Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer's day,
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.”
Don McLean, Song, “Starry, Starry Night”
The phone rang in another day to be spent at Montessori. Working with little kids a few days before Thanksgiving was a little unnerving, getting exposed to their dripping noses and phlegmy coughs. As it is, it’s nearly impossible for all four of us to trudge to New York this time of year without bringing some virus along. I knew I’d spend the day popping vitamin C. With each sneeze and cough, I planned to hold my breath. And with each zipped zipper, tied shoelace, and touched “work”, I’d wash my hands, even if the frequency caused my skin to crack.
I wound up repeating these phrases throughout the day:
“Please cough into your elbow or you’ll make other people sick.”
“Please take your finger out of your nose. Then go wash your hands.”
“Please go wipe your nose. Then go wash your hands.”
One of the first things I noticed in the classroom is that the pushpins were back from last spring. There are a couple of trays, each with a square of felt and a pushpin. The teachers’ job is to trace puzzle pieces of continents (for three-year-olds) and countries (for four and five-year-olds) on paper. Then the students use the pushpins around the outline, until the tracing can be popped out. Watching a bunch of them, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of pictures of immigrant children doing piecework in the lower east side during the late 1800s and early 1900s, like my grandmother used to do. It also made me recall the poor grandmothers being forced to sew in a nursing home sweatshop in the movie “Happy Gilmore”. One three-year-old said it was “hard” and made him “tired”.
A few times, I was convinced that time stood still when I’d glance at the clock, sure the minute hand hadn’t budged. As I made my way from table to table and mat to mat, making sure that all students were working, I began to believe that the morning would never end. To make the minutes less depressing, I kept stopping at a picture of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which may be my favorite painting in the world. I’ve always admired Van Gogh’s thick brushstrokes, which seem to be at their finest in that picture. The swirls of sky appear to be ocean waves, which combine the serenity of the ocean with the hush of the night sky, while the vibrant yellow moon and bursts of stars illuminate the scene.
I hate to admit this, but I touched the actual painting when I was a teenager, when visiting the MOMA (Modern Museum of Art) in New York City. I think I went with my father and sister, but I’m not sure. The only thing that stands out that day was Starry Night. The picture appeared three-dimensional with the thick gnarled paint. It was probably a rare moment when admirers didn’t surround the painting. I quickly glanced left and right, and then without much premeditation, briefly caressed it. It was amazing. But I felt guilty – if everyone did that, the picture would be destroyed.
I don’t know if it was because of people like me, or people worse than me who would try to harm the painting, but the last time I visited, the MOMA, the picture was behind glass. I was disappointed and relieved that painting was protected. Even though I was older (though perhaps not wiser), I don’t know if I could've resisted molesting the picture again. So I wanted to, but was glad that I couldn’t be tempted.
I am not usually an impulsive person. Rather, I feel like I’m constantly tempering other people’s impulsiveness. As a mother, I’m often placed in the thankless situation of having to discipline my children. As a teacher, I must encourage exemplary behavior from students, regardless of age. On a day spent with three to five-year-olds, more time is needed controlling impulsivity. But recalling that I had touched Starry Night, as I studied it in the bland Montessori classroom, made me once again feel for the little ones. Still, I had to nag:
“You need to find work to do.”
“Please get a mat for your work.”
“Please clean up your work.”
“Please don’t throw your food in the cafeteria.”
“You need to stay on your mat during naptime.”
“Why did you mix the red Play-Doh and yellow Play-Doh when they are
supposed to be kept separate?”
Who was I to judge them since I’d illegally manhandled an invaluable work of art? So, when four children took the separate containers of Play-Doh that were to be used to mold into the shape of a color-coordinated continent, but it had degenerated into pretending they were cooking, I pretended not to notice. Obviously, I appreciated the fun of tactile stimulation. And I’d rather pretend to be forming faux food than molding clay into the shape of a continent. Since the painting easel was off-limits because the students hadn’t had a “lesson” to introduce them on how to paint properly, this was as close as they would get to demonstrate some creativity.
What would Vincent Van Gogh have been like if he’d been a product of Montessori? Would he have been less crazy? Would he have been a great artist? On both counts, I doubt it.
To view my favorite painting: