An occasional soliloquy from author Aline D. Wolf

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dealing with Drips

This rainy pre-Thanksgiving day seems like the perfect time to post this reminiscent blog.....



            As the mother of nine children and seven sinks, I am looking desperately for a correspondence course in “Plumbing for Housewives”.  I admit that “Child Psychology” would be a course I could more readily discuss at a cocktail party, but it would do nothing for that terrible feeling of inadequacy I have when I face a dishwasher that just won’t stop flooding the kitchen floor.
            In this day and age there are aids for all other types of household emergencies.  For example, with a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock, I have been able to remain calm while dealing with most of the childhood diseases.  And I am quite capable of rushing an injured child to the nearest emergency room.
But there has been no Spock-like plumber who cared enough to write “Pipe and Spigot Care” or “The First Five Years of Life with Your Washer”.  And there is no emergency station that offers immediate aid for severely bleeding pipes.
            Instead our household sanitation is completely dependent on a skilled laborer so much in demand that he often has to be coaxed to the scene of an impending disaster.  Just imagine the luxury of a mother who can be her own plumber—who can skip the numbers in the yellow pages and go directly to the scene of her own difficulties, confident in her knowledge of all the gauges and shut-offs in the basement.
            Now that I am seriously searching for a plumbing course, I am really anxious to learn the secrets of the trade.  For one thing, I’ve always wanted to know what’s inside a plumber’s truck.  Most housewives are bright enough to realize that there are no tools or pipes in there.  Every time I call a plumber he surveys my disaster, disappears into the back of his truck for about five or ten minutes and then emerges with the announcement, “I have to go back to ‘the shop’ for a wrench.”  When he reappears forty-five minutes later, I realize with a sinking heart that plumbers make more than teachers per hour, and the actual work never begins until the second hour.
            Another aspect of the plumbing trade I am anxious to know about is “How Many Men to Put on the Job”.  Once, our whole family had to assist a poor little man who was sent to carry a new stall shower to our third floor.  And a few months later the same firm sent two of the biggest men I ever saw to fix a leaking spigot in the powder room.  It did not seem to bother them in the least that they both could not fit in the powder room at the same time.  But it did bother me because the kids kept jumping over the $5 per hour man who was lying casually on the hall floor.
            One of the luxuries of being my own plumber will be avoiding embarrassment.  I’m not talking about the obvious situations like when the children answer the phone and say, “Mommy’s upstairs with the plumber.”  Or even when professional workmen leave a commode on the front porch for two days while they “rough in”.
            There are some things that I like to keep to myself, such as, the little weaknesses I have in housekeeping.  Take, for example, the night I failed to notice that Christopher had dumped half a box of Ivory Snow into the dishwasher.  Somehow, with my mind on dentist appointments and Halloween costumes, I was able to stack all the dishes neatly around the mound of soap powder.  When I turned the switch, bubbles blew madly all over the kitchen and undoubtedly it was one of the most hilarious nights we ever remember.  That is, it was funny until, after trying for an hour and a half to get out of the rinse cycle, the dishwasher gave a terrible moan and died.
            When the repairman arrived the next day I had sent every child who could “talk” to the movies. 
I tried to be casual, mentioning something about “a little too much soap”.  But as soon as he opened the drain he had the whole story.  “Lady,” he said, “there’s enough soap in here to do your dishes for the next ten years.”
            Another embarrassment that will be avoided when I do my own plumbing is that situation when a pipe of a major appliance manages to repair itself completely between the time I call the plumber and the moment of his arrival.  Don’t tell me that leaking pipes can’t seal themselves or that strange noises can’t completely disappear from automatic washers.  I know they can!  It happens in the same mysterious way that a screaming baby with a 103 degree fever can be sleeping peacefully with a cool 98.6 when the doctor takes the temperature with his thermometer.  But how can you be sure about a noise in the washer?  You can try running it through two or three times but this is definitely risky to the life of the machine.  And even if you run it until it sounds as though the motor is dragging on the floor, you’re just as liable to face a plumber who says, “What noise, lady?”  when you turn it on for him.
            One rule I’ve found helpful is never to mention my own diagnosis to the plumber on the phone.  When he asks what the noise sounds like, I usually say, “rumbling”.  This sounds serious enough for him to make the trip and yet it doesn’t commit me to anything definite.  And besides, “rumbling” is a much safer reply than saying, “It sounds as though Charlie’s slinky is caught in the pump.”  Even if Charlie’s slinky has been missing since the start of the trouble, it is dangerous to say so.  Many plumbers can’t face up to situations like this and simply never appear for the job.
            On the other hand when you have to give written instructions to a plumber, simplicity won’t do at all.  Last year before we opened our cottage I wrote ahead asking our summer plumber to “Please connect the automatic washer.”  Such confusion resulted from this clear concise note that this spring I had to compose two detailed paragraphs:

Manager, Never-Fail Plumbing Co.
Wildwood, New Jersey
Dear Sir:           
            Last year when you connected the automatic washer for me you inadvertently attached the hot hose to he cold spigot and the cold hose to the hot spigot.  This situation really challenged me and I became so conditioned to doing the Hot washes on the Cold setting that I am afraid I cannot go back to the original way of operating the machine.  Therefore, when you connect the washer this June, will you try to remember the way you did it last year and then proceed with exactly the same mistake? 
            However, that other mistake you made must not be repeated.  The children did enjoy sailing their boats on the kitchen floor after the first run of the washer, but it is very hard on the life of the linoleum.  Therefore, if the drain hose crumbles in your hands again, please do not connect it anyway as you did last year.  Just charge a new one to my account.
                                                                                    Yours truly,

            Yes, I can’t help thinking how simple life will be when I can be my own plumber—or rather—when I have to be my own plumber.  For the truth will come out.  My husband knows it, the children know it, the neighbors know it—and so I might as well admit it.  I have to be a plumber because our local plumber has crossed me off his list.  He will not come to our house anymore.  It all happened yesterday when I was upstairs.  Suddenly I heard gushing water and terrorized screams of children in the hall below.  The swish was so loud that it could be nothing less than a broken main, and the spray was so thick that the downstairs was fogged.  Forgetting that we didn’t have a water main in the front hall, I grabbed the bedroom phone and told the plumber of my most dire emergency.  Never have I had such quick service; he pulled into the driveway almost as soon as I made my way through the mist to the downstairs hall.  And when I saw him running in with tools actually in his arms, I realized he was making the supreme effort.
            But the spray died down at his feet.  I still think it wasn’t my fault.  I had completely forgotten there was a fire extinguisher in the back of the hall closet.  The kids found it when they were playing elevator with the sliding closet doors.  Naturally they thought it was a skin-diver’s tank.  Greg put it on his back and tried to dive out of the closet, never thinking he would actually be submerged.  You can see what happened.  As soon as the tank was inverted, the hose began to wildly spray everything in sight.
            I gazed at my plumber knee-deep in foam.  “Lady…..” he said.  And then he didn’t say another word.  There was just something about the way he turned and walked out that told me I would have to face our next disaster without him.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The First Day of School in Russia

As six-year-olds are getting their little back packs, pencils, and lunch boxes ready for their first day of school here in the United States, I am reminded of the opening day of school for first graders that I witnessed in Russia in 1990.

We were a group of twenty adults and teenagers from Altoona, PA in an exchange program with twenty adults and teenagers from Rostov on Don in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Russians had come to Altoona, stayed in our homes and visited our businesses and schools.  As the highlight of their visit they had presented a beautiful musical program in our local high school in which over 1400 people had heard their teenage chorus sing a program of Russian folk songs that concluded with “America the Beautiful” and “Let There be Peace on Earth” in perfect English. Tears flowed in the audience.  The Cold War was still on, these were the Russians whom Americans had feared for years, and yet that night everyone in the auditorium loved them as friends.

The next year when we visited Moscow and Rostov on Don they arranged for us to stay in hotels, because their tiny apartments, already housing three generations, could not accommodate overnight guests.  But they had saved their rationing stamps for months in order to provide us with wonderful meals in their homes.  We taught them square dancing that was a great icebreaker, and with the help of various translators we resumed the friendships we had formed in Altoona.

 I will never forget the first day of school that we witnessed in Rostov.  It was held in an outdoor arena that was filled with parents, teachers and friends of the little six-year-old children. Each little girl and boy was dressed in what had to be a beautiful new outfit, and each child carried an elegant bouquet of flowers.  Their faces reflected joy and excitement as they walked into the arena and the crowd cheered  them as they began one of their most important journeys in life – their education. To me it seemed so fitting to celebrate this inaugural day as even more significant than their eventual graduation.

After some talks in Russian that we could not understand, the children were entertained by a very talented mime.  This young man pretended he was eating an ice cream cone.  He loved the taste; it dripped on his suit; he guarded it from others who wanted it; it fell on the floor and so on.  The new first graders squealed with delight.  This day was a delight for all of them, a day they would long remember as the beginning of their formal education.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Teacher Who Loved Her Students

Ellen Galinsky, a nationally known researcher of children's learning, concluded her keynote address at the American Montessori Society's national conference in Chicago this year with a quotation from a seventh grader. "On the first day of every school year I can tell what kind of a year it is going to be. I just look into the eyes of my new teacher and I can tell if he or she likes children."

I think many students can sense whether or not their teachers like them but they rarely put it into words. It is more likely that their behavior in that teacher's classroom will reflect what they sense; if they feel liked or loved they will respond to that teacher and have a more successful school year .

This quotation reminded me of a teacher our son, Charlie, had when he was seven years old in a 6-9 class in our Montessori School. Her name was Miss FitzGibbon, a beautiful tall young woman who did many interesting classroom projects. I remember observing one day when each child had on big rubber gloves as they were dissecting a frog. On another day of observation, each child was busy with Montessori materials but together were humming a classical melody. When later I asked her about this, she said "Oh that's from a Brahms symphony. I usually play it every day after lunch, but today I forgot and so the children hummed it.

Every Friday she played a different kind of music and the children danced with each other as partners as she danced with each child in turn. I couldn't help but notice how each child kept watching her hoping he or she would be the next one to dance with Miss FitzGibbon.

This teacher had the gift of making each child feel that he or she was special to her. "She really loves Harry," one parent told me. Then another, "You know she really loves Andrea Lee." One after the other, mothers kind of whispered to me that that their child was especially loved. And, of course, I knew she loved Charlie.

One day Charlie asked if he could invite Miss FitzGibbon for dinner. I agreed and she said she would love to come. Charlie wanted to set the table and be sure her place was next to his. Then he went upstairs. When the door bell rang Charlie came bounding down the front stairs and I couldn't believe what I saw. Charlie, who always had his hair in his eyes and his shirt tail hanging out, had put on his dark blue First Communion suit, white shirt and red tie, that he had worn only once before, and his hair was combed back with what must have been about half a jar of vaseline.

Charlie would do anything for Miss FitzGibbon. It was one of his best years in school!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


When Sir Ken Robinson gave the final keynote address at the 2011 National Conference of the American Montessori Society  in Chicago, he called upon teachers to look for the hidden talents of their students. Search deeply, he urged, for the natural aptitudes and diversity that can lead each child to a fulfilling life and perhaps to creative discoveries that could make a difference in the world. If you design conditions that encourage the uniqueness of each child, he advised, then these often undiscovered talents can flourish.

A few days after I had heard these inspiring words, our son, Chris, sent me an article in a technology newsletter that confirmed many of Robinson's points. Written by Peter Sims, (author of the forthcoming book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries) it bemoaned the fact that our educational system emphasizes spoon-feeding knowledge and testing while it neglects nourishing creativity. "Utilizing existing knowledge," he writes, "works perfectly well for many situations, but not when doing something new, creative or original."

An extensive six-year study about the way that creative business executives think, found several "discovery skills" that distinguished the innovators from the non-innovators. These included experimenting, observing, questioning, and networking with people of diverse backgrounds. In a word, "inquisitiveness."

These skills surfaced again in an interview that Barbara Walters did with Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the founders of Google. When asked what was the driving factor behind their success, they did not credit their computer science degrees, but pointed to their early Montessori education. "We both went to Montessori school," Page said, "and I think it was part of that training of being self-motivated, questioning what's going on in the world, doing things a little differently."

Such testimonies raise the critical question of the purpose of education. Is it simply to convey knowledge, as the current system is weighted, or is it also to make room for nurturing children's hidden talents and fostering their ability for self- learning by encouraging them to observe carefully, to try new things, and to ask "What if?" and "Why not?"

What do you think?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Importance of Books in the Home

Recently I was excited to read new research showing that the number of books in a child's home is a strong influence on how far he or she goes in their educational pursuits.  "Scholarly Culture and Educational Success in 27 Nations", a study by four researchers in the United States and Australia, shows that the influence of home libraries is found nearly everywhere in the world and it has more power than the researchers expected.  The research team claims definitively that children who have 500 or more books in their home get, on average, 3.2 more years of schooling than children in bookless homes.  This influence on children was found to be universal despite differences in gender, culture, economic status or the level of their parents' education.

The study shows that even the children of poor or illiterate parents in China, on average attained the same academic level as children of college graduates if they had many opportunities to read in their growing years.

As a long time interpreter of Maria Montessori's work, I was pleased to read about this newly documented importance of children's surroundings.  It confirms, in yet another way, Montessori's strong emphasis on the quality of the environment for children's development.  Books are only one aspect of a child's environment, but they are extremely important and I urge parents to pay attention to this new evidence.

Make books a priority in your home environment.  Buy them; read them yourself as a model for your children; trade them with other families; give them as gifts; read to your children at least once a day and take your children to the library frequently to select books that appeal to them.  If your budget is tight, go to the used book sales that many libraries use as fundraisers.  And don't relegate all books to one room in your home.  Have books available in as many rooms as possible.

I know that there is a lot of competition for both space and activities in today's homes.  TV's, computers, cell phones and electronic games may all claim priority over books.  But how many years do they add to a child's formal schooling?  This new study shows that a family in which each member has several shelves of favorite books has a better than average chance for each child to attain a higher education!