Two years ago, Miss Anjali threatened to kidnap Sawyer Brown. Her diabolical plan was, as she freely admitted to Sawyer’s mom, Karen, to bring him to the Winter Solstice celebration, lead him up on stage, and encourage him to participate in the program with his fellow classmates. Miss Anjali had learned that Sawyer had skipped the previous two celebrations after spending his first year hiding behind his previous guide, Miss Becky, and she was not having it. Recognizing that no one can resist the force of nature that is Miss Anjali, Karen complied with the would-be kidnapper’s demands.
This isn’t a story of immediate success and leaps in progress. It is a story of a community and how one member has grown into his place within it.
When HMS first began, the founders knew they wanted to create lasting bonds between the HMS families. HMS would be more than just a building where parents dropped off their kids for the day to fill their heads with knowledge. It would be a second home to the children and a support network of friends for the families.
The Winter Solstice celebration was envisioned as an opportunity to deepen connections first made in passing, a night to celebrate the children and bring everyone together, to see old friends, make new ones, and, of course, share yummy food. It began small, as a story night, when kids would arrive in their PJs and anyone who wanted would tell or read a story. As the school grew and the community blossomed, the tales grew more numerous, the crowd larger, and the squirming more energetic.
It was time for a new program. Transitioning from a story night featuring volunteer performers into a more traditional concert might at first seem antithetical to the Montessori way of doing things; mass memorization of songs doesn’t fit with learning through self-motivation. Nonetheless, HMS committed itself to finding a way to celebrate with the newly enlarged community while also retaining the student-centered learning at the heart of the Montessori philosophy. The result was the new Winter Solstice celebration that premiered at the Lawrence Barn in 2013.
Some schools split up their concerts when they grow bigger, but there was never any doubt that the Winter Solstice would remain a community-wide celebration, with Children’s House through the Adolescent Program all performing. Every year, the concert begins with the whole school assembled onstage, performing as a single community. “The first time we opened the curtain, there was an audible gasp,” remembers Kari Headington, Head of School. “To see all those children, of all sizes and ages [gathered onstage together]. You could really see the progression and the change in the maturity.” As the performance advances, each classroom gets its own chance to shine and show off the hard work they have been doing together.
And it is hard work. Unlike traditional school concerts, the students drive their own class presentations. The staff may choose the overall theme for the year, but the kids’ interests influence the final form. For example, as preparation for the Solstice ramped up last year, many of the Lower Elementary II children were really into the tone bars, working with them in their regular lessons. So, Miss Chrissy incorporated the bars into their presentation. “The process is really more about following them than about lining them up and forcing them,” she confides.
Which brings us back to Sawyer Brown and his struggles with the Winter Solstice celebrations. Karen recognized early on that Sawyer’s social development was delayed; she could see that he struggled to fit in with peers and be around crowds. That’s why she and her husband, Chris, chose to send Sawyer to HMS in the first place; they appreciated the equal importance the Montessori method places on academic, emotional, and social development.
The anxiety and stress Sawyer felt standing with his classmates in front of the wider HMS community was a real test of strength his first year participating in the Winter Solstice. Hiding behind Miss Becky, it was enough just for him to be there, but he didn’t want to repeat that experience any time soon. Instead, he focused on learning to participate appropriately as an active member within the classroom community.
By 2016, Miss Anjali declared Sawyer was ready to try again. Karen watched closely as Sawyer filed onstage with the rest of the school. She noted that he stuck close to Miss Katie, his class’s aide, and kept himself slightly removed from his peers. But he was there, a bit uncertain and not singing, but definitely there alongside his friends. The following year, Sawyer returned to the stage, his anxiety manageable and singing a few of the songs.
Meanwhile, Sawyer’s social development continued to progress within the classroom. “The grace and courtesy lessons, the role plays on social skills with Chrissy, and the many supportive families created an atmosphere where Sawyer felt comfortable,” Karen relates. “The children that he spends each day with are an integral part of Sawyer's development, [and a big part] of Sawyer's success and happiness at Montessori are his classmates.”
Miss Chrissy recognized Sawyer’s progress, too, and, deciding to take advantage of Sawyer’s love for reading, she invited him to narrate the story the class would perform at the Solstice that year. “I just wanted to challenge him,” she says. “He’s a strong reader and struggles socially; I wanted him to have a chance to shine.” Nonetheless, she says, “I was prepared for him to say, ‘no, I’m not doing that!’” but Sawyer agreed readily. He read the book “twenty times a day” until he had it memorized.
Sawyer told his parents he would be narrating the class presentation this year, but they thought he would be one of a group. It never occurred to them that he had agreed to stand in front of the whole school and perform solo. Then, the night before the Winter Solstice celebration, Sawyer casually mentioned to his mother that he would narrate alone. Her fears began, but Sawyer seemed calm. He woke up that Tuesday morning and declared, “Today, I am the Narrator!”
When the Lower Elementary II class took the stage, the children ranged across it in one long line, standing in pairs, until the very end, where Sawyer sat in a chair with a book on his lap. And he began to read. Every few paragraphs, Sawyer paused for his classmates to sing the refrain and show off the accompanying art work. “At the end of the performance,” Karen marveled, “the children danced around, while Sawyer remained seated to continue the narration. He kept on task of narrating but wiggled about in his chair to participate in the dance moves as much as possible. It was a beautiful moment to watch, Sawyer wanting to join his classmates. To simply be part of the group.”
Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our children? To find our place within the group? The Winter Solstice concert brings us together each year, granting us a time to practice our social skills, visit with friends, and celebrate our HMS community.