You are now graduating from a Montessori High School: prepare yourself for questions. For the rest of your life, this fact will be a curiosity to other people. They will ask you about your schooling, and they probably won’t understand it. Embrace this! If you were lucky enough to be in a Montessori school in your early years, you’ll be able to tell them about the pink tower or the checkerboard or perhaps the big bang lessons. Or maybe you were here at New Gate for week-long Opera planning or research trips or theater immersion weeks. But whatever you remember about your Montessori years, embrace them. Those experiences have helped make you who you are today.
But you’re no longer a Montessori child. So tonight I’m going to give you a few brief suggestions for keeping Montessori in your life – for being a Montessori adult. I want to encourage you to think of your Montessori education not as something that’s done, something that’s over, but as something that is now in your hands to continue pursuing.
About 15 years ago, when I was teaching New Gate middle and high school students not so different from yourselves, we used to have many discussions about what they would need going forward – what would help them be the adults they wanted to be. These conversations about credit cards and college roommates and cooking skills and driving led me to develop what is now called The Competencies Project. It’s like Practical Life for grown-ups. I’d like to share some of that with you today.
You undoubtedly know that “practical life” is an actual curriculum area in Montessori Early Childhood classrooms. It’s that time when tiny humans learn table washing, line walking, and water pouring. Some of you – especially parents – undoubtedly wondered why 3 year-olds were learning silver polishing, an activity they were most certainly not doing at home. But Maria Montessori knew what she was doing when she created these lessons. So, in her honor, I am going to suggest that you continue this Practical Life journey, that you set your sights on new Practical Life skills – adult ones. It’s like the Pink Tower for grown-ups.
These suggestions I am going to offer you today will someday turn your life around. I wager they will have far more impact than the college you do or do not attend or the career path you are or are not successful in. These offerings are much like the Montessori method itself: obscure to outsiders, deceptively simple, yet profoundly significant.
Be forewarned. These first suggestions will make you think I’m crazy. But hear me out.
Take up juggling. Play poker. Compose flower arrangements.
In addition, learn how to:
- Iron a shirt
- Sharpen knives
- Hold a baby with confidence
- Play pool and billiards (and, yes, poker)
- Write a condolence note and attend a funeral in a tradition not your own
- Make a free-standing fire, outdoors, with available materials
- Eat with chopsticks
- Tie a Windsor knot tie
- Orient with a compass
- Unclog a toilet
- Open an IRA
- Use a clock face for telling direction
- Open a bottle of wine with a traditional wine opener
- Call someone you do not know on the actual telephone!
- Drive a manual shift automobile
Okay, you think. But why? What’s the big deal?
Well, how about some more nuanced practical life skills? Can you:
- Make socially appropriate introductions in any setting
- Cook a meal in an unfamiliar kitchen, like someone else’s home, figuring out how to navigate neatly and effectively
- Set up a simple outdoor tent
- Bargain in markets where prices are not stated – which is most of the world
- Entertain a group of six-year-olds for an hour
- Recite a least one poem by heart
- Make change in another currency
- Play a portable musical instrument
Those are very hands-on. But what about things you should know? For example: do you know, without looking them up or consulting an app:
- Five major star constellations
- The significant forms of economic production in four other countries
- The most prevalent health indicators in those other countries
- The basic principles and vocabulary of a few world sports
- The fundamental principles of the major world religions
- The sounds of individual instruments in the orchestra
Before I go on, let’s pause and think about some of these. If you’re like most people, you will have identified a few of these skills you have mastered. And for most of the rest of this list, you’ve thought: why bother? You might say: I’ll never need to tie a Windsor tie. And you would be right. You might also say, And if I do need to tie a Windsor tie, I’ll look it up! You would also be right.
So what good do these do?! Are these just nice party tricks, not things that will turn your life around?
I would argue these competencies, and others like it – I currently have a list of almost 200 – form your foundation, the same way that the Pink Tower and table washing in early childhood provided your foundation then. Remember, three-year-olds don’t really need to know how to stack a pink tower or wash a table! In a way, those too were just cute party tricks for a small child. Yet those lessons opened the door to everything that followed. And you need to continue to open doors – to make your own Practical Life lessons – for a fulfilling and productive adult life.
Continuing to expand your competencies does two things.
First, it provides opportunities for continued mastery. You need to keep making opportunities to say to yourself “Hey, I can do that!” Just resting on your laurels, on the skills you’ve learned, is not enough. You need an active means of stepping outside the familiar, stepping outside your comfort zone of abilities, and mastering the new and challenging. You can’t wait until important, major life challenges come your way. You continue with these small skills – the ones you don’t need – because mastery of those will help give you the confidence to face the real challenges of life.
And second, the experience of learning new skills creates the brain and body architecture you need to master the next big challenges – to be able to do and know the things that are important to you. Someday you’re going to need to learn something hard, or overcome a huge challenge, or just enjoy something new. It is this diverse architecture of experiences – this foundation – that will permit you to do just that.
So I’m telling you to actively continue to develop practical life skills, not just career or academic skills (you’ll be faced with those anyway.) These are the Montessori practical life lessons you’re going to create for yourself.
Let me give you some examples.
One day you’ll see a co-worker busy working a project, but she’s juggling a baby and a keyboard (because that seems to be what a lot of women do). Because you know how to hold a baby, you can walk over and say “how about I take that little one while you finish working?” In that one moment, you will make a new friend for life, you’ll have the amazing sensation of ethereal, soft baby skin next to yours, and you’ll feel like a hero.
Or when you know the major tenets of four world religions and the major export products of a few other countries, think about the insights you’ve gained! You will have a window onto entire populations, plus foreign policy, culture, economics, and you’ll probably know a lot more about why your phone or tee shirt costs what it does, just from those few facts.
And when you can distinguish between the different sounds of an oboe and a clarinet and a flute, you’ll be creating pathways in your brain, you’ll be using your senses in new, unexpected ways – and those pathways and senses will be there when you need them.
These competencies – these Pink Towers for grown-ups – give you the stepping stones for where you want to go, just like that first Pink Tower led you to further learning. Only now you’ll be creating the lessons for yourselves.
So okay, you think, I’ll learn to juggle. I’ll open bottles of wine and start fires and hold babies.
Great. Go for it. But that’s just the warm-up. Here are the big Practical Life skills you’ll want. Even if you ignore all the first ones, you really need these. And they are competencies, skills you can develop, not innate immutable characteristics. There are five.
One, learn to make friends at every stage of life. You’d be amazed at the number of adults who do not feel skilled at this; they literally don’t know how and they don’t talk about it. They just stagnate. You’re very fortunate to come from this supportive school community, this family, if you will. And many of us will always be here for you. But you’re going to change, you’re going to move to new towns, and you’re going to want new friends who are not provided for you, ready-made, at school or work. And you may even outgrow some old friends. You’ll have new interests. How do you find these new people right for you? Where would you start? Do you know? That’s a critical life competency and you can develop it. It will put you in good stead all your life.
Two, identify and manage your social anxieties. Can you keep up a reasonable conversation with a totally new person? You’ll want this on your first day of college or your first new job – in person or online – and for much of life thereafter. You need to be able to walk into a room of new people, calmly, solid in yourself. Social anxiety is everywhere – if you experience it, do not think you’re the only one! The sooner you figure this one out the sooner you will have removed a huge impediment in life. You show me the college student who drinks far too much every weekend and I’ll show you the college student with serious social anxieties. This is a competency; the absence of it is not a character flaw. It is a Practical Life skill for grown-ups.
Three, be able to speak up to defend your personal values. I do a lot of advocacy work for causes I care about. Among other things, I do a lot of advising about gender equity – making the world better by helping everyone see past gender. There’s one issue I get asked the most: how to confront something offensive. People will describe a setting, usually a social setting, where they were told or overheard an offensive remark: perhaps it was openly sexist or homophobic or racist. It made them cringe. And the listener didn’t know what to say or do. We are trained to be polite in social settings, yet how do we bring about changes in attitudes if we remain silent in the face of offensive or unjust comments? Learning what and how to state your own beliefs, appropriately, so you don’t cringe inwardly and don’t alienate people you love – that is a skill you will need. Whatever your strongly-held beliefs might be, you’ll need to learn to talk about them outside the controlled setting of the classroom.
And now, the gold star of Adult Practical Life Competencies: Can you articulate personal vulnerabilities safely and honestly? Because you know why? Stuff happens! Someday, if you’re like the average person, you’re going to have some personal issues. When you’re in college, or later, at some point you will have serious problems you’ll need to articulate and navigate through. We all have problems that come up: mortgages that can’t be met, marriages that dissolve. People find themselves drinking too much. Or maybe a family member is struggling with an eating disorder. This is life! How are you going to cope – with your own issues and those of your friends and family? Have you cultivated people in your life with whom you can share those issues? And this is not just about the dramatic, the cataclysmic. If you’re in the 5th week of college calculus and you have no idea what’s going on and are getting increasingly anxious about failing, can you speak up? You would be amazed at how many people struggle with this. This is a practical life competency. You develop it by learning to find people you trust, by starting with small topics. Let’s be honest, America is a competitive society. People don’t want to reveal perceived weaknesses – they feel it is stigmatizing and will reduce their value, competitively. But that’s not life. For life, you want to practice articulating some problems. It’s a skill you’re going to need and yes, it could have huge ramifications on your future.
And, finally, number five and closely related to four, can you receive vulnerabilities from others? When your roommate turns to you and says, “I don’t have any friends,” or “I can’t make my car payment,” will you be ready? Will you be able to be a listener? Will you understand when to help solve a problem and when to just listen – without making the problem about yourself? Or shying away? Or stigmatizing the person? It takes two to be open. Be the other person.
To sum up, the big five are key – finding new friends, handling social anxiety, speaking up for yourself, being open to vulnerabilities, and listening to them from others. They are competencies – not character traits – and they will, over time, be huge determiners of your life.
And those smaller skills? Those little “unnecessary” skills, like juggling, using a compass, hearing the oboe? Keep building them. They will give you the confidence to do what you want in life, and they will give you the mind and body architecture to make all the other things possible.
So take up knot tying. And fires. And learn new currencies. And practice talking with openness and vulnerability. These skills can be developed and practiced. You can start from exactly where you are. You just have to be willing to be the learner, the skill developer, the Montessori child all your life. I know you’ll do wonderfully
This speech was given at the New Gate Montessori High School Commencement in May of 2021. It is part of a forthcoming book:The Competencies Project – How You Can be a Montessori Adult.