On June 8, 2017, Daniel Potter, WMS class of 2006, spoke to the members of the class of 2017 at the annual graduation ceremony. Daniel, who graduated magna cum laude from Williams College last year, is an accomplished musician and teacher. He has stayed closely connected with WMS since his graduation, working at Camp Montessori each summer. Look for a full article about Daniel in our alumni newsletter, coming later this summer.
I am so honored to be asked to come back to WMS to give the graduation speech this year. As you will hear, Wilmington Montessori School meant a great deal to me as a student and continues to mean a great deal to me now, so I’m flattered to be here to address the graduating class of 2017.
First of all, let me be one of the first to tell you — congratulations! Eva, Addie and Lydia, you are about to graduate from sixth grade at Wilmington Montessori School. Maybe you’ve realized what that means, what future you have ahead of you, or maybe you’re still in denial. I certainly was. Eleven not-so-short years ago, I sat where you are now as then-principal Linda Zankowsky handed us our graduation baskets and wished us well on our journeys out into the quote “real world.” Eleven years ago, a lot of things at WMS were different: Lisa Lalama was teaching in the classroom, Arlene Watson was an administrator, Marshmallow (the Room 12 rabbit) was still alive, and the graduating class was huge: 21 students. Can you imagine that?
I’ve been lucky to never lose touch with WMS in the years since I graduated, in part because I’ve worked at Camp Montessori here every summer since. However, to be honest, when I was your age and about to leave this school, I was terrified. Even if I didn’t realize it then, I was truly scared about what the rest of the world, what the rest of my education would bring. And perhaps my memories have become exaggerated, but the truth stands: Wilmington Montessori School was everything to me. It was here that I learned to love reading while in preschool with Cathy Simon-Cord and in kindergarten with Trish Bradley. It was here that I put my acting talents to use as a witch in an Anansi tale in first or second grade with Sarah Nelson and continuing on to my last show with Kelly Rhodunda as George in School House Rock Live Junior. It was here that I learned about the dangers of eating pokeberries, built forts in the woods and caught crayfish in the creek. It was here that I learned “Octopus’s Garden,” which remains one of my favorite Beatles songs, with Shelley, Karen and Lisa in Room 9. It was here that I explored my creative side in second grade by writing and drawing my own picture book, for which I won second place in a competition hosted by Wilmington College. It was here that I discovered my passion for board games and card games from Mark Bomgardner. It was here that my friend Jamie and I wrote a song about Marshmallow the rabbit while out on the swings and then performed it for the whole class. It was here that I played steel drums with Atiba with an exuberance that many of my teachers admired. It was here that I made some of my best friends, friends that have lasted these past 11 years. Who wouldn’t be scared to leave all that? Why would I want to go to middle school where they make you sit at desks and call your teachers by their last names? Couldn’t I just have stayed at WMS for the rest of my life? Believe me, I would have, if it were possible.
Perhaps, though, you’re ready to move on. Perhaps you’ve already moved past the denial stage and have reached acceptance. It may be sad to leave this place, but you’ve learned so much here and done so many great things. As I’ve learned from your teachers, you’ve become tremendous leaders in this school community, volunteering for responsibilities and organizing so many events, including Save the Rain, Donate a Toothbrush, and the school presentations for Moms, Dads and Grandfriends days. You’ve become students that everyone in this community can look up to, people they aspire to be. While at WMS, you’ve become great critical thinkers and problem-solvers, you’ve gained confidence and independence, you’ve explored your musicality (something I especially approve of), you’ve shown kindness to everyone around you, and you’ve developed self-awareness, self-discipline, and self-responsibility. You have, it seems, become strong, capable young adults who can go out and tackle the world, even if you don’t feel quite ready to leave here yet.
But—and this is a big but—you didn’t get there alone. Take a moment now, graduates, to look out into the audience. Go ahead. Can you find the face of your current teachers? Can you find the face of someone who taught you before this year, maybe third grade, or first grade, or even preschool? How about a teacher who taught you something you’ll never forget? How about a teacher who has supported you every day? How about a friend that made a difference in your life? How about someone whose life you impacted for the better? I should hope, of course, that for many of these questions more than one person comes to mind.
My point is this: WMS is a community. This school is a magical place that nurtures wonderful students, and you are three of its best. But you did not get to this place on your own. You had the support of your parents, your friends, and this school and its teachers. You may not realize it yet, but you are so lucky to have gone to Wilmington Montessori School. No other school in this world is like WMS. At other schools, you don’t get to call your teachers by their first name because it’s deemed “unprofessional” or “disrespectful.” At other schools, you don’t have lots of unstructured time where the responsibility is placed on you to decide what work to complete when. At other schools, you don’t get to lie on a carpet and take off your shoes while doing your math work or your reading journal. At other schools, you don’t get to research the American federal system and create a three-branch government inside your classroom wherein you create class laws that get vetoed by the classroom president but whose veto you subsequently overrule since there are only three people in the legislature and you all agreed that the law should be passed. And yes, that did happen, though it was a short-lived experiment.
But perhaps you still doubt just how special this place is. In that case, let me give you a personal example. Take, as a comparison, the charter school in New York City where I’ve worked this year. At this school, I’ve been teaching sixth-graders, students the same age as you. However, though we the teachers care about each and every student, what’s more important to the school administrators are the scores the students get on the state tests. Their test scores, their grades, whether or not they can solve word problems or analyze passages, those are the ways the school I’m teaching at defines my students. That’s what this charter school cares about. In that sense, the school is the exact opposite of Wilmington Montessori School, and this has been one of my greatest frustrations this year while working there. At WMS, you are not defined solely by your content knowledge, or worse, by your ability to test well. Instead, you are judged by your kindness, by your ability to work well with others, by your willingness to learn new things and tackle tough challenges, by your self-reflection and your growth as a young adult in this world. At WMS, what matters most is your character, not a score on a math test. Everyone who works here wants you to grow into capable and caring young adults, and from what I’ve heard from your teachers, you three have succeeded in doing so.
So what now? I’ve spent the last five minutes talking about what a great place WMS is, something you probably already realized, and now you have to graduate. Whether you feel scared or prepared to move on to middle school, you are ready. Yes, it’s true no school will be like WMS, but because you went to Montessori, you will be able to excel no matter where you go next. Just like I did when I started seventh grade at Wilmington Friends School, you’ll have to make new friends, get used to taking more exams and learn to sit at a desk, but you’ll adapt quickly because Montessori has prepared you. Soon enough, you’ll be graduating from middle school, then from high school, then college, and then, who knows… maybe you’ll be back here, addressing the next generation of graduates from this school.
But, as you move on from WMS, here is my request for you. No matter where you go in life, take Montessori with you. Take the energy, the community, and the values of this school and bring them with you. Bring them when you go to PRIED, to P.S. DuPont Middle School, to high school at Brandywine, or Mount Pleasant, or Concord. Bring them to Harvard, to Yale, to the University of Delaware or of Pennsylvania, or maybe where I went, Williams College. Montessori shouldn’t end when you leave this building today; keep it a part of your life as you go out into the world and make great things.
I’d like to end by reading a poem I wrote in fourth-grade that I found just last night when my mom and I were looking through things from my time here. Although I wrote this poem 13 years ago, I still agree with it completely, even though the rhymes are terrible. It’s called:
Elementary School at Wilmington Montessori
Is very fun,
And isn’t gory.
This was a big part
In my history,
I love it here
I love the no-desks
I love the circles
I love my teachers
I love read-aloud
I love the woods-walks
I love the long talks
I love having fun
Montessori’s the one!!!
Eva, Addie and Lydia: I hope you feel the same way about this place as I do. Even as you leave, know that you will always carry WMS with you wherever you go, whatever you do. I look forward to hearing about the amazing things you’ll do as alumnae of Wilmington Montessori School. Congratulations, Class of 2017!