A couple of weeks ago, I was already having a rough day, not feeling well and extremely tired. As I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I saw a notice posted in my childhood Montessori group that my former teacher, Jo, had passed away.
I got almost irrationally sad about it as I read through her obituary. I couldn’t believe she was almost 80. I still pictured the woman who came to my school in her mid to late 40s. I forget that we all age. And then a lot of memories came flooding back.
Jo started at my school during my 5th grade year, along with a woman named Deanna. Both teachers I’d had for 4th grade had left. There was a new feeling in the air, almost lighter and easier to breathe.
I wasn’t sure about Jo at first. Deanna was perpetually smiling, with a strong Bostonian accent, super long fingernails, and always wrote in calligraphy. Jo, on the other hand, felt more stern and stand-offish, yet had almost a regal air about her. They were total opposites.
I naturally gravitated to Deanna, enjoying a close relationship with her. She was definitely a mentor to me, especially because her focus area was language arts.
As that first year went on, we managed to crack Jo and got the occasional smile or laugh. Her precise instruction in the math area mirrored her deliberate actions in life. We slowly got to know her and actually liked her.
By 6th grade, we were used to the yin and yang of Jo and Deanna and instinctively enjoyed the balance. That year was probably my greatest year in school. I blossomed in language arts, even writing a play that we put on. And then I went nuts in the math area.
Montessori math materials were always among my favorites. Test Tube Division is still one of the coolest things ever. With Jo, we were still doing a lot of small group instruction based on our skill levels. But we were also encouraged to explore on our own.
I had gotten halfway through the 6th grade textbook by the end of 5th grade. In 6th grade, I became insatiable for learning math. I completed the 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade texts by spring. I have vivid memories of coming home every night and working my way through as much as I could. Later, my parents told me that Jo finally begged them to not let me do a chapter a night because she was running out of work for me to do.
Instead, she kept looking for work for me to do. I was introduced to pre-algebra and algebra and finally patterning via mandalas. I did so much work that when I moved to public school in 7th grade, I had already done most of the work in my math classes and was bored until high school.
I’m not sure what Jo did that made me love math so much, other than recognizing that I enjoyed it and just letting me pursue that interest. (Thank you, Montessori.) But it did stick with me and I know that her influence helped to shape my own teaching career.
When I first went to college, my majors were French and Math. I was going to teach in high school. As my courses continued, I started to become somewhat disenchanted with math because we were doing calculus on a computer program that was constantly crashing. I wanted to use my own brain power.
Several people finally suggested I could be better off working with the younger children. After all, I was currently doing After School Care and more at the local Montessori school and did well with that age. I resisted at first, but then switched over to early childhood and elementary education with some additional work in special ed.
In my Montessori training, I fell in love with math all over again, especially when I learned about the brilliance of the materials. I developed an even deeper appreciation for them and could see how they helped me in my later years in math.
Jo’s influence subtly appeared when I was doing my internship. We had a boy who had pretty much mastered all of our math materials by spring of his kindergarten year. I managed to work out getting him some more advanced materials from the elementary classroom.
My first year in the classroom on my own, I taught the afternoon group, including some kindergartners who attended public school in the morning. One of those kids was a boy who was super smart and ended up doing 3rd grade math with me. He had his own cabinet of materials from which to choose whenever he arrived.
I probably had a dozen such kids over the years. People would try to encourage me to hold them back a bit because they “were getting too far ahead.” Whenever I heard that, though, I thought of Jo and how she resisted even having these thoughts herself and just let the kids soar.
Thank you, Jo, for your love of learning and your legacy. May you rest in peace.