(My Years of Montessori – Part 31)
Last day of school! In the bag!! The 56 letters have all been written, signed, stuffed, distributed, opened and read. The graduates have been sent off in a slightly brutal ritual in which they stand encircled by all their singing schoolmates and teachers (“Fly, Hummingbird. Fly!”) until the first kid breaks out in tears quickly to be followed, one by one, by about half of the remaining attendees. (But not by me. I’m not a wimp.) The whole thing eventually breaks apart into little howling group hugs and searches for tissues. A series of quiet conversations ending in hugs ensues as the smaller kids wander off in the direction of the breakfast buffet. Other kids of thoughtful parents haul out bags and start distributing little presents to teachers and friends. One of the graduates pulls me aside and hands me some Fair Trade chocolate and a handwritten letter (in English!) in which she calls me “the best English teacher in history”. That’s a keeper.
In the words of Colin Firth accepting his Academy Award: “I think my career just peaked.” I should probably retire right now. This very instant.
We will all miss this fabulous girl terribly, but strangely enough, it was the farewell with the other graduate that moved me almost more. He is an extremely intelligent and sensitive kid who came to us at the age of 8 already something of a basket-case. He has had an unbelievably hard childhood and family life. Three full siblings, and three more half-siblings with three different fathers, one of whom is in jail and another of whom is differently institutionalized. The social welfare office has been looming over their lives for years. They have lived in six or seven different houses/villages in just the five years I have known them and the next eviction is impending. This kid is barely fifteen years old and already has the full weight of the world on his shoulders. The school – our school – has been the only constant in his life for the past 7 years. And now he is leaving us. Where is he going? Who knows? Inside, he is panicking. He hasn’t found an apprenticeship. The only thing he is sure about is what he doesn’t want – and that includes going to school anymore., but Austrian law requires one more year. It looks like he will end up in one of those collection tank schools for all the kids in his situation. He will sit there doing nothing until the year is over. And then he will be back where he was tomorrow.
Here is an approximation of words he read today:
Think about the five year old picture of you that I included on our “Graduates” poster. You probably won’t remember that picture being taken or the particular day it happened, but for me, it was a special day – and a special picture.
It was my first year in the school and you were just one of many new faces. You wouldn’t even look at me, much less talk to me and after two or three weeks you tossed me a crumpled up note saying you hated my English lessons. (I still have that note.) You made me work hard to earn your trust and slowly you came around. On the day that picture was taken we first danced to the “Superman Song” and you joined in – dancing and laughing. Holger is smiling! Holger has teeth!
Over the years there were several special moments of connection and I am sure I wrote about them in previous letters. So I will only mention the last one. You and I, sitting in a McDonald’s in South Kensington, arguing about the European Union. You being quite critical (and making some good points!) and me being “Big Picture” and accentuating the positive. Neither of us was going to win that argument, but I enjoyed trying – and hope you did a little too.
There were also some moments this year that I would rather forget. Times when the fact of not having a pencil seemed like an unsolvable problem for you. Times when you made statements that sounded like an old man who feels he has missed some boat and that his life is almost over . . .
Your life has hardly begun!! There is a huge world out there for you to explore and you have all the talents a person needs to take it on. You are intelligent, you are a critical thinker, you listen very well, you have great rhetorical skills and you have a talent for cutting through the B*S* to get to the core of an issue. You have friends and a loving family and many people who care about you. Whatever deficiencies you have in your education can be overcome – and probably quickly – as soon as you decide what you want.
And you can run! I saw that during the Sports Week.
I realize that none of this has been about English – but there are more important things than talking about not-done assignments and wasted paper . . . On a positive note, I did notice you speaking up more and more in the lessons. (You even reprimanded me for speaking German!) That was a great sign that your English has made progress, if not so much on paper.
In this last year at the Hummingbird school, there were many things on your mind that took precedence over both English and our World Studies topics. Your motivation to learn new things was overshadowed by concerns about what will come next year. In each of the World Studies areas, however, you found some contribution to make and could use your rhetorical skills to present your topic clearly to the others – even such technical subjects as your hybrid motor experiment and nuclear reactors. In the Europe project you began to learn about cathedrals and then continued with the topic as part of our Middle Ages theme. You took part in the theater and film projects on Fridays. And when it comes to sports, even if you don’t seem to be into them, your talents in ball sports and coordination are as apparent as your social skills. You have the ability to manage your team well, giving helpful tips especially to the younger players.
And since you are good at communicating with younger kids, why not talk to that younger Holger from the five year old picture. Tell him that it’s not so bad, that the decisions ahead of him will not determine his entire life. Tell him that nothing is forever. And that things get better.