Our youngest just departed for his first day of senior year in high school! Early this morning, I found myself recollecting his early days of Montessori preschool, thinking fondly of his teacher, and remembered the piece below, which I wrote in May 2002 as he finished kindergarten. Re-reading it now, I appreciate how the practice of “hugging goodbye” has become second nature when transitions occur.
Amid the bustle of 22 three-, four-, and five-year-olds hanging up their coats, I take my seat in the small wooden chair off to one side. Everything in a Montessori classroom is proportioned to the child, so when adults visit, we are stepping into their world. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my son Christian approaching from across the room, beaming as he carries a tray bearing a small plate of cookies, a napkin, cream and sugar. Yvonne, his teacher, follows behind with a mug of hot coffee.
As an observer, my role is literally to just watch, without participating in any way. I notice one of the three-year-olds struggling to get his coat on the hanger and keep it there, but I no longer feel the urge to help. I’m accustomed to this environment now. A moment later, one of the five-year-olds, her coat taken care of, begins to assist. Maria Montessori believed that children benefit from learning in a mixed-age environment. Like in a family, the older ones can teach the younger ones, thereby reinforcing their own learning. However, in contrast to a family, where the oldest is always the oldest, in the Montessori classroom, children move through the levels. Their privileges and responsibilities increase as they grow. For Christian, the “baby” of our three, being in the oldest group this year as a kindergartener (or “extended dayer” as they’re called here) has proven to be a real watershed, bringing forth newfound confidence and self-reliance.
This morning, in preparation for the Pledge of Allegiance, Yvonne asks Christian to assist a little girl with Down’s syndrome in finding the flag she was selected to hold. My eyes sting as I watch this little guy, who for two years balked at taking responsibility for himself, calmly put his arm around her and gently lead her to the shelf across the room.
I sip my coffee as the morning meeting unfolds. Yvonne previews the day and presents a short lesson. It always amazes me that the children make no comment about the plate of cookies, sitting here right under their noses. No one ever fusses or asks for some. In this setting, roles and responsibilities are very clear. I’m the guest. The tray is for me alone. To be sure, the children do have a snack available each morning. Out of politeness, I refrain from nibbling at the cookies during the meeting. This kind of clarity empowers me in our life outside of school to provide needed boundaries. When our children were very small, this example gave me the resolve to deal matter-of-factly with issues of sibling jealousy at birthday times. When it’s your birthday, you open the presents. When it’s not your birthday, then you help create the celebration by wrapping gifts, decorating, etc. As they have grown older, it’s reminded me that care of the household should be shared among all, not shouldered by parents alone.
Now Yvonne is inviting the children, a few at a time, to “choose work.” Maria Montessori took children’s activity very seriously, intentionally calling it work to demonstrate that belief. The Montessori concept of work has none of the driven, frenetic quality so often experienced in these modern times. On the floor in the center of the room, I watch as a child begins to lay out a math work involving long chains of beads. First, she unrolls the woven mat which will define the work area. Then, step by step, she arranges the beads and does the work. It might taker her half the morning to complete what looks like a laborious task. But noticing the concentration and peacefulness with which she works, I’m struck anew by the mindful quality of this environment. People who spend retreat time at a monastery often find that the rhythm of the day there serves as a centering influence. Observing in this classroom does the same for me. I picked up on this refreshing aspect on my very first visit, more than seven years ago when our oldest, Michael, was in Yvonne’s room, and it has continued to draw me back. Upon returning home, I approach my tasks with renewed care and presence.
Later in the observation period, Yvonne lets Christian know that he and I may work together. I almost hate to leave my contemplative mode, but he is eager to show me a work he has been doing with sounds. Too soon, the time for departure comes. Feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness grow with the awareness that my sojourn here is nearly over, not just this morning but for good. But I know, too, that I’ve been given what I need to move on. This learning began at the end of Michael’s first year of preschool. He came home on the last day and stated in a rather satisfied, almost pleased tone of voice, “We hugged the ‘stended dayers g’bye.” The complete innocence of his remark and the mental image of the children hugging the kindergartners in farewell brought tears to my eyes. In the years since, I’ve noticed that “hugging goodbye” is an annual ritual that embodies another important Montessori principle: Growth and change are natural and a cause for celebration. If things have gone well, then at the end of three years, the children are ready to move on.
This is not an easy lesson for me. I don’t like change. I don’t like for things to be over. I want time to stand still so that I can savor each moment of my children’s growing up a little longer, like putting a movie on “pause.” But changes, both dramatic and minor, come whether we’re ready or not. And when they do, I find myself returning over and over, almost unconsciously, to the wisdom inherent in Michael’s words that long ago day, “We hugged them goodbye.” We engaged in an action to mark the occasion. Somehow, an outward gesture or ritual facilitates an inner transition of mind and heart, even in the midst of sadness.
I began this writing about our Montessori experience as a gift for Yvonne, to thank her for the blessing of these years together. It has taken me almost the entire school year, with many tears shed at the keyboard, to get to the truth of what I want to say, to name the gifts that I’ve received, the writing process itself my ritual of “hugging goodbye,” leaving a place and time I will always hold very dear.