I always thought of blogs as being narcissistic, business related, or as my sister's, a way of keeping in touch or memorializing.

But, by necessity, I am learning a lot about myself. I find I need to get my thoughts out, and it helps me to know that someone else will read them. So I have created this little space for myself, to express the things I have trouble saying (be it emotional or physical trouble), to share what I'm going through, and what I'm learning through it.

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Friday, 4 May 2012

Honouring our Teacher and Friend

A couple of weeks ago, my family lost somebody very special, as did everyone I knew in my childhood. I had not been able to bring myself to write about it, because I honestly had not been ready.

My parents met her somewhere around high school and university. She was one of the first Montessori teachers in Mexico, and she was my sister's first teacher. Olga created more than a school - she created a community, within which parents formed such strong bonds that time and space have not eroded.

Myself, I was in her school for only one year. But Olga's friendship with my parents influenced my life in ways I cannot describe, and cannot count. Her passion for Montessori was contagious, her will indomitable and her voice was strong. My parents had learned about Montessori through my uncle's first wife, and had received the seminal "The Absorbent Mind" when my mother was first pregnant with my sister. When it came time to look for schools, they explored their options, and realized that their friend Olga offered the one that best suited them, what they valued, and what they wanted for us daughters. And Olga became my sister's first, and probably most influential, teacher.

We left Mexico when I was young, and we did not remain in the school, but my parents, and my sister, who was just old enough to be able to maintain her own friendships, continued to nurture the bonds with the community created in her school. These parents and my parents, they were all so very much in synch, that their friendships have continued to develop over the 30 years we have been here in Canada.

All of our parents learned to see us, to love us, and to appreciate our childhoods in ways they never imagined, because Olga opened their eyes. She showed them the beauty, the amazing unfurling of energy and self that is childhood. She taught them about (to use Dr. Montessori's words) the Secret of Childhood. This gave my father a whole new perspective on parenting, and was part of what inspired my Mother's lifelong passion for Montessori philosophy and practice, both of which meant that my parents remained committed to my sister and I continuing our Montessori education, no matter how good the public schools were here in Toronto.

And that made my life bearable. Having that kind of understanding, and openness in my parents, and in my schools during the years of my grandmother's illness and death, when we immigrated, when my parents changed roles as my mother went to work and my father had a hard time finding any, and then when my grandfather started having strokes... for a child as sensitive as I was, and as different from the rest of my family as I was... the support I received was invaluable in helping me deal with the emotional chaos in our lives. Nobody's childhood is perfect - I understand that now - we all, if we tried, could create a lengthy list of traumatic events and moments that have shifted our paths and shaped our lives. Some of us turn inwards, others turn to fantasies or start telling lies, others still try to exert control be it over others or their surroundings. But all of us react in some way, and all of our ways, and the effect that these events have on us, are mitigated by the adults in our lives, and their reactions not only to the events, but to us and our reactions as children. The adults are, after all, the ones with the inherent power in the adult/child relationship.

I was lucky. Really lucky. Because my teachers at the time truly understood me. They got my need to be alone, to find quiet spaces and moments, and to take my time. They understood my fears, my strengths and my needs - both those that were mine alone, and those that are common to children in that stage of development. Being in a classroom where I could have moments of silence when I needed them, I now understand, was crucial to my health and well being. I do not know what would have happened had I been in a more traditional classroom, but I can guarantee I would have been a very unhappy child, and likely would have developed my rebellious tendencies in a less (ahem) productive way, and probably become either depressive or aggressive, as so many children do. I'm pretty sure my anxiety would have surfaced at a much younger age. I would have spent an awful lot of time in the principal's office for sure, and I doubt I would have gone on to my post-secondary and graduate studies; I did not appreciate traditional schooling, and saw middle and high school as something to endure until I could get back to what I think of as real learning. Had I not had that experience of real learning in the first place, I can't imagine I would have wanted to stay in school. During those difficult years, having the familiar materials, the sense of control over my self, my choices and my environment, having the space and the time I needed to learn what I needed to learn was a real gift; one which I treasure and am proud to pass on to my son and my students.

So you see, I feel I personally owe my degrees, my well-being, my love of learning, and to some extent my sanity, in part, to Olga, even if she was never officially my teacher. And when she came to Toronto a few years ago, just before I got sick, and visited my classroom... well, I cannot put into words what that felt like.

I am not the first, or the last of her students to go on to teach in Montessori environments. Many of us have. And she told me that seeing her children all grown up and working with the next generation of children was a wonderful experience for her. She was proud of the relationships I formed with my students - she could see the depth of the connection. She was proud of me. And being true to herself, she also shared a good amount of constructive criticism.

She gave me a great honour during that visit. She gave a workshop at the Canadian Montessori Teachers' Association annual conference, and asked me to assist. I was thrilled to help her set up her tables (because she brought a great variety of materials with her) and make them beautiful. The workshop was among the most inspiring I have attended as a teacher, and I know part of that was my personal connection to her, and a perhaps a bit of hero-worship, but I wasn't the only one who was inspired. That's the effect she had on people - she inspired us - through her authenticity and her passion, her relentless curiosity and mischievous approach to life. But I was most honoured when she asked me to help her do an actual presentation - and not just any presentation - but the presentation on making and serving tea, with her own special tea-set from her own classroom. She trusted me enough, and though I was a good enough teacher to do that with her. She knew she could count on me to make my movements precise and graceful, that I could remember the lengthy sequence, perform each step, and still act with grace and courtesy, keeping my words to the necessary minimum and the height of politeness. That was a true honour, and a memory I will cherish. It was a validation of my work as a Montessori teacher that meant the world to me at the time.

But that's not where it ends. Olga's husband, Leon, my father's dear dear friend, and a man I greatly admire as well, had already made a life-changing decision when I made tea with her. Well into his middle age, he left Mexico, his children, grandchildren, wife and a string of business ventures behind to learn how to be a Montessori teacher himself. After decades of supporting Olga's work, he realized that it was his work too. So he moved, on his own, to the States, where he has been a Middle School teacher now for several years. I remember my father shaking his head when he heard - how he thought it was crazy, to leave one's life behind and start over at his age, to live in a tiny apartment, on a low salary and so on and so on. And I also still remember when he came back from his first visit to see Leon in Arizona, how he told me he had never seen him happier, how Leon was so at peace and so fulfilled. How inspiring is that?

In part, it is Leon's journey, and the way he spoke to me of his work with adolescents that inspired me to take my own work in that direction, one which both Leon and Olga encouraged me to pursue. I see his success, his ability to make such a huge change in his life, as being part of Olga's, too. She loved him and supported him enough to "let him go", to urge him to follow his heart, traveling from Mexico to Arizona on a regular basis to be with her husband. What a beautiful and strong relationship, they formed over the years, that allowed them both to be true to themselves while being so much a part of the other, to not need to live in the same place to have a loving and supportive marriage. To take such a journey together like that, it's a beautiful thing.

When Olga became really ill, I was already sick. It was odd, to know that she was struggling with an aggressive cancer, while I was fighting to get a diagnosis. She had had many health issues for many years, and through it all maintained her outlook and commitment to the life she'd chosen. Her last months were incredibly difficult, but I drew and continue to draw strength to deal with my own health from the knowledge that she dealt with so much more, and did so with such grace, courage and authenticity, just as she conducted the rest of her life. Her smile was such a wonderful thing. I am glad I had a chance to show her what she meant to me, that last visit to Toronto, and to see that smile light up my classroom.

The day Olga died, there was an outpouring of love on her facebook page, on her daughter's facebook page (and I imagine her son's as well, but I don't have access to that one), and on the walls of people I knew so long ago. Her being gone hurts, even if I hadn't seen her, or even talked to her in years. But her story is a beautiful story of butterfly power. She touched so many lives, and she did it without needing fame - she was no politician, no author, no spokesperson. She did it simply, by choosing what she chose to do, by standing up for the children, by defending their rights and responsibilities, by insisting on the highest quality of work and life, by inspiring future teachers - and she did it all by just being her own self and living according to her own principles. I am honoured to have known her, and to know that I earned her pride. I am honoured to carry on the work, and to call her my teacher. She touched us, and through us, touches everyone we touch. And so it goes. Her web of influence is wide, and I am but one strand of it. One strand which has become its own web, connecting to my own students, my family, my friends, my colleagues, each of whom create their own. And so it goes.

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