A Little Girl
It starts with a little girl. She is sitting in a big classroom with a ceiling that’s way too high. It is 1876 and the public primary school in via San Nicola da Tolentino, in Rome, is like all the others in the Kingdom of Italy: a prison for children. You sit still at your desk, you listen to the teacher for hours, you repeat the lessons in chorus. If you behave badly, you are punished. The little girl is six years old and she has hated it all since the very first day. In silence, she begins her personal rebellion against the institution. Her attention goes out on strike, and, in just a few months, she’s the last in her class. “At school, I didn’t study at all,” she’ll say as an adult. “I paid very little attention to the teachers, using the lesson time to organize games, plays.” And again: “I didn’t understand the arithmetic exercises, and for the longest time I wrote down the answers using made-up figures, the first ones that came to mind.” Better at writing, with a passion for books, she’s a born actress. When it’s her turn to read out loud in class some touching tale, she makes everybody cry. She has an outgoing nature and, despite her young age, a powerful charisma. When it’s time to play in the courtyard during recess, she’s the boss, no doubt about it. If a classmate protests, she shuts her up with a cutting remark: “You! Why, you are not even born yet!” She’s got the gift of gab and the security that comes from being a little girl whose family dotes on her. Since the day she was born, her parents have jotted down in a notebook every detail of her life as though she were a prodigy: her first words, her first steps, her chatty cheerfulness, and above all, her “vivacious and independent character.”
Her teachers are not enamored of her strong personality, her way of looking adults in the face without a trace of subjection. One day, one of them makes a sarcastic remark about the expression in “those eyes.” Offended, the little girl swears to herself that she’ll never raise her eyes again in her presence. During the lessons she can’t manage to get anything into her head. Learning poems and passages by heart is a torment. “One of the teachers was fixated on the idea of having us learn by heart the lives of great women, to inspire us to imitate them. The exhortation that accompanied these stories was always the same: ‘You, too, can be famous. Wouldn’t you like to be famous?’ One day, I responded coldly: ‘Oh, no, I shall never be that. I care too much for the children of the future to add yet another biography to the list.’”
She has no appetite for competition. Faced with a classmate who is crying because she has been failed and cannot be promoted to the next year’s class, she shakes her little curly head: “I couldn’t understand her, because—as I told her—to me it seemed that one class was the same as another.” For her part, she gets failed three times, in the first, third, and fourth grades. You’ve got to apply yourself to achieve such a result, and she does. She takes long absences from school, complaining of all kinds of illnesses, doesn’t listen to explanations in class, makes no effort to prepare for and pass tests. At home, when she has assignments to do, she comes down with serious migraine headaches and takes to her bed. No improvement, little improvement, her parents write in their notebook, resigned. They know their daughter’s strong-willed character. They offer her private French and piano lessons, but it’s not long before they have to give up on those, too. When she passes the primary school graduation exam, the girl is thirteen and looks like the older sister of her ten-year-old classmates. Until her catastrophic collision with school, she had had a happy childhood, the adored only child of two already elderly parents. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, from Ferrara, a hero of the war against the Austrians, is a government employee. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, from the Marches, is a schoolteacher who loved her work but had to leave it when she married. The little girl grew up between Chiaravalle di Ancona, where she was born on August 31, 1870, and Florence, before moving to Rome, following her father’s work. The new capital of Italy, just captured by the Savoy monarchy, is still a small and sleepy city, all enclosed within a bend in the Tiber, from the Pincian Hill to Porta Portese, and quickly fades into a countryside of patrician villas and vineyards, where, when the nice weather comes, people go on outings or to gather chicory. Farther out, immense and infested with malaria, are the great fields and empty spaces of the Ager Romanus.
Her father works at the Ministry of Finance, while her mother devotes herself to raising her daughter. She teaches her the values of solidarity. She has her do knitting to make warm clothes to donate to charity. She encourages her to think about the poor and to befriend a neighbor girl who is hunchbacked. Maybe that’s how she first gets the idea of becoming a doctor. “If I saw a poor child on the street I found him pale and thought he was sickly. Instead of thinking to give him my school snack, I thought about what medicine, what tisane could have cured him.” Her baby dolls are not for trying on clothes or bonnets but for acting as patients, lined up on the bed, while she goes around with a spoon to give each of them a dose of cough syrup. Her upbringing at home is spartan. “We’re not born to enjoy life,” she’ll say as an adult. And she’ll gladly recount an anecdote from her childhood. She must have been very young. She has just come back to the city after a long stay in the country. She’s tired, hungry, whining that she wants something to eat. Her mother, busy with their luggage, asks her to wait. Finally, her patience at an end, she hands her a piece of stale bread that’s still in the house from when they left: “If you can’t wait, take this.”
The Seduction of Theater
My game was theater. If I happened to see someone acting, I imitated them with great vivacity: I got into the part to the point of going pale or hiccupping and crying and reciting fantastic things. I invented little dramas, improvised speeches, concocted costumes and sets.” While she is fighting her battle against primary school, she obtains permission to attend an acting course. Her father is against it but ends up, as he always does, by giving in to her insistence. He struggles to oppose his adored only daughter, who has an imperious character. That’s how it is when she’s a little girl and it will go on being that way all her life. “When she was there, nothing else in the room existed anymore,” one observer will comment years later.
Her teachers at the acting school are enthusiastic. They say the girl has a great talent. They convince her parents to let her debut in theater, in her first official role. “I could feel it, too,” she will write, recalling that period, “I was born for that and that was my passion.” At the last minute, however, she decides to give it up. It is a sudden choice, without explanations. “It was just one moment and I saw that I was really headed for glory, on condition that I could get away from the seduction of theater.” Throughout her life, she will often make these sudden decisions, based on instinct, in obedience to her inner soul. She believes in listening to her own calling, and in signs. She has a strongly mystic personality. One episode, recalled repeatedly by her biographers, is a prime example: “At age ten, she suddenly changed. She developed a remarkable interest in religion, and at the same time a sense of ‘vocation.’ Her parents realized it when she became seriously ill with influenza and the doctor told them to prepare for the worst. But Maria reassured her mother: ‘Don’t worry, mama, I’m not going to die. I have too much to do!’”
In 1883, exactly when Maria, after being held back so many times, gets her elementary school diploma, the law in Italy opens the door to secondary school for girls. She declares that she wants to continue her studies, a choice enthusiastically supported by her mother. Her grades are not good enough for her to aspire to classical high school, so she settles for the Royal Technical School of Rome, which has just opened a section for girls. There are ten of them, a little group of pioneers, who soon become a team. Maria starts to see school with new eyes. The challenge of being part of the first group of girls to be allowed into the male world of higher instruction is finally something important, worthy of her attention. She quickly becomes a model student. Her father writes in the family notebook that his daughter now thinks of nothing else. Her migraines have disappeared. Every afternoon is devoted to study.
She attends the three years of technical school with excellent grades, and in 1886 she passes her final exam with an honorable mention. Her father would like her to enroll in Normal School, at the time the female school par excellence, which trains future teachers. But she doesn’t want to hear it. Becoming a teacher does not interest her. When her application is rejected because her technical school diploma is not deemed sufficient, she does not hide her relief.
She insists on enrolling in the Royal Technical Institute of Rome. It is a very unusual choice. The few girls who go on in school do so to improve their culture before marrying, or at most to become a teacher. Not her; she says she wants to become an engineer. In the entire institute, there is only one other girl, by the name of Matilde Marchesini. During recess, their teachers lock them in the classroom so the boys won’t bother them.
In the meantime, she has become a lovely young woman. She is short but shapely. She has curly hair and vivid black eyes, a way all her own of looking her classmates straight in the eye, with no timidity, and a beguiling laugh. An older boy, Giovanni Janora, starts courting her, “following her at a distance.” Confronted by Renilde, worried for her daughter’s reputation, he explains that his intentions are serious. When he has finished school and done his military service, he says, he’s going to ask for her hand. Reassured, Renilde gives him permission to come to the house on Sundays.
When they are informed about what is going on, the boy’s family voices opposition, stating that he is too young to commit himself. Renilde, who has come to like him, is disappointed. Alessandro Montessori, on the other hand, is relieved. He likes the boy but finds him too gloomy, not cut out for his vivacious and expansive daughter. If it had worked out, the proposed engagement would have meant an early marriage and a completely different life. Maria would have been shut up inside of a middle-class living room, with children to take care of and evenings spent with her husband. Instead, the whole thing was called off. Her life story can go on.
Excellency, I Will Study Medicine
The next year, Maria is preparing for her final exams. She has decided to do something with her life, even if she doesn’t know what yet. “Clambering my way along uncertain roads,” she will recall years later, “I began my studies in mathematics, with the inchoate intention of becoming an engineer, then a naturalist, and finally I set my sights on the study of medicine.” Nothing can distract her from her studies. She’s not even interested in the novelty of the year, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which has pitched its tents in Prati, a vast open area on the other side of the Tiber used for military exercises. On show days, long lines form along the Ripetta port and the Sant’Angelo bridge. Maria looks on at all the hubbub with indifference on her way home from school. In June 1890, now twenty, she passes her exams and takes her diploma from the technical school. Her mother encourages her to go on to university, her father hopes she wants to stop. He is proud of his brilliant daughter but he’s afraid of ending up with one of those women in the house who are described by the prejudices of the time as mannish, all involved with their studies and incapable of being wives and mothers. When Maria declares she wants to be a doctor, he’s against it but he knows there’s no way he can stop her. If mother and daughter are allied, the battle is lost before it starts. He is meek, not given to conflict. In his daughter’s memories, he is the one who put her to bed as a little girl, holding her in his arms and singing her a lullaby, a surprising image for a man of his time.
What truly worries him is the scandal. At the time, an upper-class girl was guarded like a precious object, waiting for a husband to come along. Imagining her sitting in a classroom full of male students is something unheard of. In recent years, the legal barriers to women’s access to the university have fallen, but the cultural ones are still strong. “To come out a doctor, and in a certain way to cease to be a woman, a young girl would end up becoming chlorotic, perhaps consumptive, or mad, certainly neurotic,” writes one professor, commenting on the arrival in Italy of the new fashion of women doctors. Maria Montessori manages to obtain an interview with Guido Baccelli, the dean of the medical school. She finds herself before an elderly man, who listens to her with attention but in the end gently rejects her. Personally, he has nothing against the idea, even if he’s already had female students in the department and he knows full well the agitation they provoke in a classroom full of young men. The problem, he points out, is that Maria does not have the required qualifications. Only those who have a diploma from the classical high school and have studied Latin and Greek can enroll in medicine. She does not get discouraged and leaves his office, declaring, “Excellency, I will study medicine.”
In the Montessori hagiography, this episode is used to develop the story of the enormous difficulties she encountered in her studies. She herself will say more than once that she was the first woman doctor in Italy, which is not true. She will talk of the opposition of the pope, of the masonry, of the strong opposition of academia; all things that on close examination turn out to be invented. Her professors show themselves to be understanding. Her problems in the classroom are caused more by her delicate sense of modesty than by the attitudes of the men around her. None of this takes anything away from the exceptional nature of her choice to pursue her studies at the university. Maria Montessori is a member of a group of pioneers: 132 out of a total of 21,813 enrolled students, if we consider the year of her graduation. Before her, only two other women took their degree in medicine from the university in Rome. To get around the problem of her inadequate secondary school diploma, she takes advantage of an article of the university bylaws. She enrolls in Science with the intention of transferring to Medicine, once she has passed the second-year exams. In the meantime, she has to make up for her lack of preparation in the classical languages. She knows that money is a problem and that her father disapproves, so she makes use of some connections among the Roman clergy. One newspaper story provides this account: “She turns for help to a friar and makes such an impression on him that the good religious man, seeing in her the will of God, promises to let her enter the seminary and attend the lessons in Latin and Greek, hidden, however, behind a wooden plank, so that her presence would not perturb the young seminarians.” When the poor cleric dies, she convinces her father to pay a teacher who comes to give her lessons at home. When she wants something, she is practically irresistible. One day they will say of her: “She sailed into situations like a battleship.”