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A Montessori Moment: Jackie Dryden

Published September 24, 2010 in The Weekly POst

An introduction from John Long, Head of School: Former Post Oak parent Jackie Dryden is the mother of Allison Dryden, Post Oak eighth-grade class of 1986. Allison is in her third year as a level 1 trauma resident at Vanderbilt Medical Center. She was chosen for a staff-teaching award out of 285 residents. She and her husband are expecting their first child and are looking for a Montessori school in Nashville. In this story, Jackie describes some of the personal characteristics common to Montessori graduates:  independence, self-direction, personal goal setting, and resilience. She also describes a wonderful opportunity for skillful parenting, an approach described in detail in the book The Optimistic Child by the psychologist Martin Seligman. The following are Jackie Dryden’s words from the POPA Dinner:

The very first time that I visited Post Oak Montessori, it was located way out west. I had heard about the school and I was going to drive however far it took me to get there. When I went to the school, I saw these children with what I would describe as one word on their faces and exhibited in their bodies, and that was joy. I said, “Whatever that is, I want to bottle that up, and I want some of that.” And it’s not really any coincidence that when I wrote the book,  Just Me: What Your Child Wants You to Know about Parenting, it’s really what I would call an “ode to Montessori.” It is following the child; it’s listening to the child. There is Chapter 17 that says “lose the labels.” And it was really my attempt to hear what children had to say…

I will tell you that I am a substitute speaker tonight—that the first person that was asked to come and speak was our daughter Allison. And that’s a great honor, because she is a product of 12 years of Montessori and I’m going to tell you what happened after Montessori. We get a lot of questions, and when we were in Middle School, I remember talking to Elementary parents who were trying to decide what to do with Middle School. What happens in High School? You know, all the angst we have as parents…

So we were in Middle School and talking to some Elementary parents, and they said, “You know, I don’t know about going to Middle School for Montessori, because I kind of understand that those kids are sort of weird.” And I said, “Hello? Did you know my daughter is in Middle School? I’m here! I’m in the room.”

And what I discovered is that if that’s weird, bring me more of it. Because there is something very magical about these kids. So what happened for Allison was that she planned where she wanted to go to high school—it did not come from me. She looked at high schools, she did an analysis, and she looked at what high schools had the most National Merit finalists. She found out that was Bellaire. She said, “That’s kind of big—going from a class of eight to Bellaire—maybe not.”

She also did research, since she liked math and science—to find out where girls could excel in math and science. She chose St. Agnes Academy. She said, “You can be at an all-girls school, and you can be smart in math and science and nobody’s going to point and laugh at you.” So she applied to St. Agnes, and we didn’t know…we went through the whole Montessori experience just on faith. Just saying, “She seems happy. She can put a sentence together.” It was all going pretty well. And she took the entrance test.

We got the phone call that said, “We’re so happy to welcome Allison into St. Agnes Academy.” We said, “That must be a good thing—she got in.” And she got into honors chemistry. So we said, “Well, that’s a good thing. She must have learned some science and math at Post Oak.”

The very first real test that she ever took was in honors chemistry. And I will tell you that she made a 67. She came home devastated. She was crying, boo-hooing, it was trauma time. And I said, “Well, look: what went wrong? What are you talking about?” She said, “I made a 67 and life is over. I’m going to get kicked out of honors chemistry and I probably won’t get through chemistry. I’m not going to graduate high school. Which means I can’t go to college. I’ll never go to medical school, and I can’t be a doctor.”

I said, “Wow, that’s intense. We need to lather up because this is big news.” But being a Montessori parent, I did not say what most parents are tempted to say, which was, “I am so disappointed in you. I thought you were smarter than that. You better get down that hallway and get in that room and study and bring up those grades.”

Something in me said: devastated child—that’s not the right conversation. Fortunately, God was on my shoulder and I said, “You know what? Honors chemistry is pretty hard. And this is the first big test that you’ve ever taken in your life. And you know what? You know 67 percent of that material, and it’s not easy stuff. Why don’t you show me the 67 percent that you got right?”

She looked at me and said, “Oh, okay…” So we sat down and we went through it piece-by-piece, and she told me all the pieces that she knew, and I said, “This is good stuff. I don’t understand half of it—it must be really good!” So then I said, “Now let’s look at the percentage that you don’t know, yet.” Not, “…that you’re not smart enough to get.’ Not “that you’ll never know in your whole life.” So we sat down and we figured it out, and we still had about five or ten percent of it that we just couldn’t figure out between the two of us. Well, between the one of her, and me watching. So I said, “Here’s the deal. I want you to go back to school tomorrow and go to your chemistry teacher, and say, ‘I didn’t do so well on this first test, but I’ve gone through and I’ve figured out the parts that I didn’t get correct. But I need help on two or three pieces. I was wondering if I stayed after school today, if you could help me with those pieces?”

That teacher was so surprised she had to sit down. She was like, “Are you kidding me?” And Allison said, “Well, yeah, I just don’t know it yet…so that I can move forward. Her teacher said, “Okay…”

The second test that she took in that class, she made a 99. Now was she any smarter the second time around? No. It was just a difference in the way that she was approaching it. The first time had fear. She didn’t know what to do about it. So fortunately, we had a great Montessori moment.

The hardest transition for Allison, in going to high school, was not the academics. That first incident aside, everything came easily to her. A lot of times, she thought, “Wow, I can’t believe they’re just doing this. I can’t believe this algebra is all that they know, but I’ll do it, okay.” And it wasn’t that she was doing it in a condescending way, she was just surprised and interested that people were doing things at a slower pace.

The social transition was more of the challenge for her, and it came in this form: she had the wrong shoes.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re 14-years-old, and all the girls have the right shoes on except you—it was devastating. So after the first day of school, we had to go out and buy the right shoes. Well, by now, she was already labeled as “the wrong-shoe girl,” for life, so she was sure that was horrible. She would come home, in freshman year, and she would be in tears and she would say, “I don’t know who to sit with at lunch. I just don’t know anybody. It’s just not the same as when…”—all the girls at Post Oak, she grew up with. So I said, “What I want you to do is go find somebody who looks more miserable than you. Ask them if you can sit down with them. They’ll be so happy to see you that you’ll make a new friend.” She said, “Oh mom, that’s stupid.” And I said, “Yeah I know—but it works.”

So she did that, and she started talking to people who would be sitting down at their locker and had nobody to talk with. She stopped in the hallway for girls who were in tears. She had conversations with people that she had never met before. And she found out that by reaching out, all of a sudden there were these wonderful relationships and great friendships. And I’ll tell you that she finished her fourth year at St. Agnes as a cheerleader and homecoming queen at St. Thomas. She learned through not being accepted to accept other people, which really helped elevate her social skills and be able to get along with people—which is very Montessori…

For college she went to Baylor’s pre-med program.  My questions are, “What are they parties like? Are you having a good time?” But she is focused on what it is she wants to do.

Being a Montessori kid, in sophomore year she came home and said, “Mom, I’m going to tell you that Montessori is the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

I’m thinking, “You’re 19 years old—where did this come from?”

She said, “I just went through my third set of finals, and I feel really bad for all of my friends.”

I said “Why? Is it that you’re smarter?”

She said, “No, that’s not it. Right before finals, what I’ve witnessed for the third time, is that everybody, three days, four days before, is staying up all night cramming, trying to get all this information in, sweating it, taking no-doz, drinking coffee all night long, and I’m sleeping.”

I asked, “How did you do that?”

She said, “Well, when I get my syllabus for the semester in that particular class, I look at it, and see what it is we’re going to do, and I say, well that’s going to take about this much time, and then I’ll work on this part, and then I’ll get this part done, and then I’ll be here. For all my finals, I studied one night, and I was done.”

And I said, “Really? Doesn’t sound like my college experience at all—but hats off to you.”

So I was very surprised that I was hearing about Post Oak when she was a sophomore in college. And it was then that the light bulb came on and she realized that she had learned differently and she had these skills that were going to serve her for a lifetime…

Allison graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Baylor.  She studied medicine at the University of Texas at Houston and is now in her third year of residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She plans to become an emergency room physician.

…In June, we found out that she’s pregnant. She’ll have a baby in February. The first thing she said to me (after we went “Yippee-yay-excited-oh-my-gosh-jump-up-and-down,”) was, “Mom, I’ve got to find a good Montessori school in Nashville.” And if Post Oak was in Nashville, you better believe that’s exactly where she’d be.

So I just want to say to you guys who are on this journey: there is life after Post Oak. It’s a wonderful thing—but it never leaves you. It’s a foundation. It is part of your family forever. It will be part of your children forever. How blessed are they to have you as parents that have seen the goodness that this can give to your children that will last a lifetime.