The Tale of Miriam

By Don Henchel, Upper Elementary Teacher

Many many years ago in the 1980s when I was younger than all the parents in my Children’s House (aka PRIMARY) classroom, I had my first, and maybe best lesson in being patient.

I had been teaching just a few years. All I knew was still based on my Montessori teacher albums. I thoroughly believed that when presented with the beautiful materials, any child would be drawn into the mystique of Montessori instantly. This is when I first met the memorable 3-year-old, Miriam. Miriam had few wisps of curly hair, some freckles, and big blue eyes. She was extremely shy and spoke rarely, then only to my assistant Pam. One of the first days of the school year, she appeared to be rooted to the swings on the playground. When I told her it was time to go inside her eyes welled up. She finally walked into the classroom very slowly.

Miriam entered the room with vigilant trepidation – always near the door, ready to run, hands behind her back. She would NOT sit down. Over the course of the first few months, no matter how we gently urged her, she still circled the classroom, never sitting. This behavior continued day in, day out only with the rare break of sitting with a small wooden bird puzzle that we placed on a table, which she only looked at, sadly. Miriam, mostly silent, would keenly observe other children doing their daily activities and witness them getting small group lessons and repeating the work on rugs or tables.

After some time, she spoke a few words to her peers, made some friends but continued the daily routine of watching patiently. Pam and I held our breath hoping beyond the edges of our patients for Miriam to sit with the small groups and join in. Yet she persisted for months, then years passively watching all the activity around her. Eventually, my instincts told me that this was in fact her way of learning.

One day, she began to ever so slightly smile as she walked around the room, this was in her Extended Day year (the MCS equivalent of her Elder Year). Her smile broadened until she took her first work off the shelf and began to lay it out and complete the given task perfectly. Over the course of the last few weeks in Children’s House, she circled the room again and again. Only this time she chose work after work, on either a rug or a table repeating the lessons exactly how it was given. She proved to me that given the chance to learn her own way and on her own timetable, she was perfectly content doing so.

This was a fascinating example of her natural sense of freedom and of pushing my patience to its endpoint, with a beautiful result that I’ve never forgotten.