MARTHA BOLL READYOFF ’83
A school, most any school, is comprised of families, of course. Children, if they are lucky, have parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles. Teachers also have parents, children, siblings, spouses, or some assortment of the like. But for every child, every teacher, every staff member there is a family. This is true of any school. But rarely, very rarely does a school become a family itself. What a miraculous thing it is when that happens. That’s what makes WMS so special to me. We are an exceptional school in so many regards- academics, arts, music, theater, sports, service learning. For me though the greatest achievement of our WMS community is our WMS community. Our family, my family.Pat Werner presents Martha with her diploma in 1983.
Upon my first visit to WMS I was terrified. It was the middle of my fourth grade year and things had not been going very well at the school I had been attending. In fact, it was traumatic. I was too shy and sensitive, too easily bruised by a word or a look and too difficult for my teachers to understand. I cried every morning as we waited for the bus. Neither my mother nor I could take it any more so my resourceful mother decided to try something else: Washington Montessori School, where our neighbors, Christopher and Elizabeth went. Walking into my first Montessori classroom, I waited for one of the other kids in the class to tease me, or for Marsha, the teacher, to put me on the spot and ask me to do long division in front of the class until I cried. That’s what I expected because that’s what happened on a regular basis in the school I had been attending. Those things didn’t happen in my new WMS classroom. Nevertheless, I did cry. So shy and so conditioned to believe that school was a frightening place, I couldn’t help myself and disintegrated into tears.
Then something extraordinary happened, something that changed everything for me. I had a cup of tea. It was my first cup of tea and Pat made it for me. She walked me, choking back sobs, from the classroom down the hall to the little kitchen, sat with me at the table and made us some tea. Red Rose, with sugar. We sat in that kitchen hands wrapped around our mugs, my heart beating so fast, feeling so little, so lost. As my sobs subsided to sniffles, Pat patiently talked with me. I don’t remember exactly what she said but it doesn’t matter. It was the simple act of treating me with kindness, as though, even as a kid, I mattered, I was not alone. That shared cup, that one act of respect and kindness was followed by countless others from teachers, kids and other people in the WMS family. I never returned to my previous school. This was the place for me.
I was soon part of the furniture and grew to love Marsha and my friends in class. I loved all the materials and all the things I could do and learn every day. Pin maps of countries and cities with exotic and beautiful names like Mozambique and Kathmandu, fraction blocks that put those strange ideas of numbers floating around in my head solidly into my hands, all the time I could possibly want to write poems and stories- learning was an adventure, my friends were my fellow explorers and Marsha, our intrepid leader. But it was the warmth and security I felt in my new classroom at WMS that lent me my nascent courage. My mother believed in this school. Believed it was the only place for her painfully shy, complicated daughter. She was right. I was able to be myself here.
Soon the rest of my family followed me into the warm embrace of WMS. My sister, Kendall, was enrolled in Sheila’s class. When we get together, we often still gigglingly reminisce about our student days or catch up on the lives of WMS childhood friends we keep in touch with. My father, Ray Boll, was a talented amateur woodworker. He made lovely, enviable shelves first for my mother’s classroom and then for the other teachers. My mother, Peggy, became a Lower School teacher here in 1981 and taught here for fifteen years. She passed away in March of 2009. The children she taught, the young parents she offered support, the other warm and talented teachers she worked beside were a vital part of her life until the very end, even after retiring in 1996. She passed away with memories of those children and patents and friends on her lips. How she loved them.
In 2001, I had the opportunity to come back to WMS as a teacher. Most people these days don’t work where they grew up. There is something quaint about teaching where I was a child, like the oldest girl who becomes the teacher in her one-room school house. But it’s also somewhat revolutionary in this age of constant change to stay put, to come back home. Like multi-generational homes, it is a rarity, but, I think, a gift. I think it is significant that I’m one of several second generation WMS teachers and staff members. It’s not just me, evidence that there is something special here that nurtures and creates a community like an extended family.
Now I am the teacher, the intrepid leader on the expedition of learning, and even from time to time the tea maker. What I learned as a child here, nurturance and acceptance, I now get to give, or try to, to my own students. What I’ve learned as a teacher is that it is not at all easy to be the tea maker, to know what to say to ease a child’s consternation and feelings of lost-ness or littleness. It makes me all the more grateful to Pat and Marsha and all my teachers here and all the more determined to keep trying to sustain the culture of caring that defines our wonderful school. The hugs, the words of support, the acts kindness and generosity to and from children, parents, staff and teachers are too many to number. They happen every day. They permeate the air. They are infectious. As I was looking back at some other alumni spotlights, it became obvious how infectious the WMS culture of caring is. Distinguished, innovative, creative, successful by any measure in various fields, these all accurately describe WMS alumni. But our foundation and our drive seems to come from real caring, the desire to make something better, to ease some consternation, great or small.
Sometimes, when I’m not busy writing silly stories with my class, burying shells in the upper field for a fossil hunt, listening to children read, getting a hug from someone in the hall on my way to make copies, helping kids making squares of numbers with sequins, putting a bandage on an invisible but incapacitating wound or any of the countless teacherly tasks that engage me daily, I think about my mom and how much she loved WMS, how much I do. I wonder what will be on my lips in the end? The eons of the Earth’s history, the external parts of a fish, the story of first writing, the names of children I have spoken over and over—children who challenge me, buoy my spirit, test me, make me laugh, make me lose sleep, cause me to wonder and my heart to flutter with joy, who allow me to give them the comfort my teachers here gave me. No matter what I do or where I go,
WMS is home, the land of my childhood, my family.