Public School, Part 5

Public School -- Montessori blocksLynn 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.”


  1. Woohoo!!! Go dogs go, the light is green!!!

  2. John Nathan says:

    Go Ray go !

  3. Matt Wright says:

    What a ride, wow. I’m getting verklempt. You two rock. Tell Lynn. If more parents were as determined and persistent as you everything would be better.

  4. Sounds like you got a green light to pursue this further! I don’t know much about the Montessori method, but it has to be a better system than one in which order is mandated by grabbing and yelling at little kids. I say go for it!

    Oh, one edit: the *converted closet* gets taken outside on warm days? Misplaced modifier, my dear. No charge. 😛

    • Thanks for the comment! Re the misplaced modifier, technically you are right, of course, but the reason misplaced modifiers are problematic is that they can create ambiguity. In this case, the misplacement does not create an ambiguity because no one would interpret the sentence to mean that the children took the closet outside on warm days. And yeah, I could have rewritten around it, but this is a blog post, for pete’s sake, not a formal essay for the Paris Review.

  5. Margot Vane says:

    Verklempt like crazy! Oh so thrilled for Raymie! Go get Lynn a fancy grape soda! And you, go take a nap. Joy has been restored to the universe!!!

  6. I actually fist pumped in the air!

  7. Nico went to Montessori schools through Kindergarten. It really was miraculous how focused and diligent the kids there were. And how proud and pleased they were with their work. I’m very much a believer. Ray will learn to read, don’t worry. The vote of confidence from the teacher who recognized him is great. It means they see Ray as an asset rather than an added burden – and in that case class size isn’t the huge issue that it is in a regular discipline-challenged school. You’ll see the kids doing their own thing and helping one another.

    There’s something about a well-run Montessori school that looks too good to be true. But in our case it turned out to be just too good. It’s a no-brainer Amy, even if it will remove some of the grist from your blog-writing mill.

    • What about my baby Porter? Did that beautiful boy benefit from Montessori?

      Thanks for your comment and the encouragement. I got plenty of other places to mill my grist, believe it, baby. xo ABZ

      • I guess Porter had a brief dose of Montessori when he was 3, but then we moved to Ireland for 3 years where they start regular primary school at age 4. Back in the states he did 2nd and 3rd grade in the local public elementary school, before moving to the private school with Nico. But you know, Porter was one of those kids who did fine with that structured pedagogy. He like rules and knowing what he was supposed to do. He’s also quick to learn and he likes teachers and classes and all of that stuff. The main time we stressed about Porter was 3rd grade when his teacher was retiring and just phoning it in and we could see his passion for school cooling into boredom. Now he’s taken himself off to boarding school in California where surfing and rock climbing count as gym class.

  8. Hooray! A happy ending to this saga and a happy re-start to the school year. Montessori is a great system for most kids and I’m sure your little guy will thrive there. If only this sort of option were available everywhere! Congratulations on finding a good solution for your family.

  9. I utilized our local public Montessori system for my sons. My middle from K-8th and my youngest from age 3 thru 6th (they pulled the montessori middle just last year in favor of a New Tech program). I LOVE the Montessori principals. Being a public Montessori we suffered some ups and down. For a teacher to teach not only three grades at a time, but the very broad spectrum that goes along with a school with a very diverse socio-economic slice . .there are challenges. Mostly presented by the district in regards to certain issues. That being said, I would not have traded their experience there, for any other. I can’t imagine my sons learning in any other environment. I hope this falls in line for you!

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