Midway through a morning of meandering through Montessori schools I stumbled across this delightful display. Artfully arranged and infinitely inspiring; a wall of heroes, pioneers, advocates, philosophers and creators! Some faces are immediately familiar, others take a few more minutes of scrolling through the ‘Camera Roll’ of the mind. This wall was adorned with the undeniable awesomeness of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sir Isaac Newton, Mahatma Ghandi, Frida Kahlo, Confucius and Plato.
There is no doubt that each of the people on this wall are deserving of our admiration and aspirations. The high calibre of these historical figures is a testament to the teacher who collected their images. I would not remove a single image from this gallery and yet if I was starting with a blank wall I would choose a rather different set of heroes. So here, on my digital wall, is a collection of people who inspire me.
I'm sure that this one is unsurprising! I would hardly be running a site called "Montessori Child" (as an after-school activity to my full time role as a Montessori Pre-school Director) if I didn't admire Maria Montessori. Perhaps, however, the breadth of the reasons for my admiration might be cause for slight surprise. Certainly my style of teaching, and interacting with children, is strongly influenced by the work of Dr Maria Montessori. Yet she has had an impact on other aspects of my life also.
The philosophies contained within her pedagogy can, in many cases, be applied to broader contexts. Maria urged us to follow the needs of the child, to await the spontaneous unfolding of each child's development. This advice is equally helpful when considering the adults in my life, and my life itself. I realise that I have agency in my life but I also recognise that my life is more meaningful and joyful when I base my decisions upon the natural, intrinsic instincts that are within me. I try my best to listen to my inner nature so that I can live my life as it is intended to unfold, instead of feeling at odds with myself.
Perhaps this seems obvious to everyone else, but it wasn't always apparent to me. For many years, while a student at a mainstream school, I somewhat squashed my inner-self in favour of external behaviours that better fit into the expectations of others and the ill-fitting shape of my environment. Eventually I reached a point where I could not do this any longer - I felt so far away from myself. I chose to start respecting myself, as I now respect each child in my care, and I decided to value my interior self enough to let it guide the choices I made about my exterior self. Just as the Montessori teacher must remove from the environment any obstacles which hinder a child's natural development, I work each day to remove obstacles from my life that would prevent me from externally manifesting that which is truly within me.
Dr Maria Montessori has taught me that trying to manipulate oneself, or others, is a fruitless and thankless endeavour. Take what humanity, and nature, shows us and surround it with the ideal environment to overcome the challenges and embrace the strengths.
When I had my aforementioned 'realisation of disconnect' at a traditional school I was fortunate enough to have supportive parents who allowed me to transfer to a more "Montessori-like" senior college. It was in my first year at this new school that I met Geoff - the only teacher I've ever known who was truly, truly interested in the subject that he taught.
In Year 11 Geoff taught me Ancient Studies. It was not a subject that I held a particular interest in initially but Geoff's enthusiasm was infectious. He spoke with such excitement about each topic, and demonstrated such genuine and ongoing curiosity - happily answering any question we offered, no matter how "off-plan" it was! As the end of Year 11 ended I was considering my options for subjects in Year 12. It's a big decision, with lots of factors to consider, but one of my five subjects was extremely easy to choose. I knew immediately that I would enrol in Classical Studies, because Geoff taught that subject! I was confident that choosing 'Classics' would assure me at least one unit of study that was enjoyable, engaging and where I would choose to exert effort because of the intrinsic motivation of sharing in an inspiring learning journey. Geoff himself is quite deserving of a place in this list too, but in the absence of an image of him I will stick with a man who he taught me to admire!
There are many philosophers who had great thoughts and posed provoking questions. Socrates, however, is the one who has most directly impacted my own manner of thinking and questioning. He is a man who espoused the wisdom of recognising our own ignorance, of realising that in order to learn we must accept that we do not yet know all that there is. He urged us to "know thyself" - to recognise our flawed humanity as a means of inspiring us to become more than we already are. Dr Montessori herself must have shared my fondness for this attitude as she scribed the words "It is time to renew the dictum; know thyself."
Socrates also espoused the importance of recognising the humanity and limitations of others; of engaging in critical thinking rather than blind following. This sits very comfortably with my natural inclination to question, reflect and critique. It is at once my greatest strength and my greatest curse. At its best it provokes me to always improve, to innovate and to imagine. At its worst it is bloody irritating to those around me who wish I could just leave something alone rather than constantly having to "be contrary". My mum used to think it was something I did to annoy her - examining and questioning every little thing she said - but she has come to accept that I do it to myself more than I do to anyone else! It is a natural part of me and, as I said, Dr Montessori taught me to respect my natural impulses and to find ways to express these traits positively and productively. It was Socrates who gave me guidance about how to best express this particular trait.
Many years before I existed he developed the 'Socratic line of enquiry' (or 'Socratic irony'). It is, essentially, a method of arguing (how perfect for me!). Socrates discovered that engaging in a back-and-forth debate with someone resulted in both parties leaving more firmly committed to their initial position! He was not able to lead others into new discoveries by telling them. He found that the most peaceful and productive way of 'arguing' was actually just to question. Instead of pushing his own agenda he would feign ignorance, simply asking the other party to further explain their position. He would continue this line of questioning until the point that the other person's position either made sense to him or started to unravel. If the latter outcome was reached then the other party would start to independently realise that his or her position was coming a little unstuck, that perhaps it was not as certain or solid as they originally thought. At this point it was possible for Socrates to offer an alternative perspective to someone who was now ready to hear it, having reached a point of self-correction. I find this an incredibly useful tool and use it almost daily (often without even realising I'm doing it!). I do it to myself too - especially if I ever find myself digging my heels in too deeply about an opinion or behaviour. I employ Socratic irony and I question myself to discover whether I really can explain my position or if it is time to consider a fresh perspective.
A member of Monty Python's Flying Circus might seem a strange turn to take from Socrates but to me it seems to be a perfectly logical step! I truly believe that humour can absolutely be as intellectual a pursuit as pedagogy or philosophy. John Cleese has certainly made me laugh, with silly walking, fish-slapping, general-direction-farting and not mentioning the war (or maybe mentioning it once, but I think he got away with it!). He has also made me think! Hidden within the comedic absurdity of many a Python sketch is a biting satire of the bamboozling absurdity of real life! In the barely-suppressed-incandescent-rage of a truly terrible hotel owner is an indictment of the ego and of prejudice.
Through watching Cleese's characters, who are surreal and hyper-dramatised, I somehow feel less alone in the world. I know that there is someone else who looks at certain elements and individuals of our society and feels that it would be laughable if it wasn't so depressing! John Cleese tries to combat the latter by enhancing the former. He emphasises the comedy as a way of dealing with the tragedy. This is another tool that gets me through daily life; knowing how to laugh at the 'tra-medy'.
Giles Andreae (aka. Edward Monkton)
Several years ago, when my family was going through a particularly painful period of turmoil with my beautiful, innocent then-3-year-old niece right in the centre of it, I came across a children's book that had me in tears in the middle of the bookshop. As I write this now I have the powerful passages of prose running through my head - my favourite being the page that reads "There are things in this life that will hurt us, they come to us all this I know, but they give as all chances to learn little one, and they give us all chances to grow". When I first read these words I cried for Emily, because I wanted to protect her but couldn't. And I cried because I was holding in my hands a way of explaining to her that she would get through it. Of telling her that I wanted, with all my heart, to keep her safe but that when I couldn't I would still support her through any pain she had to endure so that she could grow from it. The words that helped me to explain this were written by Giles Andreae.
Around the same time I started collecting a series of quirky books and cards with simple illustrations and odd little funny phrases. Some were just silly (Ninja biscuits? The random hedgehog?) but others were very sweet and touching; particularly the stories of The Love Monkeys and The Lady Who Was Beautiful Inside. These slightly askew musings and drawings were the work of a fellow by the name of Edward Monkton.
One day, when my Edward Monkton collection was expanding and my bookshelf was filling with more books by Giles Andreae, I realised these "two men" were one and the same! Ahhh the magic of a pseudonym! In the age of the internet I probably should have made the connection sooner, but I quite like the fact that I didn't! I felt equally connected to the earnestness of Andreae and the quirkiness of Monkton - and I love the fact that it turns out that these were simply two sides of the same person, just as they are in me!
I love words. They dance in my head and spill out of my mouth or onto my keyboard. But perhaps I'll leave it to Stephen Fry to explain (please excuse some of the more audacious and salacious metaphors!)...
“Language is my whore, my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries; language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts, it's a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.”
That's how I feel. Language is so integral to our humanity, and so fundamental to my sense of self. I love to listen to Stephen Fry as he masterfully manipulates our mother tongue. I am endlessly envious of those who are multilingual - I am fascinated by the concept of being able to interpret and express experiences in two distinct etymological contexts. I would love to speak more than one language, but I'd also be happy to reach Fry's level of mastery of my first! So I write, and I read, and I insist on buying books even though I know it would be cheaper to rely on digital copies. I try to move myself in the direction of Stephen Fry, a man who is engaged in a lifelong love affair with words.
I could have easily filled this list with members of my family who inspire me - my mum, my dad, my nanna and grandad, Andrew...the list goes on (I am amazingly blessed with a wonderful family!). But it probably wouldn't be a very interesting blog post if I just wrote compliments about my family members - mainly because most people reading this have no way of meeting them, whereas you can certainly research the figures mentioned above.
But I absolutely cannot finish this list without making mention of Emily. She has been the single most formative influence in my entire life. I am unable to adequately articulate (or even to consciously identify!) everything that she has taught me. She made my heart bigger. She took the blinkers off the sides of my eyes and showed me the world. The Jessica who writes these words only exists because of Emily. If she had not entered my life when she did then I would have stepped on to a completely different path, grown in a different direction, and developed into someone who would be unrecognisable to the 'me' who sits here right now.
The funny thing is, she has no idea! She knows I love her. She knows that she is the number one priority in my life, and that I will always, always protect her and be proud of her. But I think she believes that I'm the one teaching her! She tells me that I'm clever, and that I know a lot, and when she makes positive choices she tells me it's because she thinks it is what I would do. She doesn't yet realise that the biggest reason that I make good choices is because I want to be the type of person she can look up to. I learn new things because I want to be able to help her grow. And I would know infinitely less if she hadn't taught me so much.
I hope that one day she will be able to comprehend how much she has contributed to my life, how much she expanded my mind, my heart, my world. Until then I am sharing it with you, because I know that you will comprehend this feeling - because I'm sure it is how your own children make you feel!