My son, now in high school, recently wrote the following essay. It summarizes what Montessori means to our family.
The “Gifted” One
For most of my childhood, I was known as “Josh’s” little brother. I faded quietly into the shadow of the bright lights shinned on my brother, the firstborn, “golden child”. Josh demonstrated his exceptional talents at an early age, reading before his third birthday solving equations before the first day of kindergarden. “He was such a curious child who just loved to learn”, recalls my mother. Then “real” school started. Josh was immediately identified by his elementary school counselor as “highly gifted”. He was given several tests to access his brilliance and all of these came back with a resounding confirmation that Josh was indeed, “a genius”. Josh recalls the day when his teacher announced to the class that “our Josh is SO smart that he’s going to be in a special, very selective program called Gifted and Talented and he will be working with fourth graders for math”. He became and instant celebrity. Kids referred to him as the “math whiz” and older students would walk up to him in the hallway and ask him questions like, “What’s 234 times 32?” to which Josh would quickly answer, satisfying their need to confirm his status as the elementary school Einstein. Being three years younger, I remember Josh coming home from school and tossing his backpack on the couch, exhausted and grumpy. Each day, he seemed more agitated until one night he burst into tears. I peeked over the couch,watching as my parents tried to find out why he was so very unhappy. “School is no fun. Everyone thinks I’m so smart. I’m scared that one day I will get an answer wrong and then no one will like me anymore!”. I HATE being smart!” he cried. I ran off, hoping no one realized I was listening. I made a mental note of that conversation and decided then and there, life in the shadows of my big brother wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Before long, it was time for me to start school. My father had been transferred overseas and my parents enrolled me in a small Montessori school nestled quietly in English countryside, aptly named “Cherry Trees” as it was surrounded by an orchard. I clutched my mom’s hand tightly as we walked into my new classroom. My teacher, Miss Pesch, was young and cheerful, welcoming me as a clung even tighter to my mom. I finally summoned the courage to glance around and saw shelves full of interesting items; smooth beads, blocks, and lots of books. In this school, there were no grade levels. Instead, my class was called “Koalas” and there were children ranging in age from three to six-years-old. I wandered about the classroom, intrigued by the environment. I found a book about fossils and began reading intently then glanced up quickly to see if the teacher had seen me. I was barely four and had been reading for nearly a year but, to my relief, my parents had not seemed to notice. They were focused on Josh, the child prodigy, and spent a great deal of time and energy making sure his “potential” was being met and ensuring that his teachers kept him “adequately challenged”. Thus, I remained free to learn and explore on my own. I read anything and everything that amused me from Green Eggs and Ham to The Guardian’s of G’Hoole with no concern for lextile level or Accelerated Reader incentive points. So, it must have seemed a bit odd to see me, tiny for my age anyway, to be pouring over a science book while others my age were sounding out the letter “B”. My faced flushed as Miss Pesch approached. I was certain that the secret was out and my reading ability would be cause for an immediate trip to the guidance counselor for further evaluation. To my great relief, however, Miss Pesch smiled and asked me in a soft voice if I would care to join the others on the rug when I was finished reading. I nodded shyly and then very quietly finished my book and sat down next to a round-faced boy named Joe and a girl named Olivia who looked at me with big, brown friendly eyes. Joe and Olivia become good friends and the rest of my time at Cherry Trees School was spent exploring and learning at my own pace. Despite my fascination with math and a voracious appetite for books, no one ever referred to me as “smart” or “gifted”. My teachers only guided my along to new learning activities and applauded my effort and hard work. I tried many new things, sometimes failing miserably at first, but since no one expected perfection, I didn’t mind trying again and again until the new challenge was mastered.
Over the years, Josh continued to hate school. He feared failure more than anything else but also worried that hard work and studying might prove that his his “genius” IQ was all a mistake. Josh believed that, being gifted, nothing should be hard for him. What he didn’t understand is that no matter how easily a person learns, failure, hard work, and persistence are essential ingredients for success. For a long time, I was referred to as “the younger sibling of Josh, the math genius.” However, as time went by, I became known more and more as simply, “Zach”, not Zach the computer genius (I have learned several programming languages for fun), or Zach the artist (I love to draw, paint, and sculpture). No one ever gave me a label. I consider this to be the greatest “gift” of all.