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Vero Beach Magazine, February 2004, Volume VII, Number 2, pp. 35 – 38
By John Parkyn

Reprinted with the permission of Vero Beach Magazine

Today, there are Montessori schools on every continent of the planet except Antarctica, and they all use the teaching methods devised by Maria Montessori. Yet Maria was a strong-willed young woman who had absolutely no desire to be a teacher.

Her own experiences at school had been far from happy. Living in 1880’s Rome with her well-to-do accountant father, Alessandro, and mother, Renile, she attended a typical upper-class school of the time. It was, she would recall later, an agonizing experience in which the students sat on hard benches in dreary classrooms, memorizing facts and repeating them, parrot-fashion, to their bored teachers.

Maria’s first ambition was to be an engineer - an unheard of profession for a young woman in 19th century Italy. Over her father’s objections, she enrolled at a technical school in Rome but found the atmosphere repressive. One of only two women, she was forbidden to speak to the male students and had to sit at the back of the classroom so she wouldn’t be a “distraction.” At recess, she and the other girl were isolated in a room with a guard on the door.

Maria graduated with honors from the institute, but by now had decided that she would rather become a doctor. There were no female doctors in Italy at the time, and when her father refused to discuss the matter, she applied without his knowledge to the University of Rome medical school.

When she was rejected because of her gender, she enrolled in pre-med classes. At age 21, she graduated with an eight out of 10 average, but was still refused enrollment at the medical school. Defiantly, she wrote letters to educators all over Italy, even sending one to the pope. Her persistence paid off, and in 1892, at age 22, she became the University of Rome’s first female medical student.

Her early days at the college were worse than her experiences at the technical school. Male students openly insulted her, and she was not allowed to attend classes that would involve her viewing or dissecting bodies with the men - even though the bodies were dead. Instead, she had to work alone with the cadavers in the evenings.
Gradually, her sheer persistence, and the recognition of her abilities, won over her male classmates. It also didn’t hurt that she had developed into a striking beauty. Further help came when the medical school’s directors assigned her to work at a children’s hospital. Though their motive was to avoid her having to deal with the bodies of adult men and women, it pointed Maria in the direction that would make her world-famous.

At 25, she graduated as Italy’s first female doctor of medicine. She began practicing on her own and, because of her experience at the children’s hospital, many child patients were referred to her. As her practice grew, so did her interest in children’s emotional problems. Soon, her ability to help sick and disturbed youngsters had become well known in Rome, and she decided to specialize in child welfare. She enrolled as an assistant in a clinic so she could observe mentally disabled youngsters. She was appalled that they were given nothing to stimulate their minds - no toys, no puzzles, no pencils or paper - instead being left to wallow in the filthy conditions surrounding them.

Maria began studying the writings of two French doctors, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin, who had published several books expounding their theory that backward children needed special education rather than medical treatment. She became a devotee of their work and wrote a series of articles for Italian newspapers and magazines. In 1898 the chance to test her theories arrived when the Rome authorities began planning a school to train teachers in educating mentally disabled youngsters. The school was to be largely based on the theories of Itard and Seguin, and tuition would include a practice school housing 22 backward children. As a leading exponent of the French doctors’ writings, Maria was invited to become a co-director of the school and joyfully accepted.

Maria’s new job brought unexpected, and very personal, complications to her life. Her co-director was a charming physician named Guiseppe Montesano. Within a year of the school’s opening, the two had fallen in love, and in 1899 Maria secretly gave birth to Montesano’s child, a son she named Mario. In 19th century Italy an out-of-wedlock birth, especially among professionals, would create a huge scandal. So, in the manner of the time, Mario was sent to be raised by a discreet family in the country, and Maria would visit him as often as she could. She and Montesano never married, apparently because of disapproval by their families.

Maria’s work with Montesano convinced her that her belief in the works of Itard and Seguin had been justified. Putting their theories into practice, she worked with the 22 children on a one-to-one basis. To give vent to their senses, she would walk with them in the school gardens to see and smell the flowers and listen to the sounds of nature, and handed them small objects to develop their sense of touch. Soon she was providing them with objects in the shapes of the alphabet, so they could experience the feel of a word rather than learn it parrot-fashion from a book. To everyone’s amazement, many of the children began to show an interest in reading and writing. Some of her students progressed so rapidly that, after a couple of years, they were able to take the public school exams with normal children.

In 1901, Maria_s personal life again intruded on her work. That year, Dr. Montesano married another woman, and Maria, heartbroken, decided it was time to move on. She became a professor at the University of Rome _ and again, an opportunity occurred unexpectedly. In a notorious Roman slum called San Lorenzo, the authorities were trying to clean up the area by building new housing for the poorest citizens. But the experiment was being threatened with disaster because children who were too young for school regularly went on rampages, smashing fountains and windows and throwing debris on the newly paved streets.

In desperation, the housing officials asked Maria if she would be interested in supervising a classroom for pre-schoolers _ one of the first known examples of day care. She agreed, figuring it was an ideal opportunity to prove her theories with underprivileged but otherwise normal children. Her friends were appalled. Why give up a prestigious position with the university to work in a slum? Support came from an unexpected source, her father, now retired, who had become extremely proud of his brilliant daughter. With his encouragement, she decided to go ahead with her plan. The Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) opened in 1907. Maria equipped the classroom with small chairs and tables that were light enough for the children to move around, so they would not feel constricted. Shelves, closets and wash basins were all placed at a height suitable for two- to six-year-olds.

Following the methods she had used with the mentally disabled, Maria devised games that would allow preschoolers to learn by using their senses, rather than listening to a teacher. One game was a form of poker, with one child “dealing” small tablets of varying colors and hues. Players would ask for a particular color and would then collect all eight of that color. A race would then ensue to see who could first place their tablets in shades going from light to dark.

Maria and her assistants also began making letters out of sandpaper, enabling the children to trace the rough letters with their fingertips. Gradually, they learned that each shape represented a different sound. After learning to write, they began to read.

As the months passed, the scruffy waifs became well behaved and eager to learn. At the start of each day, they would wash themselves at the low-placed basins and clean their teeth, with the older ones helping the two- and three-year-olds. Later, they would take turns serving lunch.

In 1908, a second school opened in Rome, and schools using Maria’s techniques began sprouting up all over Italy. Though some of them were designed to help the mentally disabled, the vast majority appealed to parents who were seeking a new, less-repressive style of education for their children. Inevitably, they became known as Montessori schools.

With so many people asking questions, Maria began writing down her teaching methods, which evolved into a primer called The Montessori Method. Soon, Montessori societies were being formed across Europe and Maria decided that she would devote the rest of her life to teaching other teachers. When her mother died in 1912, she brought her 13-year-old son, Mario, to live with her, though, for propriety_s sake, he was introduced as her nephew. The following year, Maria visited the United States for the first time. In 1911, great interest had been aroused in her work, when an American magazine, McClure_s, published an article about the Montessori method. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell read the story and offered Maria his support if she would come to New York.

In 1913, Maria arrived in Manhattan to a hero’s welcome organized by Bell and the magazine. After drawing sellout crowds to her lectures in New York and Chicago, she was invited to establish and teach at a newly formed Montessori Institute, which would include classes for the deaf and mentally disabled as well as for other children. Maria was tempted but refused, partly because she knew that immigrating with her “nephew” to the U.S. might uncover the secret she had kept for so long.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Maria moved to Spain, which was not involved in the hostilities. Mario, who had married an American expatriate, Helen Christie, joined her in Barcelona, where he and his wife began raising a family of four children. While exiled in Barcelona, Maria continued to supervise the expansion of her empire. After the war, she returned to Italy at the request of the country’s new strong man, Benito Mussolini, but was horrified to see preschoolers in fascist uniforms playing war games. When Mussolini ordered all teachers to take an oath of loyalty to fascism, Maria instructed her staff to refuse. Mussolini then closed down the Montessori schools and Maria returned to Barcelona.

In 1936, violence again caught up with her when the Spanish Civil War began. She and Mario, by now her manager, moved to Amsterdam. After four years, they had to flee yet again when Hitler_s armies invaded Holland. This time, Maria headed for India, where she had received many invitations to teach her methods, and stayed there for the remainder of World War II. In 1946, mother and son finally returned to Holland.

Now in her mid-70s, Maria’s boundless energy was beginning to ebb. But she kept traveling around the world until her death in Holland at 81. Quite overweight, she collapsed and died while visiting a school in the village of Noordwijk. She was buried in the Catholic cemetery there, following her instructions that she should be buried wherever she died.

Though she had never publicly acknowledged that Mario was her child, her will revealed everything when she left her entire estate to Mario, mio figlio – “Mario, my son.” But her greatest legacy is the thousands of schools around the world that bear her name.

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