This post isn’t about Montessori education, per se, except in the sense in which Maria Montessori described the spiritual preparation of the educator: “That which the educator must seek is to be able to see the child as Jesus saw him.” (The Secret of Childhood, pg 108)
This is a quotation from a passage I quoted at length in my first post on this blog, and it has been coming to my mind again and again these last few weeks. Maria Montessori all but quotes Jesus when she says: “…the child compared to us, is not only purer but has mysterious qualities, which we adults as a rule cannot perceive, but in which we must believe with faith, for Jesus spoke to them so clearly and insistently that all the Evangelists recorded His words: Unless ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (ibid)
This has been on my mind because I told the children the story she references, the story of Jesus telling “all of the grown-ups” that they must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. And when I told them this story…. I was actually feeling very angry at all of the little children in my classroom!
Who knows what was going on that day – some perceived offense against my ego and my pride, of course. I remember feeling very frustrated with them as I tried to get them to listen to me tell this story – I really just wanted to do anything else because I was so keenly aware of my hypocrisy: telling some lovely story about Jesus loving the little children, while I myself wanted to put every single one of them in time out and call it a day! But, I was also very aware that the story was perhaps more for me than for them…. I had woken up that morning thinking about it and knew I had to tell it.
So one by one we acted out this story; I put each child in my lap one at a time, and we all repeated the words of Jesus (our preschool paraphrase): “Unless you grown ups become like these little children, you will never inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Each child roared with laughter when it was their turn to be “the” child. It was funny, how unaware they were that my assistant and I wanted to pull our hair out, that our hearts were feeling anything but the way that Jesus’ heart felt when he said those words. My own eyes filled with tears each time we said the phrase together, because I was very aware…. I have no idea what he means by this. My assistant and I made eye contact. We were both challenged by these words.
We must become like little children? How? Scatter-brained? Loud? Messy? Unable (or unwilling) to concentrate on anything for more than two seconds? Should we run around the room and jump up and down and drive Mrs. Ruth crazy?? Is that really what it takes to inherit the kingdom of heaven?
Anyway I really couldn’t answer that question that day. I knew there were other times that I had waxed eloquent about all of the virtues of children… their simplicity, their innocence, their joy, their trust. But that day I was not able to see it. I was literally blinded by my anger (aka pride).
An answer to my question really didn’t come to me until Sunday – this Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the week of our Lord’s passion and death and resurrection. I had been experiencing much anxiety about who knows what, and was contemplating the words of Christ in another passage of Matthew: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?….But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matthew 6)
For some reason it struck me, as I listened to the birds of the air singing their happy song and flying all around the sky and the pond, that this is precisely the lesson that the children have for me. That they have had for me all year.
Though I have improved very much in this since the beginning of the school year, I still daily fall into the temptation to label myself and my days: “This was a good day.” “This was a bad day.” “I failed today.” “I succeeded today.” “I’m terrible at this.” “I’m great at this!”
This labeling – these stories I tell myself, these names I attach to myself, are the source of almost all of my anxiety.
My children never do this. Each day is a new day for them. Each minute is a new minute! They don’t go around labeling themselves or their work or their days – “I’m bad at this, I’m good at this, I’m being wild today, I’m being well-behaved today…” and on and on. And most importantly, they NEVER expect me to hold anything against them or bitterly refuse them something good, even if in my opinion they have not reached my expectations that day!
Here’s what I mean. This is at least a weekly occurrence – there is a child who comes into the classroom in the morning and struggles all morning to settle down and work. Maybe this child has to be removed from the classroom a few times because of such disruptive behavior. All morning is a struggle between him and me – so many conversations, sometimes apologies (which often go both ways!), and often the situation doesn’t get much better that day. By the time we go outside for recess, my nerves are shot.
But guess what happens on the playground? This child comes up to me to tell me some funny story or some thing that brought them joy and they give me a huge hug! Or maybe they are crying because they got hurt or their feelings were hurt but still – the huge hug. The total confidence that I love them, that I accept them, that if love is what they need, they will receive it from me.
Now perhaps they have too much confidence in me! 😀 I’m not always there…. sometimes it does take me a minute to muster up the total love and compassion that they expect from me. But I realized that this is the confidence of childhood, the humility of childhood, that the Father wants us to have toward him. The verse before the Gospel reading yesterday was this: “Hail to you, our King; you alone are compassionate with our faults.” This echoes so many verses in the Psalms that remind us that the Lord is slow to anger, full of compassion, abounding in love… bearing with us in our weaknesses, for “he knows how weak we are; he knows we are only dust.”
Unlike the heavenly Father, I am not always full of love or compassion or kindness or understanding or patience. The children believe me to be, and this inspires me to try to shake off more and more of my pride and anger in order to be the person full of unconditional love and compassion they believe in. But, in order to become this person, I must “be converted and become like a little child” – I must become like the little child who, regardless of what kind of day I believe I’ve had, where I believe I failed or succeeded, confidently runs to the Father fully expecting to be received with open arms full of love. If I truly believe this and truly practice this childlike faith and confidence in the love of God, all of my anxieties would subside and I truly would enter into the kingdom of heaven – of total peace, for my identity is sure; of total joy, for every minute is new; of total love, because there would be no need to withhold love from others since I am fully and totally loved.
There’s much more I could say on this, much more I am still coming to understand about the difference in children’s value system vs. adult value systems, but for now I want to leave it here. In many ways this seems to be what Easter is about. After our worst day – the day we fought with God the most, where his friends betrayed him and the rest of us participated in his very murder – after this day, he came back. And he didn’t wait for us to come give him a hug – he sought us out. Or I should say, he seeks us out. Every day. Every minute.