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Enrolment Daze

Freedom, order and The Golden Bead Material: a parent’s dilemma

Cover: June 2005June 2005Long read
 

“Parents want their children to be successful, happy and safe.”

Gerry Schiller, principal of Glen Waverley Secondary College (The Age, August 2005)

Perhaps the thing parents want most for their children is that they will develop into a much-improved version of the two flawed individuals who brought them into the world – a kind of better self – and in the pursuit of this ideal a superior education is deemed to be of the essence. I was reminded of this in August when an old friend from the US came to stay and we reminisced about our first meeting in Berkeley, California, in 1986. We were young mothers. I had arrived in Berkeley with my husband, who was there to do research, and my daughter, who was almost three. I was halfway through writing my second novel and I needed to find a decent preschool, somewhere safe and nurturing where I could leave my daughter for a few hours without going into spasms of anxiety.

In the years since then, I’ve observed with enduring fascination the many parents I’ve known who have agonised over their children’s schooling. Is there any decision that causes more angst and sleepless nights? Will the child be happy and make friends? Will she learn and develop her skills? Is the school a healthy environment? Is the discipline at the right level – not too rigid and petty, but not too careless and chaotic either?

While Nettie was here, reminding me of my Berkeley anxieties, I came across an account in The Age of some of the extreme measures parents now take to ensure their children attend the “right” school. They will sell the family home, pack up and move to another suburb. They will commute great distances on the freeway – day in and day out – and cut back on luxuries in order to pay school fees and private tuition. When acquaintances of mine divorced last year the only thing they could agree on was that, above all else, they must find a way for the children to stay on at their expensive private schools.

Reading The Age report, and talking to my friend Nettie, took me right back into that first decision, in Berkeley, about where to place my daughter. I scrambled around in boxes looking for a journal I had kept from that time with extensive notes on the subject. And I reminded Nettie of her involvement, for it was she who drove me around to investigate the available preschools, and it was Nettie, with her sceptical take on things, who provided a sardonic running commentary on my bemused state of indecision.

Those early days in Berkeley were testing. It was expensive, as university towns tend to be, and all we could afford was a small box-like house on the edge of an infamous black area of Oakland where there was a complex local economy of drug-dealing. A block of shabby apartments at the end of our street operated as a major centre. Then there was the culture of public begging; a walk to the dingy supermarket was an encounter with several beggars on the sidewalks, some black, some white. They ranged from the professionals who sat sullenly in their regular spot outside a shop, to the random panhandlers who were often in an agitated state with wild eyes, twitching bodies and trembling hands. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan had closed several asylums for the mentally ill and released more than 40,000 patients onto the street, some of whom had shelters to go to but many of whom didn’t. They were now homeless, roaming and ranting on the sidewalks of San Francisco and other cities of the Bay area.

One day I arrived at the supermarket just after a shooting and saw blood spattered across the glass doors. I assumed an attempted robbery but in fact someone had gone berserk. Not long after this a young woman attacked me outside a video store and swung a wild haymaker punch into my upper arm. She was clearly on something and the effect of the drug rendered her body flaccid and her punch without force. “So you don’t like Mama Cass, eh?” she screamed, and I could see that in her waking nightmare I was someone else.

On certain days I’d go to the city library to read The Washington Post and quite often there was a figure in the women’s lavatory, huddled on the floor in the corner, covered by a ragged brown blanket and keening in the most miserable wail. The first time I found her I went to the librarian on the information desk, a pale, mild little woman who sighed and said: “Is she there again?” After a while, like everyone else, I ignored the sobbing, huddled figure in the corner, washed my hands quickly and returned to the serials section.

One afternoon, on the walk home, a tall and slender black woman of around 30 stepped into my path, put out her hand and demanded money. She had a dissipated beauty and was almost elegant in her carriage, though shabby in her dress. But her aura was angry, sullen, dark. Unlike many of the street beggars she stared directly into my eyes, holding my gaze with a look of abject and unalloyed hatred.

I was Australian. I’d never been looked at in this way before. Even though I had lived in some tough neighbourhoods in my life, this was a kind of abjection that was, well, something else. “You have to stare ahead into the distance and just keep walking,” a local advised me. “You can’t let it get to you.”

In this environment I set out to find a childcare haven for my daughter, somewhere safe and pleasant of course. Finally I narrowed the choice down to two well-known establishments and made appointments to look them over. The first of these preschools was known as The New School, a free-spirited childcare centre set up in the late 1960s, in the golden era of the famous Berkeley radicalism. The second was a well-regarded Montessori preschool and kindergarten called the Montessaurus.

When the time came Andrew was laid up in bed with the flu, and since I had no licence Nettie offered to drive me around. We began with The New School. Here was a cultural icon, one of the old flagships of ’68 and the counterculture, a rambling two-storey timber house with a large garden that was mostly sand and trees. The swings were tall, almost dangerously so it seemed to me, and the adventure play towers were also very high and with low rails. They looked perilous. The place was a mess: sand and toys strewn everywhere, clothes spilling out of lockers or lying on the ground. Some children had stripped down in the warm weather to their underpants and ran gleefully about in pursuit of one another. A small girl tottered around in high heels with a red satin skirt pulled up around her neck and a pink net tutu on her head like a fuzzy halo. Snot was running down from her nostrils to her top lip. She looked up at me and said: “I’m a rose.”

Pasted onto the walls were life-size cut-outs of each child, stuck at crazy angles to one another, with names scrawled across each one. Rhiannon. Skye. Jacob. Jordan. Saba. Lindsay. Out in the playground a cluster of children were at the water trough, drenching themselves and one another.

“OK you guys,” shouted one of the teachers, “I told you to put those aprons on. Now it’s time to dry out.”

I looked up. A boy was hanging by his ankles from a 20-foot pole, his long blonde hair floating down into the air. My heart bounded with anxiety for him.

“You be careful up there, Max,” bellowed a tall, bearded teacher who introduced himself as Dean. Dean was around 40, a kind of ageing hippie who wore a bright red gypsy scarf tied around long hair that drifted in fronds to his waist.

The school administrator, Sadie, was a petite woman with a friendly, no-nonsense manner and a long black Afro perm. She wore black stiletto heels, tight black pants and a black leather jacket. “Our kids have confidence, they’re outgoing. They come here; they’re fearful, they’re timid. Six months later they’re climbing the highest scaffolding. They get a lot of colds, it’s true, but when they leave, they’re tough.” We strolled through the kitchen where flour lay everywhere. “Lucy here is making soy pancakes for afternoon tea. We only use wholefoods for snacks. We explain to the children about holistic energies. No sugar, no biscuits and cake in lunches. That’s a rule.”

“They have rules here?” hissed Nettie. “Could have fooled me.”

The rooms were in need of painting. Shelves were stuffed with old boxes and the husks of toilet rolls, rags and paint-encrusted yoghurt containers. Guitars with broken strings hung from nails above a battered and dusty piano. In the reading corner the mat was fraying, the shelves scratched, the books old and tattered (though there were plenty of them). The sofas were stained. The mattresses in the jumping room were piled on one another and scattered with sand. “Oh dear,” said Sadie, “they’re not supposed to bring sand inside. We’ll sweep them up later. Well, listen, you guys just wander around here and look at whatever you want to look at. Talk to the kids. Feel free if you see someone on their own to be that person’s best friend for a while. Feel free to make a connection.”

Out in the yard, in the far corner, was a large wooden cage on slats, with a black rabbit inside. In a small fenced-off plot the remains of a carrot patch were in seed, and two white ducks pecked at an empty water trough.

“The children study the animals?” I directed this question to Dean, who at that moment was mounting a chipboard-and-glue project on a trellis table.

“Nah, the novelty wore off on the first day. I don’t know why we keep ’em.” He brushed his sticky hands against his jeans. “Mostly these guys just like to fool around.”

“Do you have any classes?” I asked.

“Sure we do. We have, like, a music class for the little ones and a dance class for anyone who wants to come. Boy, are those dance classes wild! Then there’s a yoga class, and sometimes they cook. We’ve got serrated plastic knives and stuff. No one’s been stabbed yet, eh guys?” He glanced around at his charges. “Depends on what the staff feels like doin’ that day, y’know. We keep it spontaneous. But the classes are optional. Basically these guys can move from inside space to outside space and back again as they want. Face it, these guys are up for 12 years tied to their desks in school. This is their last chance to be free, right?”

A tousled girl held up her gluey chipboard assemblage, so covered in white paste that it resembled a geometric suet pudding. Dean patted her on the head.

“Wow, Elisha, that’s far out!”

In the cramped corner that was Sadie’s office I mentioned we were planning to visit the Montessori school. “Oh dear,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh dear. We have all sorts of problems with that. We all believe in early learning but, you know, there is such a thing as too many rules. Too much structure, too soon. We’ve had kids come here from Montessori schools and they’re all tense, they’re having nightmares at night. They have a fear of doing the wrong thing. They worry about making a mistake. A few weeks with us and, hey, they’re kids again.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed and thought back to an abandoned diploma in education I had begun some years before and to my fragmented studies on childhood development. I knew of the German visionary Friedrich Froebel who had developed the idea of the kindergarten. As part of his philosophy of Universal Harmony he had repudiated the idea of children as miniature adults who could usefully be put to work. Instead he thought they should begin by spending their time in a child garden, a haven of creative play where children could grow like flowers unfolding. Froebel set up a network of these kindergartens, some of which were closed down by the Prussian government because they were too revolutionary.

I also knew something of Dr Maria Montessori’s pioneering work in the slums of Rome with so-called backward children and her development of a structured method that demonstrated how any child in the right environment could learn. Montessori, who had overcome a mountain of prejudice to become the first female medical doctor in Italy and a professor of anthropology at Rome University, was no radical libertarian like Rousseau. She believed firmly that freedom was not to be confused with anarchy – quite the contrary. Inner order, she preached, was necessary if one is to be able to see meaning in one’s existence. Chaos is not stimulating but oppressive. But this does not mean that inner order can be achieved through rigid external discipline of the old-fashioned kind. These were general principles only, and I could remember little of her actual method. What I did recall was how she had an illegitimate son who was sent to the country to be looked after by a family there, and how she would visit occasionally to bring a toy and observe him at play.

The following morning Andrew was well enough to accompany me, and we drove up University Avenue to the Berkeley Montessaurus. The school had a high fence all around and tall wooden gates that might well have belonged to a fort. We approached the gates, which were unlocked, and entered a peaceful yard. Here was a picture of perfect calm, of manicured order and low-key Californian charm. Several rustic, cedar-framed classrooms stood within a high-walled compound, almost obscured by native trees and ranged in a semi-circle around a bitumen courtyard with a large redgum at its centre. A number of spiky red bottlebrushes, planted at random intervals, softened the contours of the swings, the climbing tower and the slide. The only discordant note was a scruffy old tyre that hung by a thick rope from the redgum.

The courtyard was empty. School was already in session. We found our way to the office of the school administrator, where we had an appointment. Nancy was a tall, middle-aged woman with short, stylish grey hair. In her silk print dress and high heels she looked every inch the competent executive. She was also welcoming and cheerful, and she led us without much preamble to the first of the cedar huts. Inside, the hut was one large open space with several activity corners. It was warm and filled with natural light.

“We often have observers,” Nancy smiled, “and the children are accustomed to it.” She gestured to a line of chairs at the back of the room and handed us a portfolio of printed sheets. Dutifully we sat on the small chairs and I was reminded that Montessori was the first to introduce child-size furniture. When we were seated I opened the cardboard file Nancy had given me and began to read my way through the notes. “The goal of Maria Montessori’s educational method was world peace” (yeah, right) “and we agree with Dr Montessori that each generation of children has the opportunity to remake the world it inherits.” I began to skim-read my way through the high-minded sentiment until I came to the page headed: Observations. “The presence of visitors always has an effect on the children and the classroom atmosphere. In order that you may observe as natural and typical a classroom as possible, we ask that you please follow these suggestions:

1. Do not smoke.

2. Please remain seated.

3. Do not initiate any conversations during the work period.

4. If a child approaches you and asks a question, please answer briefly.

5. Do not talk to other adults who may also be observing.”

Well, that was clear. We had our riding instructions. We were not being invited to wander about and become anyone’s best friend, not even for a moment.

Every class has two teachers, Nancy had explained to us as we walked the path between her office and the first cedar hut. “We’re very proud of our staff and they’ve been with us a long time, probably because they’re not interfered with in their rooms. It’s their own space. Joan specialises in art, she’s doing an MA on children’s painting. Clara is currently doing her M.Ed on children’s music and plays several instruments herself. Sophie has a doctorate in children’s language difficulties. All the teachers bring a range of their own interests and skills to their work.”

Andrew broke into a hoarse coughing fit. “You don’t sound well,” she said, looking at him with an expression of genuine concern.

“No, I’m fine, really.”

We settled on our low wooden chairs at the back of the classroom and prepared to “observe”. Nancy whispered that she would leave us to it and we were welcome to return to her office when we were ready to discuss what we had observed. At the door, she turned and waved at us encouragingly. As she waved, Andrew leaned across and whispered in my ear. “This place is so clean and tidy, so organised. It gives me the creeps.”

“It is only the beginning of the day,” I murmured. What did we expect? Chip cartons all over the floor?

We counted 16 children, ranging from two-and-a-half to six years old. They sat in a circle on a large mat, quiet and composed. This, it appeared, was Circle Time, the first session of the day. The first teacher sat at the top of the circle, cross-legged, a young woman in her late twenties, slim with shoulder-length black hair and dressed in baggy black cotton pants, leather sandals and a long, faded aqua shirt in Indian cotton. She looked very serious, and the first thing I observed was that she chewed her nails. Her name was Clara. She began by asking the children, one at a time and working clockwise, to stand up, walk to the centre of the circle and take a card from the neat stack resting on the carpet. When each child had performed this task (in complete silence) Clara spoke. “If you have the number five, please stand up,” she intoned in a low sing-song chant. A child rose, holding a cardboard square. “Thank you, Carl.”

I observed that all the children were holding a similar square, each with a number.

“If you have the number two, please stand up.”

And so it went on, until all the children had stood for their numbers. Then they were directed to sit again in their circle.

“Tim, will you go over to the Geometric Solids shelf and bring us back the rectangular prism, please?”

The boy, about four, tiptoed over to where a group of polished wooden shapes were arrayed on a ledge. He lifted the five-inch prism and began his return walk, stepping with exaggerated – almost ritualistic – slowness. Perhaps it was the sing-song tone of Clara’s instructions but they all seemed to be operating in a kind of trance.

“It’s good how carefully Carl is carrying that over to us,” she intoned.

The children did not move, or fidget, or sigh. Their faces were solemn, or blank. Were they usually this subdued, I wondered, or was it because we were there? Was this the well-known observer effect – although Nancy had assured us the children were used to visitors? “They are well-behaved,” she’d explained, “because they are different ages and each new one, or young one, learns from the older established ones what the proper way of doing things is. You think it can’t work, but it does.”

Andrew leaned in my direction and grimaced. “It’s as quiet as a cathedral in here.”

I ignored him.

“Good little guinea pigs, aren’t they?” he persisted.

I felt in my husband his characteristic resistance to authority.

“Maybe it’s just a quiet poise that we’re not used to seeing in children.”

I sounded sanctimonious. Clara’s tone was catching.

After all the shapes were assembled on the mat in front of Clara, she placed a white cheesecloth over them and the children were invited to the front, one at a time, to kneel and shut their eyes while they felt under the cloth for a particular shape. This they did in perfect quiet. I glanced down at Nancy’s notes. “In order that your observation may be more meaningful we suggest noting the following. Order in the Classroom: physical order; the order in the design of the materials; order in the sequence in which the exercises are accomplished; order in a child’s use of materials …”

“This has a horrible fascination,” muttered Andrew.

“Don’t be such a cynic.”

Clara stood and smoothed her long shirt over her thighs. Circle Time, it appeared, was over and after Circle Time it was off to “work”. Several projects were laid out around the room, some already begun on previous days. The notes informed me that each child was required to work in his or her own clearly defined space, and for this a small mat was used. No other child was permitted to trespass on the mat without permission from the mat’s “worker”. A child might leave their mat in any state they wished but must, on completion of the project, tidy both project and mat away. “Please note that completion of the project may take weeks, and for this period the mat must be left undisturbed and in the state the child wishes it to be.”

I was beginning to catch on. There was an ordered classroom and within this, each child could have a space of free play, her or his own little backyard in miniature: a balance of structure and routine with impulse and spontaneity. There could be apparent chaos on the mat but order all around. Yet despite the mat being an area of “free” activity, surely there must be a subtle pressure to do something “useful” or “constructive” on that mat?

I looked up. All was proceeding with uncanny order. We watched a small boy in a red jumpsuit paint at an easel. He wielded his brush with unblinking concentration, painting for much longer than any other child of comparable age that I had observed in other schools. When he was satisfied he laid down his brush, unclipped his painting and hung it on a wooden rack to dry. Then, without hesitation, he walked across the room to the sink and turned on the tap. With great ceremony he proceeded to carry a yellow bucket of water and a yellow sponge back to the paint corner where he began to clean his easel. “Yellow is our cleaning colour,” said a sign above the sink.

The second teacher, Joan, a fair, freckled woman in jeans and sandals, had sat to one side of the room for the duration of Circle Time. She began now to circulate among the children, commenting, in a low-key way, on their work. One four-year-old girl was doing a giant jigsaw on her grey felt “territory” mat, and she was already advanced enough for it to be apparent that this was a map of the continents of the world in bright poster colours. Above her on the wall was a display of autumn leaves, pressed flat.

Another child was building a complex series of towers in blocks. “Some Montessori schools allow children only to use blocks and other project shapes to categorise, not for free play,” said the notes, “but we’ve modified this practice in accordance with the philosophy of the staff. We find that free play in no way hinders learning. Familiarisation with the look, and more importantly, the feel of the Montessori wooden letters is the beginning of literacy. Most of our children, with no forced effort or strain, can read by the time they begin Primary School.”

So this was the Berkeley version of Montessori. A little looser, a little more laid-back. But not laid-back enough for some.

“This is unreal,” said Andrew. “These kids are like little lab technicians. The only things missing are the rats in mazes and the white coats.”

I ignored him. I was mesmerised.

At 10.30 the children sat at the small table in the kitchen alcove and ate their snack of raisins and carrot wedges. Then we followed them outside for their morning play, and leaned over the rail on the narrow timber deck that ran along one side of the classroom hut. The children seemed to play like other children: careening around on tricycles, falling onto the bitumen and scraping their knees, climbing rope ladders, swinging on the rubber tyre. No one threw sand.

I took my opportunity and returned inside where I began to wander about the perimeter of the empty room. I wanted to look at the specially designed project materials – the famous “manipulatives” – also known as the “didactic apparatus” and designed to be “self-correcting”. Many of them had been designed by Maria Montessori herself and crafted to her specifications by her friend Cesare Baroni, a skilled carpenter. They were arrayed on a wide wooden shelf at child height and all were neatly labelled. These were the Sound Boxes. This was the Pink Tower. This was the Brown Stair, a set of ten prisms. These were the Red Rods and there were the Smelling Jars. These were The Bells and the Temperature Jugs and the Baric Tablets and The Golden Bead Material. And there was one called The Time Line. And I was thinking: the names are wonderful. They sounded like words from a secret code or ritual, like something belonging to the Rosicrucians, or the Masons.

I picked up a drawstring pouch labelled The Object Bag and looked it up in the index of my notes. This, the notes explained, was for “exploring the art of feeling”. How intriguing. I opened it and peered inside. And was disappointed. What was there was just a cup, a lid, a pin, some string, a ball.

More satisfying was The Golden Bead Material, an exquisitely constructed cube of a thousand glittering beads. Though you would never have guessed from looking at it, The Golden Bead was a mathematical toy, designed to teach the decimal system. The beads were made of beautiful translucent gold acrylic strung together on copper wire. They sat in a cedar box on top of the shelf beside the open window and when the sunlight caught them they glinted. Each bead was perfect, and each sat in perfect relation to the others: perfect proportion, perfect balance, perfect harmony. And yet they had a mystery to them, as if all were magical objects and belonged in that remarkable philosophical novel by Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game.

In Hesse’s cult book, which resulted in him winning the Nobel Prize for literature, we are transported to life in the 23rd century near the province of Utopia. In the small and remote neighbouring province of Castalia, an elite priesthood studies to master an immensely complex game that seeks to integrate the whole of human knowledge into a harmonious system. The Glass Bead Game is the Game of Life itself, and these “didactic” toys on the shelf beside me – they would not, it occurs to me now, be out of place in a Harry Potter novel – seemed like stray fragments from the great Game; alluring and enigmatic miniatures of the whole; apparently simple tools with which you could build a series of other worlds.

Outside, as we walked back to the car, Andrew and I were at odds. “Well, how many out of ten?” he asked.

“Search me.”

“The teacher in the black pants didn’t smile very much.”

“So you keep saying.”

“It’s all too organised.”

“That’s better than a shambles.”

“The kids are too subdued.”

“We’d have to observe them over a longer period to tell if that’s really the case.”

“I take it this meets with Madame’s approval, then.”

“No, there is something missing here, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

He stopped, and looked around at the high walls. “Did you check out the security devices?”

“Wouldn’t you want your child to be safe?”

To leave the school grounds we had to open the high wooden gate with a heavy latch. Here, every morning, the teachers stood to welcome the pupils and, even more importantly, to farewell them in the afternoons. This way they could see who was entering and who collected the child. Nothing was left to chance.

Afterwards we had lunch at a cafe nearby, and I remember staring out into the street with a distracted gaze. A man, about my age, was begging. Though it was a warm day he wore an old army greatcoat with the collar turned up. His eyes had a wild, desperate glaze and he was trembling. The cafe jukebox played old ’60s tunes and I was thinking: it wasn’t that the Montessori school was too organised, or too quiet. It was that there was too much responsibility. Yes, that was it, too much of a burden of choice, day after day, to do something constructive, something sensible. I saw my daughter in invisible fetters.

For the next few days we debated the merits of the two schools. The Montessaurus was almost unnervingly calm. Some vital spark seemed to be missing. But at The New School some of the kids were bored, or racing around on the edge of a kind of manic distraction. Andrew went independently to have a look and returned in two minds.

“It was too dirty, too disorganised,” I said. “The stuff they were making was junk.”

“Yes, but they’re only three years old,” he said, “maybe four.” And I felt like a prig.

Another sleepless night followed in which I lay awake and recapitulated the common criticisms of the Montessori method: it was unduly mechanical, formal and restricting; there was not enough free play of the imagination, not enough “creative expression”; there was too much emphasis on individual rather than group work, on the development of individual skills and disciplines rather than social adjustment to the group. In the constant struggle to balance the needs of self and other – to find meaning for the self in the other – it veered too far into elitist individualism.

I thought of the Montessaurus and its unnaturally quiet classrooms and again I saw my daughter in an invisible straightjacket. On the other hand, what was the point of undisciplined, unskilled “creative play” that went nowhere? And there could be too much emphasis on the social, which only made children slaves to the peer group. (Your best friend is away for the day and you’re at a loss.) Eventually I fell asleep and had one of the most vivid dreams of my life. I was in a yard somewhere and all of The Golden Bead Material had escaped its box and was strewn about my feet so that the ground was a carpet of golden beads. Look, I said, to no one in particular, see how the beads lie freely on the ground, and still they retain their beauty.

In the morning, somewhat dejectedly, Andrew and I agreed that – be it The New School or the Montessaurus – no one system was ever going to be just right.

In the end we resist that which has shaped us for the worse. And as the product of stiflingly conservative education systems, we both decided to go with what we perceived as the Berkeley spirit, the spirit of ’68, and send our daughter to The New School.

At first she was happy enough and made friends with another girl her age, Lindsay. But Lindsay only came on certain days, and the rest of the time Cleo was restless and bored. Making sculpture with glue and ice-cream sticks soon palled. The dance class was chaotic and some of the wilder boys raced around and were “stupid”. She especially hated the compulsory rest period after lunch, and could never drop off to sleep. I knew this because the ageing hippie, Dean, who used to strum the guitar and sing folk songs to lull fidgeting children into a nap, would sometimes let her “play” with one of the guitars when she wouldn’t settle. “You should have her taught lessons,” he said to me one day. “Cleo has a natural feel for the instrument.” (And he turned out to be right about that.) But when I came to collect her she would often be waiting for me and ready to scoot through the gate.

She seemed bored and restless, and I recalled Maria Montessori’s dictum that there is often a fine line between freedom and chaos, and chaos is not stimulating but oppressive. After a time I began to fret about this eager little face that was almost too happy to see me. While it might be gratifying for me it was not in other ways a good sign. There were many nights of talking over my fears with Andrew, and at last, despite the additional expense, we decided to take Cleo away from The New School and enrol her at the Montessaurus.

Maria Montessori had designed her didactic toys to be self-correcting, and now I was about to become a self-correcting parent.

From her first day at the Montessaurus Cleo settled in happily, and soon requested that she be allowed to stay on for after-care activities with a sweet young woman named Missy. Whenever I arrived to collect her she would plead with me to stay with Missy just a bit longer. There was always some exciting and well-organised game about to start, or some ingenious piece of craft being undertaken. And still, after that, she didn’t want to leave, and would run to swing, just one more time, on the old tyre that hung from the redgum at the centre of the courtyard.

I got to know Clara and Joan, and discovered they were anything but stitched up and repressive. They were delightful women who created a warm, safe and stimulating environment for their proteges. They were liberal progressives, of the kind California seems to breed in numbers: serious, politically aware, concerned about the ills of the world. Joan was proud of her Native American lineage and made sure the children learned about the cultures of Native American peoples. She did not see the school as a ghetto of privilege and sweet reason, even if that’s what it was. (It was also racially mixed: there were plenty of affluent and professional middle-class blacks in Berkeley and Oakland.) They did not see themselves as teaching in a bastion of privilege but in a still-experimental system that worked hard to embrace a humanist ideal. Maria Montessori had started her schools in the slums of Rome, and these Berkeley teachers were all too aware that the children they taught came from affluent homes. “But this is what all children should have,” they would say.

And we knew that they didn’t, nor ever would have. And the price of our privilege confronted us out there on the streets. Here we all were, within this idyllic high-walled space, with its cedar chalets and its courtyard of red bottlebrushes, and its tyre hanging from the redgum so the children could swing in the afternoon sun. But beyond the gates there was still poverty, and pain, and the random violence of the distraught and the desperate.

One afternoon, as I was walking my daughter home from her enlightened and fortified school, we paused beside a wide road and waited for the traffic to pass. I remember looking both ways and seeing no car at all, but then, as we began to cross, I realised an old white jalopy had suddenly appeared on the horizon and was hurtling at speed straight towards us. With terror in my heart I yanked my daughter towards the median strip and stood fuming on the grass as the jeering teenage driver and his two accomplices gave me the finger on their way past.

You bastards!” I screamed as the car went hurtling, recklessly, on down the wide, tree-lined boulevard. It was broad daylight, three o’clock in the afternoon, and they had just played chicken with a woman and a child. All the way home I wanted to bellow my outrage, my impotent anger. How dare they! How dare they! But I could have screamed as much as I liked. We were outside the castle gates.

When we returned to Australia we settled in Sydney, and by then we were sold on the Montessori method. My daughter had been happy there and, almost incidentally, had learned to read within six months – with no coaching at home. We sought out the nearest Montessori school, which I won’t name here because it may now have changed, but it was a very different story from the Berkeley Montessaurus. For one thing it was not as long established, or as well-financed and equipped. But we expected this. We knew we had had a rare glimpse of the ideal and were unlikely to find it again. It was the competitive ethos of the local Montessori that really bothered us. Here there seemed to be less emphasis than at the Berkeley school on a balanced program and more on excelling intellectually. Information night seemed to be full of anxious middle-class parents wanting their children to get a jump on the rest, to get out of the blocks fast and get ahead in the game of life. I sat next to one handsome father in his late thirties, a solicitor, who was concerned that his young son of seven was not showing much form in his studies. “All he seems interested in is rugby league,” he said, with genial intensity. “He won’t get into law or medicine that way.” And he explained that to combat any early slide into mediocrity he had enrolled his son in a Saturday afternoon coaching class in maths.

We gave up on the Montessori idea. But the tussle between order and chaos, freedom and responsibility, surfaces wherever you go. When we surveyed the local government primary schools we found that the highly recommended one had a constrained atmosphere and almost all white faces. The school we were warned against had an intake that was over 30% Aboriginal. But it also had gifted teachers, and a subtle management of behaviour that could look rowdy but mostly got results. And any child who went there got an enriched idea of the social, of what it means to be an Australian. For the next four years I watched appreciatively as the teachers fought the good fight, and all on the shrinking budget of a government school. As with all the best teachers their struggle was to mediate between freedom and necessity, between uninhibited playfulness and watchful responsibility. Will we ever get the balance right?

Just recently I asked my daughter, now 21, if she remembered anything about the Montessori school in Berkeley. “Not much,” she replied, except that she’d been happy there. Did she remember the didactic toys? No. Not even The Golden Bead Material? No. Did she remember Clara and Joan, or Missy? No. All she remembered, she said, was swinging in the sun on the big tyre that hung by a thick rope from the redgum in the yard.

About the author Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is a writer. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Philosopher’s Doll, The Reading Group and Camille’s Bread.