In the Montessori tradition of education being a learning experience for both child and adult, this is a brief story about growth – a student’s, and my own.
A few years ago I taught a boy named Derek, a difficult yet bright and caring 12-year-old on the Asperger’s spectrum. Derek could be challenging, to say the least. For example, one day at school we couldn’t find him for over an hour; turns out he had hid himself in a closet because he believed “no one would even care if I were gone!” (Oh boy, that was a scary mess. I remember the experience like it was yesterday!) Despite all of Derek’s “issues”, he was a thinker, and a young man who felt deeply. While his unpredictability and outbursts in class brought out insecurities in us nascent teachers who were (wrongheadedly) craving control, his inquisitive nature and kind heart reminded us of why we chose to be in the field of education in the first place.
Well, that was Derek. And one night after school, I received the following email from him:
Begin forwarded message:
From: Derek ****** <******@yahoo.com>
Subject: I’m sorry
Date: April 23, 2008 at 6:11:14 PM PDT
Ever since I had a breakdown… and er… hid the tests… It felt like you didn’t talk to me as much so I thought you didn’t like me anymore, when I still really looked up to you.
You know, this would probably be impossible for me to say in front of you because I would probably… you know beak down. In fact I’m kind of teary right now (I can’t help it – medical problem).
So um… I was wondering if you could forgive me and… You know, let me be one of you best bud students again.
Because uh… (this is really embarrassing) it broke my heart to think that (super embarrassing) one of my role model people that I greatly looked up to umm, hated me.
So I kinda hope you understand… And I also want you to know how much I look up to you as my role model.
Err.. and please respond (by email).
So what was I to do?
Being a fairly new teacher, I was at a loss, especially since in the early years of LePort’s Upper Elementary/Junior High program we weren’t supposed to email students. I couldn’t get ahold of our Head of School to ask for her advice (Ms. Lindsay Journo, the HOS, was our guru back then!), so I just made a decision. I knew Derek was hurting, and unnecessarily so, and I also knew what I would have wanted to hear at his age, in his situation. So I spoke from the best within me, to the best within him:
From: Jesse McCarthy <******@aol.com>
Subject: Re: I’m sorry
Date: April 23, 2008 at 10:49:30 PM PDT
To: Derek ****** <******@yahoo.com>
As a rule, I do not reply to student emails, so this will be the only time I break my rule. (If you’d like to know why, feel free to ask me at school.)
Although I was disappointed with your decision, I was never very angry, and I definitely never got to the point of hating you. In fact, I love having you as a student, and I can’t wait to befriend the great man I believe you will become.
Although you have chosen to express your feelings by email instead of in person, it takes a strong individual to do even that! (I was much older than you are now before I was able to share my feelings with those I cared about.) In the future, if you think I’m angry, or bitter, or whatever, just ask me and I, in all likelihood, will tell you how I’m feeling.
And although I think it’s admirable that you are working on being able to becalm yourself when needed, I also think it’s natural and healthy to get teary eyed when talking about something that really affects you, so there is no shame in that. I’d rather have you the way you are, Derek, than as some phony “macho man” who tries to hide his real feelings.
All my best,
Now why am I sharing this exchange?
For one, it has stayed with me all these years and has remained one of the proudest moments of my career. But my main purpose in sharing is, ironically enough, the lack of impact my words seemingly had.
Despite what I envisioned the next day would look like (i.e., a completely new Derek, maybe a big hug and an equally big thank you, matched by a consistently kind, calm, and cool demeanor) – the reality was that Derek was the same confused, compulsive kid as before. Nothing had changed.
Instead, the next year and a half or so with Derek remained rocky. Some days he was the best student one could imagine: insightful, always seeking clarity, sweet, helpful, creative, super productive – I could go on and on. Other days, however, things weren’t so rosy. He’d occasionally not turn in work and be aggressive when asked about it. He’d get in intense arguments with other students, even at times with guides. And every now and again he’d just do really strange things, like when he came to school one day with no shoes on! (A bewildered guide asked him why he was wearing only socks, to which he classically retorted: “What, is there a school rule that we have to wear shoes?”)
By the time Derek graduated, I felt we hadn’t truly reached him. Actually, I felt I hadn’t reached him. I failed this boy. I knew I had accomplished a lot, but not where it mattered. He was still unpredictable, and definitely not academically or emotionally stable. He hadn’t grown, at least not as I had wanted him to grow.
Fast-forward to about a year later, at a big alumni event. I was chatting with one of the many parents in attendance, when I noticed off to the side there was Derek, a much more mature looking Derek, actually. He was waiting around a little nervously, so I said: “Hey, Derek, great to see you! Do you want to talk?” He gave a nod, and we walked off.
Eventually, through some tears, Derek apologized for all the trouble he had given me and the other guides, and said that he cherished his time at LePort, that we deeply affected him. Later, Derek excitedly spoke about how well he was doing: He wanted to tell me about school, about his new friends, about all the fun he was having on the weekends! I was so happy for him. So happy. And in that moment it hit me: Derek had grown tremendously, but without us… without me.
That day I learned firsthand a cornerstone of Montessori philosophy and a core of LePort pedagogy and culture: Real growth is fundamentally personal, and it does not occur overnight.
Although we as guides (and administrators) can help children immensely, as a few of us did back then with Derek, ultimately every child creates himself, and on his own schedule. As Maria Montessori so eloquently put it: “[T]he goal sought is not an immediate one – not the hike – but rather to make the spiritual being capable of finding his way by himself.”
On my most challenging days as an educator, I still think of Derek. I think it’s not about this brief moment with the child in front of me, when I’m struggling to calm an angry 7-year-old girl throwing a tantrum, or to help a seemingly dazed 7th grader regain focus. (For those guides and assistants working with our youngest ones, I can only imagine the challenges you face, e.g., trying to soothe what at times can seem the unsoothable.) It’s about the long run, each unique child’s whole life.
Thanks to Derek, my own most uniquely difficult student, I grew. He helped me to see firsthand that our job as educators is just the beginning of a lifelong journey, in which a child’s growth continues after he leaves our school … and, in fact, never ends.