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On rare occasion, we realize upfront a person is special. Peggie Ann Kilpatrick was such a person.
When our daughter turned three, Bonnie and I decided to place her in a preschool for socialization and early education. Our acquaintances’ children were older, and our daughter had no one her age for company. Finding a good school, however, wouldn’t be easy. State regulations governing preschool operation were loose, to say the least. Employment required little or no professional training or educational background. Many facilities were (and probably remain) so poorly regulated, they were at best safety hazards. Beyond regulations, many, if not most, promoted the teachers’ and owners’ political and religious agendas. Such schools were not for us. We required a secular school that served children without regard to racial, social, cultural, religious, or ethnic group, that reflected community diversity and respected the child and child’s family without promoting ideological agendas.
We began our search with traditional schools, but none lived up to their promotional material, operating more like babysitting services than preschools or kindergartens. So we turned to schools based on alternative teaching methods. Among the few in our area, only one discipline intrigued us—Montessori. Montessori educational method dates to 1907 when Maria Montessori, realizing a desperate need in Italy for a more effective educational system to serve lower income families, opened Casa dei Bambini—the Children’s House—in one of Rome’s low-income districts. Although few U.S.-based Montessori schools today serve specifically low-income families, most encompass Maria Montessori’s methods by centering on whole child development, including the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive aspects, with younger children learning from older children who reinforce what they’ve learned by teaching the younger, a system that mirrors how most people socialize and learn in the world at large. Further, Montessori method incorporates special tools and aids for students to learn and experience through sensory-motor activities to develop cognitive powers such as sound, sight, smell, taste, movement, and touch.
We visited the first Montessori school on a chilly midweek morning. Children ranged from three to five years in age but reflected no cultural or racial diversity. They sat at small tables, engaged in solitary activities, from puzzles to coloring, in a large room that exhibited obsessive attention to order. As the owner spoke with us, a “teacher” drifted around the room, hands behind back, monitoring and instructing kids to do tasks in a certain way rather than encouraging them to explore. What struck us most was the room’s extreme quiet. It was mid-morning with lunch soon approaching, and not one child was talking. It felt uncomfortable. Our daughter expressed no interest when the owner offered to show her some of the activities. We left, disheartened. If this school was representative, how could anyone praise Montessori method as better than Snaggletooth Dorothy’s Backyard Babysitting Service?
The second school renewed our hope somewhat. Kids were more engaged and social, better reflecting Montessori basics, but tuition proved prohibitive for our budget. That’s when we visited Peggie’s school, a converted house that had once served as a restaurant, the main room large, but not cavernous, to accommodate the complete student body when the kids weren’t in smaller, open rooms involved in group and individual learning activities. About twenty-five children—Japanese, East Indian, black, white—engaged in a variety of tasks, assisting and interacting constructively with each other. Without invitation, our daughter squirmed out of my arms, walked over to a table, sat down next to a girl about her age, and began to work on a puzzle.
Peggie—Ms. Peggie—grinned. “Looks like she’s found a home.”
Tuition, though lower than that of the other schools, threatened to exceed our budget, but Peggie was completely open about operation costs, with every penny justified as she ran the school on a shoestring, serving as owner, CEO, lead teacher, curriculum developer, chef, chauffeur, handyman—you name it, Peggie filled the bill. When we did the math, we concluded Peggie had to be a magician. So we found a way to fit tuition into our budget.
Peggie and the two teachers she employed—in particular, Beth Allison Young—engaged every student with respect and positive guidance, loosely termed Montessori Rules, to create a dynamic, cooperative, fun community of little people developing their educational and social skills. Peggie’s Montessori Rules became the foundation for personal responsibility and action that still guides our daughter today, some twenty years later.
Peggie’s grace extended beyond the children to their families. When conservative politicians forced a federal government shutdown in the mid-1990s, they created budgetary havoc in households of federal employees, including ours. Peggie offered to delay tuition payment during that time, something we could not accept. She was overextended already, but her gesture was an example of how she cared for others, how every family whose child attended her school became a part of her own extended family.
As our daughter progressed from preschool into kindergarten, Peggie underwent medical tests that revealed smoking-related lung scarring. By then, she’d lost twenty percent of her breathing capacity due to early-stage emphysema. A week after the medical news, someone sideswiped her on her way to work, putting her car upside down in a ditch. She crawled out through a broken window with minor injuries, lucky to be alive. If parents brought up either the accident or the medical results, Peggie deftly shifted to another subject. She steadfastly refused to burden the school’s parents with her problems.
Shortly before the end of our daughter’s last year with Peggie, a friend and I performed a program of folk songs for the school. The kids enjoyed the show, and Peggie asked us to perform a couple of songs at the upcoming graduation ceremony, the school’s biggest annual event. My friend couldn’t make it, but two other Montessori fathers—Jamie Gauthier and Joe Schartung—joined in to play a song we designed specifically for the event, a blues-rock version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Flustered and flushed when speaking to a roomful of adults, Peggie persevered until she could redirect the spotlight to Beth, a child, or a parent, deflecting praise for herself to others, no matter how much she deserved honor. During this graduation, however, she couldn’t dodge the compliment we fathers built into the song. As Peggie and the kids danced together, we belted out the last verse:
“Young Ms. Peggie has a school, E-I-E-I-O
“And in that school are wonderful kids, E-I-E-I-O
“Well the kids learn here, the kids play there,
“Learn here, play there, grow in Montessori care.
“Oh, young Ms. Peggie has an excellent school, E-I-E-I-O.”
Our daughter remained in touch with Peggie after kindergarten, visiting during elementary, middle, and high school, once to conduct a hands-on juggling presentation for Peggie’s Montessori kids as part of a high school class assignment. Even Peggie tried to juggle. The kids loved it just as they enjoyed most events and activities Peggie arranged, activities that included rudimentary lessons in Spanish and Japanese, a professional clown’s performance, and child-and-parent cultural demonstrations on food and clothing.
Not long after the juggling presentation, Peggie retired, and our contact with her became more sporadic. Shortly before moving to another state a couple of years ago, I bumped into her at a department store. Her emphysema had worsened, and she now required supplemental oxygen, a topic from which she quickly moved with “Let’s talk about that girl of yours.”
Each of us encounters so many people along life’s path, but few have profound and permanent effect on us. Peggie’s influence was broad and substantial as she equipped young children with the tools to build a solid, respectful, moral, productive foundation for success in all areas of their lives. Whether by negligence or design, the Peggies of the world traverse their journeys mostly unrecognized and unthanked. Luckily, we were able to express several times to Peggie our appreciation for all she had done for our daughter. In typical Peggie style, she’d say, “The credit lies with that girl.”
Each day the world loses special people. Everyone is transitory, a brief flicker in the firestorm of time, but some survive death through the reputations they craft in life. Peggie is one of those people. The influence she’s had on hundreds of children and their families will extend for generations to come. The children she taught—and their children and their children—will continue to employ, benefit from, and pass on the values Peggie instilled, the values of Montessori Rules.