JFK, 1993: A slight woman with a long maroon coat descends a bustling stairway in an airport terminal. As she walks down the hall, the lighting grows so dim she cannot read her ticket. She wonders if she is in the right place. She turns to ask, but she can find no one in this hallway who speaks English. It’s all Russian and Ukrainian — which almost makes sense, since she’s on her way to Ukraine, except that she’s still in New York. Her mission? To help a small team of invested Ukrainian educators and administrators set up a model Montessori school and teacher training center in the very recent wake of the Soviet Union’s downfall.
That woman was my mother, Joyce Tatsch. She was slated to make this journey with Nancy Rambusch, who was appointed as the representative of Association Montessori Internationale in the United States back in 1959, and shortly thereafter founded American Montessori Society — the association to which Wellan belongs (along with Association of Independent Schools in New England). Nancy was a force to be reckoned with, and Joyce, a then-primary teacher at Princeton Montessori School and a teacher-trainer for Princeton Center Teacher Education, knew she would be in good hands. She was nervous and excited, but with Nancy’s unwavering commitment and vision, Joyce felt at ease about this journey to a country that was waking up to a world closed off from them for seventy-five years.
Shortly before the trip, Nancy fell ill. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she could no longer make the trip. She was devastated. My mother, then, was on her own.
She uses the word “terror” to describe how she felt when she found out that this was a journey she would take alone. The flight didn’t help. “Everyone was drinking so much vodka,” she recalls, “and my husband [a pilot] told me later that the kind of plane I was on should not have been in use.” But after finding her four (unheard of!) bags in a pile of luggage (there were no fancy baggage carousels in Kyiv at that time), many of which were filled with pencils, band-aids, and other basic supplies, she found so much more.
She stayed with the Minko family on that first trip. Stepan was the principal of a school and his wife was a teacher. They had two daughters, Vita and Natasha. She remembers their hospitality and endless kindness despite the fact that no one spoke a common language. “On the first morning, they served me coffee at breakfast, and I asked for milk, which they did not have. The next morning, they offered me milk for my coffee, and I discovered that their twelve-year-old daughter had gone off to wait in line for milk at four in the morning for me. Oh, I felt so terrible!" she takes a deep breath, remembering, "But I also realized then how gracious, kind, and open these people were.” For the remainder of this trip, and during all subsequent trips, she continued to be overwhelmed by the kindnesses, big and small, that she either witnessed or experienced herself.
This was just the beginning of a partnership, friendship, and love that would develop over the next thirty years. Sure enough, Joyce and two strong administrators (Ginny Cusack and Marsha Stencel) wasted no time in setting up the model Montessori school and shortly thereafter, the training center.
Yet none of this would have happened without Borys Zhebrovsky, the Deputy Head of the Main Education Board of Kyiv or Tetiana Mykhalchuk. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine regained independence (again), Borys knew that the first priority needed to be restructuring education. The Soviet regime established free schooling for children from a young age, but one could hardly call it joyful. Small children sat in rows, recalls Ginny Cusack, who made countless trips to contribute to the administrative efforts of setting up schools and training folks over the years. “Children of three to four years old sat in desks all in rows with a pencil. They wrote letters and recited them. It was surreal, like a high school classroom but with tiny children and desks. Teachers talked, and the children listened. That was the entire day. One could hardly call it learning.”
Borys knew this wasn’t the way to teach a generation of people to lead a democratic country, so he went on a pilgrimage of sorts. In the United States, he saw all kinds of methods that interested him, from Waldorf to Reggio Emilia (among others) and of course, Montessori. He saw possibility in choice for families, but saw the most potential in the Montessori method. During a visit to Princeton Montessori, he told Ginny, “It is a fairy tale. I would like to tell this fairy tale to parents and teachers, and make this fairy tale real in Ukraine” (Montessori Life, Issue 2, 2008). He saw the collaboration between teachers in the break room, he saw relaxed relationships between teachers and administration (“teachers aren’t nervous!”), and he saw peaceful interactions between teachers and students. He knew that to promote this kind of peaceful independence of spirit and thought in Ukraine’s youngest generation would be the best chance at forging a peaceful future.
He appointed Tetiana, a former high-school vice principal, as the school’s first leader. Ginny and Joyce both describe Tetiana as sophisticated, well-spoken, and as a “woman with a mission.” Sure enough, she proved herself quickly as a highly adept leader, and this, along with a supportive team, led to a positive ripple effect in education over the course of the next thirty years that was felt in classrooms across the country.
Now, we are all watching in horror as events unfold in Ukraine. Everyday we apprehensively check the news, wanting to know — and not wanting to know — what is happening, or what is going to happen. Through email communication in the first week of the Russian invasion, Ginny learned that Tetiana and her family have escaped and are on the run, but they are safe for the moment. My mother learned this weekend that her close friend’s sister (a pulmonary physician) was able to get her two teenagers out of Ukraine, but that she must remain because her father is too feeble to travel. Another Primary teacher from the Montessori school took up arms and is fighting.
We are bearing witness to an unfolding atrocity, not unlike many other power struggles-turned-violent. But this story is not just a story of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster. It’s also a story of development arrested just at a time of its greatest beauty. Ginny, Marsha, and Joyce, and to a much greater extent Borys, Tetiana and many other Ukrainians who poured their hearts and souls into intentionally developing education for healing in their country, are suddenly wracked by trauma. Ginny says tearfully, “I’m not in the war, and yet, my heart is there. It’s all gone.”
My mother, ever the optimist, is hopeful. “You know,” she says, “I told Ginny that not all is lost. So many people have worked to make this happen. Since 1994, an entire generation of independent-thinking children have become the adult future of Ukraine. They have learned about the power of peace and know what life can be like. They will rebuild when all of this is over. They have to!”
I hope with all my heart that she is right.