9/12/2003

At Rochester Montessori, Secrets from a Wise Italian

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- At the Rochester Montessori School on Sunday, I discovered a secret to establishing peace on earth and goodwill among all men and women.

But first, a funny story.

Ronice Donovan, a teacher at the Montessori school, was telling me about an incident in one of her classes for children ages 3 to 6. The kids had cracked open a sand dollar and a star-shaped "dove of peace" had fallen out.

"What's that?" asked one little boy.

"That's God!" the other children in class all shouted.

"What is God?" the little boy asked, puzzled.

"God made everything!" the other children cried. "Don't you know? He made everything in the world!"

"Did he make the sky?" the little boy asked.

"Yes!"

"Did he make the earth?"

"Yes! Yes! And he made the ocean and the whales and everything!"

As Ronice tells the story, "the little boy thought about that for a while, then looked up at me and said 'God must have a very big desk.'"

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician, psychologist and educator who thought that if adults could only learn to understand and respect the world of the child -- a land as strange and faraway as any in Asia, Africa or the Middle East -- then adults would learn something so essential about themselves that they might immediately see the futility of violence and stop war altogether.

Song and Dance

The local Montessori school, started in 1968, has 160 students, a third of whom were born abroad or are the children of immigrant parents. The school is one of about 7,000 Montessori schools around the United States.

The school's annual Multicultural Day Celebration was Sunday. The auditorium was hung with brightly-colored "papel picata," or Mexican cut-paper decorations. In the back, a buffet groaned with Chinese dumplings, British scones, Korean kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), Mexican tortillas, Indian bajji (fried potato slices dipped in lentil flour), and a yummy Swiss pastry, Zuercher Pfarrhaustorte ("Hey, try this," people called it).

On stage, the children sang and danced to a medley of folk tunes from 14 countries.

Moms and dads paced with their digital cameras, and many of them were dressed in traditional Indian saris, Indonesian sarongs, German lederhosen and dirndls, and Chinese silk cheongsam.

I asked some parents what the school's four-word vision statement -- "Whole Child, Whole World" -- meant to them.

"It means creating in these children a future that is based on the ideals of humanity versus corporate greed and insensitivity," said Stephanie Peterson, who has two daughters at the school.

Loving and Caring

"The school teaches how to appreciate the earth, and other people, and how to build on personal relationships," Janine Kamath said. Her husband, Patrick, added that "our two daughters knew there was an Asia and an Africa even before they could write or read. At age 5 or 6, that's more important."

To Yvonne Lee, a nurse with two kids at the school, the motto means "loving and caring." And to Jeff Piepho, the school's board president, it means "to make the children complete in themselves and, therefore, prepared for the whole world."

"With all the doctors, lawyers and brainy people in the world, there is still something obviously awry," said Patrick Sheedy, the school's director. "Some common sense is missing, some knowledge about how to live with one another in a healthy community."

That's why the school starts a child's education not with reading and writing, Sheedy said, but rather with lessons on "grace and courtesy" skills such as "opening and shutting a door quietly, how to interrupt politely and how to move around a classroom with care."

These are the very skills of peace, Ronice Donovan said.

Seeing The Child

"We work with the subtleties of what it means to be at peace," she said. "If children are whole from the inside out, with a belief system constructed from family and community, they will change the world and be peacekeepers."

One of Maria Montessori's books, "The Secret of Childhood," contains a passage that echoes Donovan's views and seems wise in an ultimate way.

"Adults have not understood children or adolescents, and they are, as a consequence, in continual conflict with them," Montessori wrote. "The adult must find within himself the still unknown error that prevents him from seeing the child as he is."

That last sentence, in case you missed it, is the secret. Achieve that, Maria Montessori said, and all kinds of peace will follow in the world. From the peace between parent and child will follow the peace between child and child, and man and man, and nation and nation.

At the Rochester Montessori School, they don't talk about teaching. They talk about creating an environment where adults stand back in order to allow children to be exactly as they were on the day they were born.

Which is a human being at peace inside.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report