Having grown up in Ireland and worked in both private and publicly funded Montessori schools for twenty years, I came back to Europe a few years ago, where I initially worked in a private preschool. Co-incidentally, the summer of my arrival in Vienna occurred alongside the arrival of many thousands of refugees into this city. Many moved on to Germany, Sweden and other countries, while a significant number of these families have stayed here in Austria.
I was intrigued by this phenomenon and first encountered Vienna’s refugee community along the floors of the Westbahnhof train station, where many often stopped for temporary rest. The urge to become more familiar with them and learn their stories prompted me to pursue engagement with some of the agencies that exist here in order to support them. Over the past two years, I have volunteered with Station Wien, as an English language tutor for teenagers who are embracing English as, in some cases, a fourth or fifth language. My weekends are enhanced by free play experiences provided to refugee children through the commitment and energy of Let’s Play Vienna; we visit various centers on a rotating basis and engage children of varying ages and abilities in collaborative games and creative craft projects.
Volunteering now takes up most of my time, and I learn so much from the young people I encounter. Most are seeking asylum here. Many others are language students, are Austrian-born, and continue to experience the challenges of living within a cultural minority in a large European city. The process of integration is complicated and calls for all parties involved to participate in order to achieve the best possible outcome. My Montessori training has enabled me to trust in the power of observation and to learn from the insight it provides. I work and play alongside these young people. I listen to them. And, of course, I love them. They are, each one of them, a hope and a promise for our future.
My relationship with the Montessori philosophy continues through a new project, Phonetic Planet, which seeks to promote early literacy through engagement with nature. You can find out more about that on our website www.phoneticplanet.org . A portion of our profits is dedicated to literacy-based projects around the world.
Susan Shea, @phoneticplanet
Blue, Blue Heart
He was only halfway through the process. There were hundreds of little plastic beads that needed to be lined up according to a prescribed pattern, with the final step calling for a hot iron to run over the top and merge them together in a work of supreme art.
I was only halfway sure of his question. Unlike him, I am still navigating a beginner level of German while he has taken on this, his third language, with the alacrity of youth. I guessed right, however. The beads were becoming a little overwhelming, especially when they popped out of place and raised the overall frustration level just a tiny bit. Yes, of course, I was happy to help.
He was making a heart, with purple around the outside and deep blue in the center. We chatted a little as we worked, with him displaying the look of amusement to which I am now accustomed once he discovered that my German is so weak. I offered something to make up for it, explaining that I am working hard to learn Arabic.
His face only displayed amusement for a brief second at that disclosure.
A lifetime in Montessori environments has convinced me that our work, like our lives, is all about the process and less about the product. When I give in to the mindfulness of the moment, I can find within myself the patience to do many things that seem tedious to others. (Sometimes, although admittedly not frequently, I can even apply this to housework.) When I am in the presence of children, however, I am drawn into an awareness of the present moment with almost singular focus. In this case, I followed the boy’s lead until we had filled in every gap. Sometimes the little beads popped out when the table shook from the vibrations of small, weathered hands as they engaged in an animated card game, punctuated by cheers and occasional tears.
We persisted, barely making eye contact, but understanding through the work of our hands that we needed each other in order to reach our common goal. It was a beautifully relaxing thirty five minutes. I will never forget that shade of blue.
The cold blue heart was treated to a warm iron in due course, bringing our collaboration to an end. The result surprised him at first, being almost too hot to handle. Later, as he held it close to his own, his thoughts wandered a little before he looked me square in the eye. “No Mama,” he said, “No Papa.” It is difficult to think of a response when a ten year old boy makes an announcement like this.
I could only look at his beautiful face.
He decided that I should keep the blue heart, and I do. I am honored to keep this gift on my work desk. It reminds me of the fragility of a child’s heart, and of the long process involved in building trust with other people. It inspires me to think of the power of any collaborative process, and of the patience and care needed to care for a human heart.
“I want to give you a present for helping me,” he said eagerly, “but I don’t know what. Do you like water?”
I hoped that my smile conveyed my thoughts. “Absolutely, my friend.”
He was back in a flash, with a full glass.
Have you ever noticed that when a child offers you a glass of water, they want to make that glass as full as it can be. I believe there’s a metaphor there.
“Shukran,” I said, and he chuckled.