Mario Montessori "My Most Unforgettable Character"
In 1965 Mario Montessori granted an interview to The Reader’s Digest, sharing some memories of his exceptional mother: Maria Montessori. First published in the American edition of this magazine, it soon found its way to some of the global editions of The Reader’s Digest. Here, you can download the copies in English, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Portuguese and Swedish. The article is printed below.
One of the world’s great educators, Maria Montessori originated many of the techniques that are now used to teach young children. A warm-hearted scientist, she never lost sight of the child as an individual and very special human being.
MY MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER
By Mario Montessori
When I was a boy, I was woken early one morning at our house in Rome by the shaking of my bed and a deep rumbling sound. I had no more than opened my eyes when my mother walked in, calm and smiling, and sat on the edge of my bed.
"Mario," she said, "do you see how the chandelier sways from the ceiling?" I did, "Do you feel how the floor trembles?" I nodded.
My mother spread out her arms as if inviting me to a wonderful surprise. "This, Mario, is an earthquake."
For Maria Montessori, even an earthquake was an opportunity to open a child's mind. She believed God had invested human beings with the urge and the power to fulfil themselves. In finding a way to liberate that power she gave the world a new approach to education, as a joyful process of self-discovery and self-realisation.
Looking back, it is hard to conceive how she crowded so many accomplishments into one lifetime, first as a scientist - an anthropologist, and Italy’s first woman doctor* - then as the inspired educator who founded the worldwide kindergarten movement which bears her name. My greatest pride is to have shared in her work. Once when I was a boy, I was separated from her in a crowd. Finding her again I boasted, “You cannot go to any place where I cannot follow you.” I almost made this boast come true. For 40 years, as secretary, assistant and junior colleague, I followed her over half the world - wherever her vocation took her.
Unlike many of the austere career women at the turn of the century, Mother dressed elegantly and radiated feminine charm. She loved good food, good company and good talk. Her intense brown eyes could sparkle with delight, and they could also observe with precision.
“The secret of the good life,” I once heard her say, “is to live in obedience to reality.” She could look objectively at the world about her and see what was actually there, uncoloured by wish or expectation. Her course for teachers began with lessons in observation. “You have been trained to make the child pay attention to you,” she told them. “Here it is you who must observe the child.”
“Too Much to Do.” As a little girl my mother was the most backward pupil in her school, unable to get the lessons into her head. Then, at ten, Maria suddenly changed. Along with a heightened interest in religion, not unusual in girls of that age, she developed a sense of vocation. Her parents first became aware of it while she was seriously ill with influenza. The doctor told them to be prepared for the worst. Maria reassured her mother, “Don’t worry, Mamma mia, I am not going to die. I have too much to do.”
Now she came first in her class. Her parents suggested she should become a teacher, then the only career open to women. She refused to consider it; she had made up her mind to be an engineer! At 14 she attended classes at a technical school for boys. After a year she switched to biology and finally decided to take a degree in medicine.
“Impossible,” Professor Guido Baccelli, dean of the medical school at the University of Rome, told her. But in the end, she gained admission, won a scholarship, and helped to pay her own way by private tutoring. Her father, deeply disapproving, refused to speak to her for years.
As the only woman in the medical school she had to put up with taunts and torments. But she got her degree. She joined the university's psychiatric clinic, where one of her duties was to visit the city's lunatic asylums to pick subjects for study.
In those days defective children were classed with - and housed with - the insane. In one asylum La Dottoressa (as she was often called) saw such children herded together in a bare room like prisoners. "Look at them," said the matron in disgust. "When their meals are finished, they throw themselves on the floor like animals in search of crumbs.“ My mother watched. With shrill and incoherent cries, the children stretched their hands out for scraps of bread which they kneaded into different shapes.
With a flash of insight my mother saw that what these children craved was not so much food as experience. Those little hands were groping for contact with the world! Some inner power was propelling these children to try and develop body, mind and personality. Instead of being isolated and restrained they should be liberated. But how to reach them?
Dr. Baccelli, now Italy's minister of education, invited Maria to lecture on the education of the feebleminded. As a result of the public interest aroused, he founded an experimental state school for defective children - with Dr. Montessori in charge. "So, after all," joked Dr. Baccelli, "you are still only a woman and a kindergarten teacher!"
"My dear idiots," was how Mother referred to the children in her diary. All day long, from eight in the morning to seven at night, she spent with children society had given up as hopeless - observing, experimenting, "fanning the little flame of intelligence I saw in their eyes." After two years of intensive work, she entered her pupils for a normal state-school examination. The "dear idiots" showed that they were not hopeless after all. In fact, many did as well in the tests as normal children.
When the news was published, it made a sensation. But Mother, with rigorous detachment, saw that the real significance was not that defective children could accomplish so much, but that normal children were doing so little better.
Visiting state schools, she found that everything possible was done to discourage the child's initiative. Pupils were forced to sit on benches so close to the desks that they had to bend and twist their bodies to slide in. Once locked in place, they supposedly couldn't help listening to the teacher. Highest credit went for sitting still; the slightest movement was severely punished. "Our moral sense seems to be in the seat of the trousers," she told a group of educators and public officials.
Children's Houses. After launching the school for deficient children, Mother returned to the university and eventually was appointed professor of anthropology. Seven years passed before she found her life's work. A private housing project had taken several hundred poor families out of a dirty, over-crowded tenement and put them in more adequate houses. But while parents were away at work and older children at school, the younger children under six ran wild. It was decided to start a kindergarten, and Dr. Montessori was asked to take charge. She accepted at once. Here was her long-awaited chance to try out her ideas on normal children.
Her Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) opened in the notorious San Lorenzo slums. "Sixty tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; dejected, uncared-for, pale, under-nourished children who had grown up in dark hovels without anything to stimulate their minds.” That is how my mother described her charges on their first day together.
During the next two years, these “little vandals”, as one reporter called them, were to help my mother revolutionise education. Instead of imposing arbitrary rules and pounding facts into their heads, she looked for ways of releasing their independence.
Her first step was to free the children by civilizing them. “Teach the importance of doing even the smallest task well,” Mother admonished her teachers. “Then give them freedom to choose their activity and indulge in it as long as they like.” Montessori children learned to blow their noses quietly, wash their hands, tie shoelaces, polish their shoes, fasten belt buckles, and pour water or milk without spilling it. “Self-reliance and self-discipline,” she wrote, “are outward signs of healthy inward functioning.” Sigmund Freud once remarked admiringly that children trained in the Montessori spirit were bound to make poor customers for psychoanalysis later in life.
Recognising that it is through the senses that a child develops his intelligence, Mother devised learning aids to give him the feel of a subject through direct experience with tangible objects. Using identical pieces of wood painted in different colours, the child learns to grade colours from lightest to darkest. Sorting out bells which look exactly alike but produce different tones, he discovers musical notes and relates them to a scale. (Most of today’s educational playthings are inspired by the learning aids Mother devised over half a century ago.)
“I Can Write!” In Mother’s view, three was not too early for a child to begin getting the feel of letters cut out of sandpaper, one of her many devices. One day, one boy, drawing with a crayon, wrote mano (hand). At the top of his voice he yelled, “I can write.” Children and teacher gathered round him full of surprise and enthusiasm. And then, one by one, some of the other children began to write also, shouting, “Me too,” “Me too.” Nobody had taught them. All Mother had done was to let the child work in a specially prepared environment, one in which he could make his own discoveries, and arrive at concepts through his own concrete experience.
At the Casa dei Bambini, children learned to write four or five months before they learned to read. One day, in a class of children who had begun to write a little, Mother wrote on the blackboard, “If you can read this, come up and give me a kiss.” Several days passed and nothing happened. “They thought I was writing on the blackboard for my own amusement, just as they did,” she said. “Then on the fourth day a tiny mite of a girl came up to me, said, “Eccomi,” (“Here I am”) and gave me a kiss.” By four or five, most of the children in the Casa dei Bambini were reading and writing.
The school revealed something else: that it is not fear of punishment or hope of reward that motivates a child, but the sheer satisfaction of the work itself. The children were released to do what was in them - and the greatest reward was going on to the next stage.
War Closes In. In the years following the publication of Mother’s first book on education, The Montessori Method, in 1912, her principles of teaching the very young were adopted by many schools in Europe and the United States. Later, with the rise of totalitarianism, they came under attack. In Germany and Austria, the Nazis burnt her effigy over pyres of her books. Mussolini tried to exploit her fame, then turned against her when she refused to serve his propaganda ends. The schools and institutes she had founded were closed by the government.
“Mario,” she said, “we must realise that this was the only way God could make us understand that we had done enough here and that He needs us elsewhere.” And at 64 Mother left Italy to establish new headquarters in Barcelona**.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, I was in London and Mother was alone in our Barcelona house with three of my children. Trucks manned by Loyalist militia roamed the streets, arresting suspected Franco sympathisers. Feelings ran high against Catholics, and to be Italian as well increased the danger.
A truck stopped in front of our door. The armed milicianos who occupied it looked intently at our house. As my older son told me later, Mother turned away from the window and gathered the children. “Some day,” she said, as calmly as she had explained the earthquake to me, “everyone must die. For some it will come sooner than to others. We are going to pray now and ask God to guide us wherever we must go.”
Then came the sound of a truck pulling away. My son went downstairs and cautiously looked out of the front door. The men had gone, but they left a sign. Written in red paint was the notice: “Respect this house; it belongs to a friend of children.” It was signed with the communist emblem: the hammer and sickle.
In country after country, war closed the Montessori schools. After escaping from Spain on a British gunboat, Mother set up headquarters in Amsterdam. A call came from India, and we went to help train teachers. Italy entered the war while we were there, and though we were interned as “enemy aliens,” Mother carried on her teaching.
Call to Africa. After the war, now in her 70’s, she returned to Europe. Once more her ideas were eagerly sought after, and Montessori schools and training centres flourished again. She spent much time reading and writing in our family seaside house in Holland’s tulip belt at Noordwijk aan Zee.
One day in May, at the height of the tulip season, I lunched with her before a window commanding a panorama of flowers and sea. I told her that I had met an official of Ghana, which was soon to become independent and desperately needed schools. He wanted Mother and me to help teach the teachers.
“If any children need help, it is those poor children of African countries,” Mother said. “Certainly, we must go.”
I reminded her of the heat, the primitive living conditions. After all, she was 81.
“So, you don’t want me to come!” she scolded me gently. “Some day I may go and leave you behind.”
“You will never go where I cannot follow,” I told her, repeating that childhood boast of long ago.
I left the room to find the map of Africa in an atlas. When I returned, Mother was dead. She would have gone to Ghana, or any other place where children needed her.
* Maria Montessori was not the first female physician of Italy.
** Her residence was initially established there in 1917.
AMI would like to thank Reader’s Digest for their courtesy when we asked for permission to share this with our community on the occasion of Maria Montessori’s 150th birthday. Copyright © 1965, published with permission of Trusted Media Brands, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.