I was one of 15 graduating eighth graders from WMS in 1995. Ratio of girls to boys: 11 to 4. All of my 10 years there were spent in the old location on Church Street in New Preston—a place that doesn’t exist any more but is vividly preserved in many of my dreams. The physical difference between the old building and the new one represents a change in how I think of the school: now there are tennis courts and a climbing wall and a real theater and so much more. Given the transformation, I imagine some alumni and alumni parents might wonder if the school cultivates the same kind of culture as it did when we old-schoolers went there.
I work for another nonprofit that’s well over four decades old now, Pilobolus Dance Theater, whose studio is nearby in Washington. Some longtime fans of Pilobolus express a similar attachment to the past because our work is often aesthetically different now than it used to be. I say to them, “That’s a promising thing.” Any organization that doesn’t develop, in call and response to the times in which it operates, turns into a museum.
I believe that an organization requires two primary kinds of assets to evolve. The first is an established moral culture. The functional values that WMS gave me include how to be a leader in groups and how to be a supporter in groups; how to ask for and listen to other people’s perspectives and thoughts and feelings, especially in solving problems; how to take care of the physical world around me, to make the world around me beautiful; how to take responsibility for myself in a group and to take responsibility for groups that I’m in; how to be comfortable with and interested in people of very different backgrounds than mine. Above all, my time at WMS taught me how to consider and articulate what’s important to me, who I am, how I’m unique, and how to manage to stay unique. WMS is rich in principled culture.
Money is no doubt the other necessary thing an organization needs to evolve. The values I described above are nothing but nice ideas if they aren’t fueled into action. With poor funding, they become ideas to feel nostalgic about. I know WMS did and still does emphasize community service in its curriculum. But the habit of giving one’s own money must be modeled and taught, and turned into a tenet of community culture in order for the rest of the good things about an organization like WMS to thrive into the future.
Given that such a high percentage of the seeds of my social and political ideals were sewn during my ten years at WMS, I now donate the same percentage of the money that I have to give away every year to the school. This year I pledged the most I ever have to the Annual Operating Fund. It felt so satisfying. But doing so was a relatively recent impulse for me.
One of the several Pilobolus parents with kids at WMS told me that their family gives their boys a modest allowance each week and requires them to spend a third, save a third, and give a third away. I thought that was such a good idea. As a kid, teenager, and young adult, it never occurred to me to give away my own money. Worse, I didn’t think it mattered if I gave because I couldn’t imagine how only a little bit would make any difference. It wasn’t until I started fundraising for my own nonprofit (a line of work that it also never occurred to me I’d be pursuing, much less having fun doing) that I realized that a) small amounts of money add up; and b) the add-up isn’t even the primary point. Giving money away represents a lot more than just dollar value: it’s an act of faith in the future, and it’s an awesome kind of collaboration.
I am watching my colleagues’ children grow up at WMS and recognizing more than just golden beads in their experiences. To me, the “new” WMS is a community in which individuals are seen and valued for who they are as opposed to how they compare to generic standards. In the time since I graduated, I’ve learned there are very few places in the world where that happens. I love participating in the evolution of this remarkable culture by donating money; I love collaborating in the community that is Washington Montessori School.
Lily Binns, ‘95