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My Life As A Montessori Teacher

The very second  I realized that a Career In Poetry would not be a good financial choice, I decided, after kind of loafing along for four years, at Virginia Tech, to finish ASAP so I could get Montessori training and continue my dream of being a writer.  I had kept quitting because I just wanted to write, and there seemed no clear connection between getting this degree in English (in the early seventies, there was no creative writing curriculum at Tech) and writing–though, of course, there was.  For one glorious fall, I lived with my best friend in bucolic New Hampshire.  Another quarter–oh, that’s a whole different story. 

At any rate, I started taking at least 24 hours a quarter, and hurried to get out of there, because my new plan hove into sight. 

I became interested in Montessori because in my parapetitic life as a student, in which I moved from place to place like a grasshopper, enjoying every room or tiny apartment, all in gloriously old and run-down houses (“Where do you find  these places?” my mother asked once, slightly disraught, as she visited yet another environment) I lived in Craig County with my best friend Wanda and a teacher updating her credentials, Bette Hestle.  She introduced me to Cecile (then) Keller, who owned and operated a Montessori school in Blacksburg.  I thought, hmmm, I could do this–run my own business, have complete control; teach kids three hours every morning, and have enough free time to write. 

I looked into training.  The main Association Montessori Institute was, at that time, at 2119 S Street in Washington, D.C.  I could live at my parent’s house and ride the bus into town (this was before the Metro, and I’d been bussing into town for years–mostly for various jobs).  One had to have a degree to take the course, and it was preferred that it not be in teaching.  That is so you wouldn’t have preconceived ideas about preschoolers, curriculum, or teaching.  You could approach the training process, which entails a lot about how to unemotionally observe activities and behaviors, like a scientist. 

Once accepted, I worked for the Department of the Treasury the summer after I graduated university, then began training, which was rigorous.  Catholic University had a program that would convert the training course to a Master’s degree in education, for a fee, but of course I would soon be a Famous Writer, with no need for badges.  Well, it was the seventies.  Right before that were, you know, the sixties. 

I enjoyed many aspects of the course.  I enjoyed walking around Washington during my lunch hour.  Sometimes I would get a sandwich and find an Embassy gardenthat I could slip into, open up the plastic lid of my coffee, and admire the fall, spring, and winter aspects of their courtyards.  No one ever objected.  I enjoyed early mornings at the schools where I “observed,” when the children arrived fresh and expectant.  I did not like the odd strictness I saw at two of the observation schools, though, and decided this was not my bag.  I told my mother I planned to quit, and she said, “It’s only a few more months–and at least you’ll be qualified to do something.”  I could have taken a few Mickey Mouse courses at Tech in order to teach high school English, but I hated my years in high school, and wanted to do something that would change things, not help perpetuate a system I found boring and wasteful of my precious years of learning. 

Once I graduated, I immediately took off with my now-husband, my high school sweetheart,who was in medical school, for a little six-thousand mile trip to various National Parks out west for a six week backpacking stint.  While on the trip, I got word from Cecile that she had a job opening.

From the Oregon coast, I accepted.  I learned more from Cecile than at any other place I taught.  Her ex-husband was the Registrar at Tech, and she had a Master’s degree–eventually, she had several–and her school was lively, fun, stimulating, and original.  She incorporated all kinds of innovated ideas such as O.K. Moore’s Autotelic Typewriter (monitered by a hired hand rather than a gigantic computer) and Sylvia Ashton Warner’s Organic Reading philosophy.  No time for writing, though–two three hour sessions took up the whole day.

The following year, I married and moved to Charlottesville, where my husband was completing medical school.  The only job I could find was at Barret Day Care Center on 5th Street, which was a United Way day care center.  I had fourteen four-year-olds with very little equipment–I was expected to make, scrounge, or beg for what I needed.  I learned a lot there, too.  But–guess what! –no time to write.  I was there nine hours a day, as we had to stay there for lunch, too. 

In 1979, we moved to Knoxville.  I worked at Knoxville Montessori, again in a two-shift situation.  I had twenty-eight preschoolers in the morning, and twenty-five in the afternoon.  I learned that it was not an ideal situation.  Children are fresh in the morning.  In the afternoon, after a morning spent in the day-care of the school, with different staff and different materials, they were ready to unwind, not concentrate.  I decided to quit that spring, when I attended a board meeting and they laid out their budget for next year.  Finally, I asked, “How much will teachers be paid?”  They looked at me as if, to their surprise, a brick or a vase had miraculously acquired speech, but responded quickly, “They will be paid with whatever is left over.” 

Deciding that their priorities were rather askew, my friend, Maria Jenkins (who had a Master’s degree from City College in New York) and I decided to start our own school.  We called it Giving Tree Montessori.

No bank would loan me money.  My parents gave me $2,000.00.  I bought used equipment from the Virgin Islands, bricks and boards for shelves, found a church basement we could rent, and we were in business.  We opened in July of 1979 with eight children.  By the fall we had a waiting list, had hired aides, and two years later we were able to open an elementary school in another church, buy a ranch house and convert it into a school, and had one hundred students, many employees, and lots to do.  I worked about sixty hours a week.

But guess what?  No time to write.

It got easier as we became established and highly regarded; we had fewer novel situations and a little more income, though we always made sure that we were not high-priced, and included scholarship children.  Most of the parents of our children were professors at UT or worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

The day I turned thirty, I woke up thinking, if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better get started. 

For several years, I’d painted all weekend.  I painted large landscapes from photographs, and it usually took me two days to complete the pictures.  But I’d realized that in order to sell the paintings, I needed to use my own images, so I learned how to be a good photographer, and began a portfolio.  That went by the wayside once I began to write.  For a year, I got up two hours early, went home at lunch, and spent all weekend working on my novel.  And by the end of the year, I had finished COLORSTAR, my first novel, as yet unpublished. 

I began to write short stories.  As I drove around town, buying snacks and supplies, meeting with insurance agents, etc., I found myself thinking incessantly about my characters, what they were thinking, saying, doing. 

I the meantime, things changed at the school.  As often happens with partners, we began to disagree about our vision of the school.  At my partner’s insistence, I agreed to close the elementary school, although, as I told her, after that we could not longer afford to pay two directors.  “Find a way,” she said, but there was no way to do it.  It was sad:  we had highly qualified, racially diverse teachers (a former elementary school principal, and another teacher with an MA); our students never scored less than the 90% percentile on standardized tests, and we were a community model.  Our parents were quite upset with us, as I had predicted.  To this day I don’t understand her vehement insistence on this action.  However, after a year, my husband was offered a new job in Hawaii, where I had lived as a child, and said that perhaps it was time for me to write full-time, as I had always intended.  I finally agreed to leave. 

It was very hard to follow through with this, but we did move to Honolulu.  I missed my children terribly, and the school building (which I now own completely), was rather like my own body, in a strange way.  For years I had been able to move walls, paint, add an addition, buy whatever equipment I felt was needed, implement any addition to the curriculum I thought would be good, and, in general, had a blast.  And made money.  It was my second home. 

Although I haven’t taught in many years, I still think about having  my own school again at some point.  I have also realized the astonishing scientific prescience of Maria Montessori’s vision about how human children develop and learn, and appreciate more than ever how well she tied her ideas to a concrete curriculum.  It has become one of the main themes of my next novel, THIS SHARED DREAM.

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October 18, 2009   5 Comments

The John W. Campbell Award for IN WAR TIMES–Best Novel of 2007

We had a terrible time getting to Lawrence, Kansas, where the ceremony was held. 

I really wanted my father to be there too.  He was 87, and absolutely hates to travel by plane, although he once loved it.  This has mostly to do with airlines becoming “cattle cars,” and security, which confiscated the pocket knife his father had given him a few years ago.  But he readily agreed, braved the awful world of airports, and got there a day ahead of me. 

My husband and I planned to travel the day of the award.  I also wanted my husband to be there, and he was unable to leave until then. 

First, I thought we would miss the flight because of a traffic jam we encountered on the way to the airport; we had to double back and take another route.  Ha.  The Continental flight was delayed, almost boarded, delayed, and then finally we were at the gate “awaiting fuel,” and then taxied out to wait for another forty-five minutes for our forty-five minute flight, where we would get the connection to KC.  During that time I had a small nervous breakdown, and called the airlines to see if there was another way I could get to KC if I missed the connection–which we had been repeatedly assured we would not miss.  There was no other way to get there; all seats were sold.  We were told to pull down the shades to “conserve fuel.” 

I called Chris McCittrick and told him of my dilemma, and said that my father might have to accept the award. 

When we finally got to the hub, of course the flight to KC was long gone.  In airports I am either very laid-back and basking in a forbidden pleasure–expensive magazines like Vanity Fair, Discover, Harpers, and Scientific American, which I do not usually buy on the newsstand, or reading one of the ten books I carry, or writing–or running like hell to make a connection.  I always assume this will be the case, and always wear running shoes when I travel.  En route to my interview last March for the post of Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, I arrived two hours before the plane was to leave, only to have my security line moved here and there until, fifteen minutes before the door was to close, when I was still way back in the latest line, I called the head of airport security.  “Uh, yes, we do have a situation,” he said.  “Go straight to the front of the line and tell them to let you through.”  I had been afraid to do that because that might delay me further–I might be strip-searched or something.  The year before, at Dulles, my eighty-six year old mother, in a wheelchair with limbs twisted from rheumatoid arthritis, whose legs could not be touched without her involuntarily screaming from pain, got a guest pass with myself and my sister to accompany my sixteen-year-old neice to her flight, and security yelled at her to stand up and walk, and finally put her through a special line where they poked and jostled her–so very, very mean.  Anyway, on this occasion, after I got through the line I grabbed my shoes and ran with my socks, towing my carry-on bag, up and down stairs and hither and yon to the gate, where they were waiting for me with the door open, all loaded.  “We were wondering when you would get here,” the flight attendant said, and they shut the door behind me. 

We got stand-by tickets to a later flight to KC which would get me there with just enough time to rent the car and speed to Lawrence.  While we waited, I refined the acceptance speech and went to the elite club and had them fax it to Chris.  On the plane, I added a lot of flourishes about how The Future that was developed in the thirties, forties, and fifties, seemed to have fallen into the hands of bean-counters who didn’t even know how it was supposed to work, which is not in this version.  If I run across it, I will amend this post. 

So.  I arrived, and Kij Johnson had kindly taken my father out to dinner with their group, and Jason Ellis chatted with him about the book and about jazz, and I threw on my clothes, ran a brush through my hair, and hastened to the ceremony, where

Paul Kincaid gave a marvelous speech about the book, and introduced me:


Campbell Award Intro


I gave my acceptance speech:campbell acceptance speech

It’s a very great honor to accept the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for In War Times. 

I thank the committee for the work they did during the selection process.  Having been on several juries myself, I know how much time and effort—how much reading and discussion—they did in order to make this choice.  I also thank my husband, Joseph Mansy, for his continuing support and understanding during the strange and fitful process known as writing a novel.   And I thank my editor, David Hartwell, for seeing the value of the book, and working on it through several incarnations. 

In War Times is the result of listening to my father’s stories about England and Germany during WWII since I was a child.   With several years of chemical engineering under his belt when he enlisted, he was in an ordnance company that assembled war materiel in England the year before the invasion.  He was then stationed in Germany, a few miles from the Rhine, in a little town called Muchengladbach, several months before Germany surrendered.  His slice of the war is not much recorded.     

He was, and still is, a great fan of jazz.

When I started writing the book, I transcribed tapes of his stories, but pretty soon, I’d just call him and say, “Write down the story of how your company got the couch for your day room from Goebbel’s castle.” Soon, he was simply emailing the stories I wanted, and we worked on the book together.  As those of you who have read the novel know, Sam Dance, the main character, maintains a journal.  Although I hasten to say that he is not Sam Dance, those journal entries are actually my father’s words and stories , and are not just of his war time experiences, but of his later experience as a fire protection engineer working for the government in various capacities, including for the space program.  He was my first and main reader.   His contribution was invaluable.  

My father, Thomas Goonan, is here tonight, because I wanted him to receive recognition for his work on in wr times.  Stand up, Dad.  

Thank you so much, Dad, for everything. 

If any of you want to talk about WWII, technology, or jazz, not necessarily in that order, he’s the guy to talk to. 

I include my mother, Irma Knott Goonan, who passed away last October, in these thanks.  During the war, she did not work for the OSS, but for Dow Chemical.  However, she did fly for the Civil Air Patrol, and her spirit—outgoing and large– informs the character of Bette. 

Irma Knott Goonan, 1940's


In 1959, CP Snow famously claimed academe had split into two cultures—that of literature, and that of science.  He thought that was an unfortunate development, as do I. 

 This award is even more meaningful to me because I have learned to write science fiction from the ground up, as it were.  I did not come to this task with many templates in my head.  I only knew that, when I was young, as most writers report, that I wanted to be a writer.  The literature part of the equation was pretty firmly in place; I got a degree in very old literature from Virginia Tech.  But I became interested in science after becoming a Montessori teacher in order to support myself while becoming a writer.  Dr. Montessori, the first woman to get a medical degree in Italy, in 1896, was a scientist.  I started a school that grew to 100 children, ages two through nine.  Initially a skeptic, I saw how well it worked.  And I became interested in science.  At that time, scientists who could also write well, like Freeman Dyson and Lewis Thomas, were publishing books about their astounding—reference intended—experiences in trying to understand what we and the universe are all about.  I haven’t stopped reading about science since.  

I believe that science fiction has the power to do everything that great literature does, and more—it unites the two cultures.  

I’m very thankful that my own small contribution to this endeavor and to the conversation that is science fiction has received this recognition.  

 Kathleen and Thomas Goonan, at Campbell Award Ceremony 2008

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October 18, 2009   No Comments