Lynn and I called the principal and asked for an appointment to see the school. We told her about our situation and that we understood her classrooms were full. Maybe next year, we said, with hope in our voices.
The school is a five-minute drive from our house. Right away, the moment we entered the foyer, we knew it was different. Music twinkled out from a stereo on a table in the corner, above a shelf of CDs. A border collie named Ayla chased a toy with bells across the tiles, and a woman came over and helped Lynn and me maneuver our huge double-stroller through the front doors. She was so small and unimposing I thought she was someone’s assistant, or a teacher’s aide. We chatted for a while about the dog, and she told us there was a desert tortoise in a converted janitor’s closet that the children took outside on warm days. Then she introduced herself as the principal.
“I’m Val,” she said, offering a tiny hand.
We walked around. The place looked like a standard-issue public school, with long hallways and glossy, polished floors. But as you walked down the corridors and glanced past doorways, you saw children in mixed age groups working with wooden blocks and tiny beads and plastic tiles and graphs. They were sprawled out on the floors and tables, both in the classrooms and in the hallways, sometimes working in pairs, often just sitting individually. They spoke quietly to one another or with their teachers, who were often hard to locate among the many students in various spots inside the classrooms. Many teachers sat across from a child or two at a small desk, or offered quiet guidance from a spot on the carpet.
I ran into the woman I had seen nearly two years earlier.
“Baby Alchemy,” I said.
“Right,” she answered. We beamed at each other.
Val took us around the school, and what we witnessed was nothing short of a miracle. Were the classrooms crowded? Yes. Did it seem strange to us that first, second, and third graders were together in one room, working collaboratively, let alone quietly and happily? Certainly. It almost felt like a cult. The principal took us up and down the halls, often stopping to say hello to a particular child by name. She showed us the playground and the gymnasium with the children’s drawings on the walls, and we peered briefly into a classroom where the teacher kept a stuffed fox, several bird nests, and other vintage paraphernalia on wooden shelves along every wall.
“Our teachers are here because they want to be,” Val said. “We follow the Montessori model very closely, which means we meet the child where the child needs to be met. We don’t use a system of rewards or punishments. We collaborate. We process. We have some of the poorest kids in the district, but we don’t use any punitive measures to correct behavior. We don’t need to.”
Imagine it. Order flowing from pedagogy, and not the reverse.
The teachers looked like they adored the children. Val touched the shoulders of her teachers, or checked in with them verbally, as they walked by her in the hallway. You got the feeling that it was a very close-knit, supportive, and down-to-earth group of people. Very human.
Lynn asked about the test scores.
Val said, “Our scores aren’t great. Most of our children are poor, and we have a huge population of English language learners, which skews the average.” She went on to say that test scores were not predictors of success, and besides, if she were allowed to receive children at age three rather than five (as she had previously), then test scores would exceed the average for the district.
“But you’ve got to get them young,” she said. “You’ve got to give children the support they need at a very early age in order to ensure success. It’s the only way it’s going to work.”
Lynn and I were amazed we hadn’t heard more about this school. Were people keeping it a secret? And how in the world did she get away with having a dog in the building?
“The district tells us what the rules are,” Val said. “And we close the door, and…” she trailed off.
I’ve worked for supervisors like this before — principals who think outside the box and understand there is one way to navigate the system and another way to actually work within it. This is the way Lynn and I have been thinking our whole adult lives. Our friends, too. It surprised us to find that many schools still have no idea how to be transgressive, how to challenge thoughtless convention or subvert a rule in the interest of a positive, more just outcome.
We asked Val what form of interpretive dance we would have to perform in order to get into this school as soon as possible. She said we had to write a letter to the superintendent.
What if he says no, we asked.
He’ll send me an email, she said. “I’ll need to talk to my teachers. They have 26 children in their classrooms already.
It was so nice to hear that a principal would confer with her teachers. Even if the answer was going to be no, I respected that she wanted to check in with them.
Lynn and I went home and talked for fifty thousand hours.
Will he learn as much there? I asked. Montessori is self-directed. A kid like ours could play with blocks all day and not learn to read.
I don’t care, Lynn said. We’ll teach him to read.
“What if he fools around with the rough kids?” I asked Lynn.
Lynn shook her head. “I don’t care,” she said. The teachers will know what to do.”
What if —
Lynn said, “Did you see those teachers? We just witnessed something transformative. First, there is the vision. After that, everything falls into place. If you have a clear vision, you don’t need to spend all your time hammering down the nails that stick up.” Lynn leveled her stare at me.
“Montessori has always been the enterprise of the private domain,” Lynn told me. “This is a public school using private school methods.” She got up from the sofa to get herself a grape soda. (In real families the parents fix themselves a gin and tonic. In our house it’s a grape soda, preferably with crushed ice.)
“I want our son in that school,” Lynn said.
The telephone rang. We looked at each other.
Go get it, I said.
It’s probably your mother, she said.
It’s probably your mother, I said.
It’s not, she said.
What if it’s Val? I said.
It’s not Val.
But what if it is?
It was Val.
“I just spoke with one of the kindergarten teachers,” Val said. “She recognized Ray from the local pool. She said she’d be happy to add him to her class.”
I don’t know enough about the Montessori method to know if this will be a seamless fit. We feel funny about transferring our son so early in the year where, for what it’s worth, he’s never said he was unhappy. He was getting used to it, and he was doing all right.
He’s going, Lynn said. That’s like a private school education for free, except it’s accessible to everyone. We’re putting in a request for the variance first thing Monday morning.
Ray came into the room.
“Mama,” he said. He was excited. “I only got one Time Out today. My color card was red only once. Most of the time it was just yellow. Which is only a warning,” he explained.
Lynn wanted to know if there were other colors. “What about green,” she asked. “Does anyone ever get green?”
“Yeah, if you’re good,” he said. “You get green.” He looked at us and grinned. “Green means go.”