Magazine article Montessori Life

Bridging the Gap: An International Exchange Makes a World of Difference

Magazine article Montessori Life

Bridging the Gap: An International Exchange Makes a World of Difference

Article excerpt

Maria Montessori's worldview, shaped at least in part by her extensive travels and her experiences during World War II, compelled her to speak of peace and cooperation among nations. And, though in today's world we can communicate instantly via fax, e-mail, and cell phones, and have the ability to circumnavigate the globe in a matter of days, we often find that understanding and empathy arise from daily contact with people whose customs and languages may be foreign to us, but whose daily struggles and hopes and dreams are not so different at all. The following two accounts attest to that very Montessori spirit.

Olga took my hand and gave Anna a knowing look. She said to me, "Uh, Carley, it is custom in our country to take moment before ve say good-bye." We all joined hands and sat down in a small circle in my foyer. I studied the faces of my friends, Olga and Anna.

Then it was time for them to leave. As the car drove away, my husband and I hugged each other. I thought about the last 7 weeks. How could these two people be the same strangers I welcomed into my home such a short time ago? I felt like I had just said good-bye to two family members. It is true what they say about finding what you are looking for when you are not looking. Over the course of one summer, I had found friendship and an active interest in another part of the world, the Ukraine.

The Beginning

I remember the day they arrived; they were two exchange students here for the summer of 2002 to train to be Montessori elementary teachers. I rushed around cleaning and straightening, fussing over the sheets on their beds, and filling the guest bath with clean towels and a basket of toiletries. The day before, I spent way too much time shopping. I had been told that nice bath products were extremely expensive in the Ukraine and that Ukrainians liked yogurt. I bought lots of yogurt, soaps, and scents.

Anna, 23 and very tall, was trendy and urban. She wore a zip-up shirt with metallic gold thread and blue jeans. Her round face and fair hair and skin reminded me of the paintings of angels that I've seen. She was the talkative one.

Olga was the opposite in looks and personality. She was petite and dark. I learned that she was in her late 20s and married. Her clothes were casual and outdoorsy, more like mine. She was quiet and reserved. I wondered if she spoke any English.

Our first dinner together was awkward and formal. Olga loved the onion rings. She had never had them before and asked for the recipe. I sheepishly told her they came frozen in a box from the grocery store.

I tried to fill the silence with questions about where they live and their families. But no matter how slowly I spoke, I could tell from their puzzled looks that it was still too fast. I enunciated every syllable and used a lot of hand gestures.

Anna and Olga had met just a week before. They worked at different Ukrainian Montessori schools, the only two in their country. I was surprised by their limited vocabulary and difficulty conjugating verbs. As they struggled, they apologized and explained that, although they started learning English as children, their English class consisted of listening to British audiotapes. Anna often asked Olga for the English equivalent of Russian words. They spoke Russian with each other, although they spoke Ukrainian at home with their families.

Over the course of the next week, I drove them to and from school, cooked dinner, and took them to my favorite restaurants. I wanted them to experience our culture through food we enjoy. I cooked my husband's favorite, Italian-Asian stir-fry, as well as my great-grandmother's meatball stew with dumplings. …

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