…by Anura Guruge
So how many of you noticed this intriguing icon in Google today? It caught my eye. So I put my cursor on it to see what it signified. Google said: Maria Montessori’s 142nd birthday. Wow. Thank you, Google. I would not have known.
She is a tad older than me, so I didn’t know her personally. But, my father (and to a lesser extent my mother, if she was alive) will maintain that her philosophy of early childhood education molded my life. I personally think that that is a slight over exaggeration.
Yes, when I was about 5 I was sent to a Montessori school in central Colombo. I can still see it clearly in my minds eye. It was airy and very pleasant.
I distinctly remember two things from my year or so at that Montessori school. I had the hardest time mastering how to tie laces using a ‘learn-to-tie-your-laces‘ contraption they had; though you see them readily now, I think that it was ahead of its time in 1958. The teachers told my parents, based on just that inability, that I was a bit slow — and you have to give them full marks for getting that so right, so early in my life.
We also had a large slide on the wrap around front portico. I, observant as ever (especially when it comes to the ladies) and always naive, told my parents, on the way home, one day, that I noticed that the girls wore underwear underneath their skirts and that boys, as was the norm in (the never below) 80°F Ceylon, wore nothing under their shorts — having noticed all of this watching kids come down the slide.
My father, who does have a good sense of humor, laughed. My mother, an out-and-out prude, all her life, was very quiet; shocked. My father is an anecdote machine. So, this Montessori observation by me, at the age of 5, was added to his repertoire and for the next 20 years I would hear him tell various folks about it — around the world: Ceylon, U.K., Buffalo, Paris, Bangkok etc. So, I was never allowed to forget my year (or so) at Montessori. At long last, I did learn to tie laces.
Not really sure whether the Montessori school taught me anything that useful other than that young ladies wore underwear.
Ours was an education crazy household and I was an only child.
My mother was a teacher. Her younger sister, who lived with us (with their mother), was also a teacher. My father, at that time, was Acting Secretary of Education for Ceylon and was busy trying to set up a Buddhist university. I used to spend all my weekends and holidays with an aunt and uncle — who didn’t have any children. On Friday afternoons they would come and pick me up and I would get home Sunday night or Monday morning. Yes, it was just like having divorced parents, but I did this by choice — and had done so since I was about 3.
They, my aunty and uncle, used to come and see me, nearly every day, since I was a baby. He was white, a Baptist and a lawyer — the lawyer for the Food Dept. He dabbled with electric stuff and as such was called by all my cousins ‘Light Mama‘ – essentially electric uncle. None of that for me!
I called him ‘Ta‘, yes, just two words: ‘Ta‘. Had done so ever since I could speak. It was my 2nd or 3rd word. ‘Tatta‘ in Ceylon is ‘father‘. ‘Ta’ is the first two letters. I was a made man! He childless, thought I was the cat’s whiskers. He took me, nearly every day, to see steam rollers and trains. I was told that at lunch time he would drive around looking to see where there were new road works so he could take me to see them later. He was a huge influence on my life. My poor father, he had so much competition for my attention – another uncle, a doctor, also influencing how I grew up. The lawyer’s wife, my mother’s sister, was also a teacher. Actually the Assistant Principal of Ceylon’s largest and most prestigious boys school.
I didn’t have a chance. I was trapped. Between my father, my mother, my two aunts and ‘Ta’ (who taught me all sorts of stuff about mechanical stuff and cricket), there was no escaping. By the time I was three I could read in both Sinhalese and English. So by the time I went to Montessori I was fairly well set — though I couldn’t tie laces or had not unraveled the mysteries of female underwear.
Next to Italy, Ceylon is somehow a cradle for Montessori schools and teaching. I am not sure how or why. I know that my father knows. We were never colonized by the Italians. So I am not sure how Montessori made it to Ceylon. I know so many Montessori teachers from Ceylon — if they are not doctors, the odds are that any Sri Lankan ladies you meet in the U.S. are Montessori teachers.
But, anyway, I am glad that Google gave a chance to document my little past with Montessori.