bears her name. (Because the odds are that only her husband, two natural children and possibly Sidney even know her last name, she is Anneliese--pronounced Ahna-leesay--to everyone.)
While always a place of beauty and wonder, at Christmas this Black Forest enclave nestled in Manzanita Canyon becomes much like Dr. Seuss' Whoville, with children's voices wafting up in song like smoke from dozens of little campfires and infecting even the Grinches who might live on the surrounding hillsides.
Handcrafted decorations and artwork dot the classrooms and hallways and build to a great crescendo in the skylighted, greenhouse-like atrium that is the school's entrance--a gathering place and site for the Christmas tree.
It is here between Christmas and New Year's that a continuous open house takes place, where parents, neighbors and, most especially, former students drop by for a few minutes or a few hours, for some conversation, some tea or a hug ("Children need lots of hugs," Anneliese says).
On one recent day, former students included a first-grader, a fourth-grader and Stanford medical student Barbara Legend, 19 and a member of one of Anneliese's first classes, who was en route to San Diego and "couldn't drive through Laguna without stopping" for a visit.
The songs--Christmas, Hannukah and nonsectarian--are in several languages, not from rote but from understanding, because language training is an integral part of this unique institution's overall education program. This is a school where the children, ages 2-6, spend several hours a day learning German, Spanish, French, Russian and sign language.
When they arrive, it's not "Good morning," but "Buenos dias," and when they leave, it's "auf wiedersehen."
They also learn mathematics, music (most will even come to know the difference between Rachmaninoff and rock salt), art, sound nutritional principles, cooking, gardening and reading skills.
Most important, they learn to care about--and for--one another, and to savor the grand diversity of the people and things that occupy this planet.
On the surface, paradoxes abound. In class, the children are extremely well behaved, yet there is no discipline. In the play yard, they are essentially unsupervised (teachers watch, but don't interfere), free to do anything but harm one another or any other living thing, yet a certain sense of order prevails.
To understand these seeming contradictions, one must first know Anneliese's philosophy on children and their educational abilities.
"Our goal is for the kids to be kind, aware, critical, compassionate and responsible," she says. "Given half a chance, and a little direction, it's a natural course for them anyway. But you have to trust them. They don't like being herded, and they instinctively resist losing their individuality, so you must nurture that need for freedom and that hunger to learn."
"There is discipline here, but no one is ever disciplined. We teach and practice self-discipline."
"You must understand that 80% of a person's intellect is developed at this age, and the challenge is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but to instill in them a desire for continued learning."
"We don't have age groups; we have ability groups."
"We're honest with the children, even with our criticism. We don't want them to become people-pleasers. We'll never say to a child, 'That's awful,' but we will say, 'I think you can do better.' "
"Every child has a talent; it's up to us to discover what that talent is and to develop it."
" 'I am my own best teacher,' is something we have the children say all the time, so that they have an understanding that they must be involved in their own education."
"We reject any sex-role training. We don't have little toy ovens for girls and little toy trucks for boys. Our boys learn to cook and to knit and our girls learn to build things."
"Children at this age deserve the best."
Anneliese's Preschool operates on a premise opposite that of Disneyland. While little is left to the imagination at the Anaheim theme park, imagination is everything at the old monastery on Manzanita Avenue.
The play area is not your standard large, flat section of land with a set of swings here and a slide there. Instead, it is a huge backyard filled with fruit trees, a terraced hillside with rough paths, a vegetable garden, an herb garden and a large mound of dirt.
Tucked away on the upper level are the nearest things to playground equipment on the property--some ropes and an old tire hanging from a tree.