The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other
By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Andrea Brown, the founder and head teacher of a tiny Montessori school in Beach Mead on the North Shore, is unusual in her awareness and purposeful use of her early childhood experiences as a way of seeing and interpreting her work with children and their families. In her school, which serves twelve to fifteen children (in two shifts) from three to six years of age, the classrooms and playground are connected to her house, although the boundary between home and school are made clear by the teachers. The classroom has the clarity, structure, and rituals of most Montessori settings I have visited, but it also seems to have Andrea's aesthetic and philosophical imprint. It is filled with children's art (finger paintings, drawings, wooden structures, mobiles, photographs), environmental treasures from adventures and hikes to the ocean and through the woods (shells, birds' nests, rocks, soil samples, pressed leaves), and posters related to Andrea's political interests in peace and justice. It is a child-centered environment filled with evidence of children's creativity, imagination, and perspective.
As soon as I describe to her my work on this book and the copies that I hope we will address in our conversations, Andrea journeys back in time to her early childhood. Her retrospective impulse is immediate, and her story combines a focus on the "primal and passionate" relationship she had with her parents, the "nourishing embrace" of her large and loving extended family, and the broader cultural and historical narrative of a young black girl growing up in a small segregated town in western Pennsylvania. At the center of her story is the idea of a child learning to cope with the pain and promise of "central contradictions," and of a mature and experienced teacher using those early lessons to frame and inform her work with children and their families. Many of the values and perspectives that Andrea carries into her teaching are efforts to redress and undo the haunts and anguish of her childhood. For all the things that adults did-wittingly or unwittingly-to cause her pain as a child, to undermine her self-esteem, she works to do the opposite with her students, and in so doing-as she would put it-"to heal herself." Andrea's voice weaves together past and present, the personal and the political, love and loneliness, and rage and forgiveness.
"I'll start with growing up," Andrea says definitively. "I was horn into a family that was matrilineal ... a family where my paternal grandmother was in charge. I was the beloved first grandchild of the firstborn son, and we lived in an extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins." Her face glows with the memory of the "love bounty." "The message I got from all of these people who surrounded me was that I was special. . . . Aunts held me close and uncles played with me." But more than the pleasure of being so beloved was the fact that their love did not have to be earned. "I didn't have to do anything to be special," she recalls appreciatively. There is something about the way she begins this story-the deep pleasure in her voice, the rich resonance of generously expressed love-that makes me feel as if there is a dark underside to these sunny memories. I am not surprised when Andrea's face suddenly shows pain and she says softly, "But my mother was cautious, tentative." Her mother's reticence was something she always "felt" as a child even if she didn't quite "know it." It is this central and primal "contradiction" that shaped Andrea's growing-up years, and, she admits, it has been "my baggage that I've carried through my life. ... On the one hand, I always felt special, beloved ... on the other hand, I was not quite good enough."
Andrea tells me this story not only because it is the central contradiction that has shaped her self-definition and echoed through her life, but also because she feels it has been imprinted on her work as a teacher. "My professional life has been driven by this contradiction," she says with surprise, for the first time discovering the links between these facts of her childhood and the ways in which she defines her relationships to the children in her classroom and their families. But before she is ready to speak about her professional life, she seems to want to examine the origins of her mother's tentativeness; she wants to look directly into the center of this ancient disappointment. Her insights are a mixture of rough candor and forgiveness, insights gained through "years of therapy and personal work." "I now understand my mother's response to me as being the result of the institutions that shaped her, rather than being about me or her response to me," she says. Actually, Andrea's understanding of the "institutional" forces that shaped her mother's identity and reality came less from her therapeutic work than from a growing political awareness. "I didn't really get it until I got consciously political. . . . You must see all of this in the context of racism."
Andrea s mother was half-white ("She looked white and identified as black") and greatly preoccupied with issues of status related to skin color. She used to always say to her brown-skinned daughter, "Don't drink coffee, it will make you black," an admonition that Andrea remembered "on some kind of muscular level." Andrea's father, on the other hand, was a "very black" man, and his daughter admired him in every way. There was no caution or ambivalence in their love for each other. "I always felt loved by him," says Andrea gratefully. "He was a Buddha man, a good man, a man of his time. He made the most of his life . . . climbed over whatever got in his way. . . . He thought of every moment as sacred, blessed. . . . He was not in the least bit bitter." Although Andrea inherited much of her father's goodness and generosity, she recognizes that some of the bitterness that he refused found its way into her psyche. "For some of my life, I have carried the bitterness, and my mother's unavailability and depression-the rage that shut her down-got mixed in with it." Luckily, Andrea's father's optimism and unfettered love usually won out and offered lessons in hope and endurance. Recalls Andrea, "I emulated him, modeled my life after him, and he was always encouraging to me. When I would come home from school angry at something that happened, or complaining about people being mean and unfair, he would say, "Andy (he always called me Andy), it's not that they're bad people . . . they just don't know any better.'"
Andrea's life has taken her far from where she grew up. She tries to give me a picture of the remoteness and loneliness of her childhood. "I grew up in a little, rural, bigoted town in western Pennsylvania." Up until she was five years old, her extended family lived in "company housing," a kind of communal living for the folks who were employed by the steel company that dominated the town. In fact, even though this was rural Pennsylvania, there was a very international and interracial flavor in the communal living, with black folks migrating from the South and other workers coming in from abroad. But around Andrea's fifth birthday, her parents decided to move up and out of the company housing into a fancier place on the hill. The move from the warm embrace of her grandmother s home, from the open arms of the community, was traumatic for Andrea. More than fifty years later, she does not mask her pain at being ripped from her beloved first home. "This was a huge loss. I think I never recovered. Since that time, in one way or the other, I have been trying to reestablish that early sense of community. ... I have been trying to find that original home." Her eyes fill with tears and her voice is heavy. Like the "contradiction" between her extended family's bountiful love and her mother's caution, this feeling of being ripped away from her extended family seems to have left an indelible imprint that has shaped her life's journey and choices.