Montessori understood the power of the story. Maybe that’s why her writing remains so fascinating so many years later. Many of the scientific details she includes have been corrected over the last century, but the spirit of her intent still reads true. She wasn’t an exceptional writer; indeed, much of her writing is so technical and dry that it takes reading and re-reading and re-reading again to begin to understand her. But she understands the power of the story. She uses descriptions of the world, conveyed in mythic language, to place us, as learners, as teachers, as stewards, into narrative greater than our own experience.
We need that.
Especially in these days, when we are so often so overwhelmed by the deluge of bad news on our screens, it’s easy to feel like our lives don’t matter, like the little bit we can accomplish today couldn’t possibly be enough to push back the waters. The flood is so great and our thumbs are so small.
We may notice that fear more often now, in times of crisis. The crisis may draw attention to our fear, but our hope precedes it, and our hope will stand when we’re on the other side. Because what else is the choice to teach, the choice to parent, to choice to advocate for children, but an enactment of hope? There have always been fears to overwhelm us. Our children remind is that we are not yet at the end of the story.
Montessori uses these narratives to inspire us to see the essential nature of our contributions, however humble, even if we cannot see the outcome of those contributions themselves. Our lives serve a purpose, whether we know what that purpose is or not. The good news, as Montessorians, is that we believe we know. We contribute to the narrative when we commit to protect the nature of childhood. When we stand up against the waves of bureaucracy and industrialization that argue that childhood can be standardized or quantified, we serve our purpose. When we are courageous against the norms of school or the expectations that all children should learn the same way on the same day, we serve our purpose. When we demonstrate, child by child, that the nature of childhood is good and that that nature can be preserved, we serve our purpose.
When we do these things alone, we are like the tiny creatures of the sea she invokes in describing “the drama of the ocean.” We may not see the outcome of our work beyond the storylines of our own lives, though we nonetheless remain hopeful. But what if we were to use the intellect and imagination that differentiates us from the sea creatures, what if we were to stand with each other? What if, instead of focusing only on the children in front of us, we offered a hand to the other adults who are serving the children in front of them? We don’t have to care for all the children in the world... surely, we couldn’t accomplish that by any one of our efforts alone. But if we were to care for each other differently, as adults who care for children, we might turn the tide.
Our society tricks us into to measuring our own work with the same inflexible sticks by which it measures children’s worth. Can our contributions be quantified? Can they be compared to some predetermined norm? Do they propel our economy? Does they earn us (prestige/admiration/money/power?) We seek to protect our children from messages like these, the ones that we know will damage their spirits and diminish their promise, but we have a harder time muting them in our own lives.
Maybe it’s easier to find the courage to protect this space for children than it is to preserve it for ourselves. But, remember Montessori’s observation, “Children become like the things they love.” They love us, and they will become like we are if we don’t do this differently. If we are not yet strong enough to stand against the tide on our own behalf, maybe we can be strong enough to do as a model for the children. Maybe we can share that courage with each other, noticing each other’s small efforts to do the right thing, in our own lives and in our children’s lives, and we can offer companionship to each other. Maybe we can take a moment to cheer each other on in the hard work, to remind each other that, though our individual voices may be small, together we can create quite joyful music.
We cannot change the world unless we’re first willing to confront it. These times of crisis and stress will undoubtedly bring fear and uncertainty. We are creating ourselves anew. There’s fear in that, but there is opportunity as well, and great hope. Who is it you wanted to be when you grew up? What is that horizon you’re hoping to turn your children toward? Who is standing beside you on the path? Call their name. Cheer them on. Sing together. You have a part to play.