Montessori teachers rely on the Great Lessons to guide the narrative of the Second Plane, to tie the day to day experiences of children in their classrooms to a masterful story that precedes our pedestrian hassles and makes noble even our most humble efforts just to get through each day. We offer the children these seemingly mythic stories at a time when we know their development will be most inspired by them, when they have established the basic structures of how they understand the world through their experiences in the First Plane and are now ready to place their work within a larger system of life.
What are the stories that you hold for yourself? We have so many messages streaming at us every day, messages that suggest all the ways in which we are lacking, messages that prioritize productivity and output and financial wealth, messages that suggest that unless we are working harder and making more, with a louder voice and a longer shadow, we are not enough.
Montessori tells us these stories of tiny creatures who, with or without conscious intent, consent to their role in the system. And it’s easy enough to read them simply for their reminder that each of these creatures, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant, plays an irreplaceable part in the narrative. It’s easy enough to read them to remind ourselves that our work, too, is a part of a system beyond our capacity to see, in scope and in time. When misremember Archimedes’ quote, “Give me a large enough lever, and I shall move the world,” Montessori’s stories correct the language. “Give me a large enough lever,” he is believed to have said, ‘and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Montessori reminds us that the contribution of the small things, like the impact made by the edge of the right-sized fulcrum, is essential for the action of the lever.
But these stories do more than just make noble our humble efforts. In each, she reminds us that the creatures volunteer for their service, that they choose to make their contribution. We are the same. We can choose whether we see our work as essential like that of the fulcrum, or we can choose whether we accept that constant stream of messages that pressures us to do more, achieve more, earn more, be more to more people, be less of ourselves.
Montessori’s stories suggest that we find ourselves at this place in time because of all of the uncounted and uncountable collective actions, big and small, that have preceded us. We are here because we could not not be here, because everything that’s unfolded has directed us to this very moment.
What if we are treated this moment, not as a crisis to avert, but as a crossroads to contemplate? What if we are here because we cannot not be here, because here is the only place from which we can choose where to go next? And what if we chose, with that same consent that Montessori reminds us all creatures choose their contribution, to claim our value in the small work, in the mindful attention to the handful of people we have been entrusted with? What if we chose no longer to consent to those messages that prioritize productivity and output and financial wealth, messages that suggest that unless we are working harder and making more, with a louder voice and a longer shadow, we are not enough, and instead used our quiet voices together to say, “No.”
Montessori’s Great Lessons illustrate a new heroism, not in the actions of a singular, superhuman warrior, but in the collective, interdependent and humble choreography of each creature offering what they can offer well. In these stories, the small contributions are volunteered with generosity, without apology that they couldn’t be more. The creatures she describes offer well what they can offer. They don’t try to be more than they are. They serve, freed by their service. They carry out their essential tasks, the cosmic expression, and they do so without concern for legacy or prestige.
Humble service given freely: that’s the moral of Montessori’s story. If we see ourselves as a part of that unfolding, we may be less focused on our own finite celebrity and more attentive to contributing to what it is we evolving to become. We are evolving, within our own lives and across our shared humanity. We decide, by what we consent to contribute to, in what direction, even if we cannot see past the horizon. A necessity of life and a joy, to be of service to each other, to be of service to a system which is beyond the scope of our imaginations.
Written in response to "How Mother Earth Has Been Created," Chapter 6, To Educate the Human Potential , M. Montessori