We Shall Overcome

The first years of my teaching career passed quickly in a Montessori classroom just outside Atlanta, Georgia.  The school was near of Emory University, the King Center for Social Justice, Georgia State University, The Centers for Disease Control, Eggleston Children’s Hospital, and Agnes Scott College.  Culturally and economically, it was an extraordinarily diverse population.  Some of the kids in that class had two parents, some one; some lived with a grandparent. There was not a dominant skin tone – forearm comparison was a great source of fascination and delight for the children. The kids were bright, curious, fun, and at-home with diversity, though they were too young to notice.

Many of the families in that community were eager to explain and share the cultural traditions that were part of their heritage. Each year we enjoyed the company of kids from other nations whose parents were on short-term research assignments at the CDC.  One year we cheered for a classmate as he went through a successful open-heart surgery at Eggleston.  One year we watched in awe as a four-year-old visiting from France mastered English and started reading before she returned home with her doctor parents.

One year, we decided to celebrate Martin Luther King Day by learning to sing We Shall Overcome together.  The words and music were included in the songbook I kept in the classroom.  The kids stood in a circle holding hands and singing, and quickly mastered the first verse. It was time for lunch, so I put the book on a shelf and moved on to help our tired youngest children eat and then nap while one of my assistants watched over the older children.

When I returned two hours later, a group of five and six year old boys and girls were gathered in a circle, in the place I had left them, smiling and singing.  “We taught ourselves all the other verses, Mrs. Rogers!”  they shouted, laughing.  “Come sing with us.  We will teach you.”  They had pulled my songbook off the shelf, read the words to the remaining verses, and memorized them.

That day I was an inexperienced Montessori teacher, but I knew when to pay attention, listen, and respond.  The children did teach me all the words in We Shall Overcome, and they taught their younger peers, with ease and delight.  Later that year they learned and taught us all the words to This Land is Your Land and This Little Light of Mine, using the same songbook, with a little help and a lot of enthusiasm from the adults who watched over them.

None of those children knew how rare it is to have a group of five and six year old children reading so well, with such joy, but they were proud and excited.  They were also too young to know it would not always be uncomplicated to gather in a circle, holding hands with friends who do not resemble each other. They were fascinated and occasionally preoccupied by hair, skin color, and family dynamics, but they were equally obsessed with dinosaurs, construction vehicles, Scooby Doo, and Amelia Bedelia.  After a long and vigorous debate about what the parameters were for their playground pretend-family games, they wisely decided that all family arrangements would be fine, but the designated parents in their pretend families had to be nice to each other.  Kindness, they decided, was the only essential feature of a family.

The events of those years were not great achievements.  Classroom standards of curiosity and broad acceptance are absolutely ordinary in Montessori. Young children thrive in environments of intellectual, cultural, economic, and religious diversity. Discrimination and racism are, sadly, absorbed and learned as we age.  Many Montessori five year olds, if asked, can give specific, accurate information about the families of their classmates.  They can also accurately report who reads fluently, who has memorized all the puzzle maps, who speaks more than one language, and who is vegetarian. Watching them play, though, their knowledge is not apparent.  They chose their best friends with an indiscriminate, energetic desire to talk and play as long and as often as possible.

Young children learn from each other, because they love each other, even when their home environments are dramatically different.  With help and patient attention, children can negotiate peaceful arrangements for playing and working together, even when their heritage is different.  Adults too are changed by our experiences with children, and by our desire to help create a world where our children and our neighbors’ children can feel safe and happy.

Children become true citizens of the world when they grow up in home and school environments where differences are noticed, nurtured and appreciated. That is very good news, especially for parents and teachers who continue to invest our resources in the education of young children.  Our children will be better people when they grow up classrooms where diversity is celebrated.  We can also hope and expect that the knowledge and experience young children absorb in their first classrooms will guide them in their efforts to make our world a much better place.

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