One afternoon a few months ago, as I was heading home for the day, my 22 month-old son decided he would prefer to sit down in the middle of the hallway instead of going home. He was not upset. In fact, he was quite content. For whatever reason, sitting down was just what he wanted to do in that moment. He politely declined my invitation to join me, so I walked another 20 feet down the hallway and turned the corner.
As I stood there waiting, I was quite proud of myself that I had called his bluff. He would, no doubt, realize the error in his ways and appear around the corner momentarily, happy to leave. Just then, a third-year elementary student walked over. She saw me standing near the wall, clearly looking out of place. She looked down the hallway to see my son, still sitting with his backpack and lunch box. Happy as could be.
“That’s so cute!”, she said. “He’s just sitting there, waiting…” “He’ll come eventually.” I said. The elementary student clearly sensed the uncertainty in my statement. Without a word, she walked toward my son. I stepped around the corner to watch what would happen. She slowly approached and bent down to his eye level, which was only about 18 inches off the ground at that point, and said “Are you ready to go home?” My son was enamored. He nodded his head slowly, at which point this confident, empathetic, nurturing little leader gently extended her hand. My son accepted her offer, stood up with her and they walked hand-in-hand down the hallway towards us. My wife had appeared in the meantime and we both stood there so proud and moved by what we saw.
Maybe this little story doesn’t sound like anything impressive or even worth noting to most people. So what? An older kid walked a younger kid down a hallway. I suppose one could look at it that way, but I see it differently. These two children did not know each other at all, but I can’t think of a more obvious example of the value of mixed age environments. There was a 7 year age-span between them and yet (or more likely because of this) they cooperated wonderfully together. The elementary student did not exert authority over my son, she did not coerce him, bribe him or beg him. She invited him to join her with genuine respect and friendship. What’s more, I never even asked this child to help. She assessed the situation -one in which she had no obvious reason to involve herself and knew, without any doubt, that she could make a contribution to the moment. And contribute, she did.
These tiny moments add up. For Montessorians, they remind us of the people we are sending out into the world and the contributions they will make. This third-year student is one of them, because she will graduate at the end of this year. And while this is not, by a long shot, the first time she has shown what children can do, it is most definitely not the last. To all of this year’s graduating students, we wish you the best of luck, but we know in our hearts, that you won’t need it.