The Small Things Are The Big Things
Thoughts & Reflections
There’s a fast food chain in the Midwest. When you order, they give you a number. When your order is ready, they come find you and bring you your food. They don’t yell, “forty seven” or anything, they find you.
This is fast food. The employees are mostly young people, this isn’t specialized work requiring multiple degrees, years of training, or very many dream careers. For most people who go to work there, this is a job. It pays the bills, or helps with gas or college expenses, and yet it’s just this little extra level of care. I go there for the occasional order of fries, since their fries are always hot (another extra level of care), and yet I’m always struck by this small gesture.
We’ve probably all experienced a moment like this, a small, important gesture that is representative of customer care, of creating an experience.
The barista makes your latte with almond milk instead of soy, apologizes, makes a new one, and encourages you to take the original one with you for a friend to enjoy.
Your hair stylist remembers your sister was having a baby and asks the name.
You get an oil change and they ask if you have time for them to send your car through the wash while you’re there.
It’s that little something that exclusive, high-end companies are often known for, and yet kindness doesn’t have a price tag, and costs us nothing.
We’ve also, unfortunately, all experienced a time when even a low bar wasn’t met, when we’ve been in a customer service situation and been treated rudely or not worth someone’s time. Our allergy-based food request wasn’t respected and we’ve felt poorly or worse. A careless mistake was made, and we’re made to feel responsible. We ask a question and we feel like an inconvenience.
It’s a subtle difference in language or in tone, it’s a smile or no affect, it’s a sigh before helping. It’s always little, but it’s always very big.
The small things are the big things.
Montessori classrooms are Prepared Environments. Every aspect is thought through. Guides squeal when they see a tiny pitcher with a floral motif that matches the flower arranging work just perfectly, we crouch or kneel to see just where the mirror should go so it’s appropriate for a child blowing their nose, you wear your hexagon necklace intentionally the day after a child has been working so hard on their Geometry Cabinet language, since you know how proud they’ll feel when they know the name.
You see, the physical space is only a small representation of Montessori: We Are the Prepared Environment, and we must always be intentional, ready, that little something.
Sometimes we notice it when it happens — seeing a former student and wishing them a happy birthday since you know it’s coming next week, having special pencils in a favorite color for a reluctant writer, greeting a brand new student by name and having their cubby ready when they come for a visit.
It’s always so clear when it doesn’t happen. Paper towels not being replenished before children are expected to wash their hands for lunch. A material being a bit disorganized but not noticed or met with a shrug. Frustration at multiple reminders or presentations.
It’s not always tangible. It’s that Montessori magic, and it’s nothing you can buy, because it’s Us.
It’s kneeling down to talk to a child. It’s choosing scented soap to match the season, even if no one notices. It’s staying late to make sure there’s no paint on the easel, all the slips of paper are perfectly aligned, and where did the smallest cube of the Pink Tower get off to now?
It’s the hardest part, because it’s not a material you can purchase, it’s not something you can delegate or have a volunteer help with, it’s who you are every minute.
It’s also difficult because so much of the time, no one will notice when it’s right, they’ll just sigh contentedly walking into a school or classroom, they’ll just feel better after talking to you. They will, however, always notice when it’s wrong. They’ll notice when there’s paper on the floor but not when it’s spotless. They’ll notice when you’re irritable but not when you’re patient for the same question the eight-hundredth time. They’ll notice when you just can’t be bothered to replace Jane’s label for her cubby cause she’ll just rip it off again.
This is precisely what sets us apart — the treading water of it all. It’s hustle, it’s a grind, and make it all look easy. It’s all those small things that compile the beautiful picture.
It isn’t perfect. If you look closely, the smallest cube of the Pink Tower has worn edges from being taken home in a pocket and being run through the wash more than once. Those colored pencils, always sharpened and aligned, have been worn down to nubs from love and use. We used to have another card in the Flower Vocabulary Cards set but someone threw up on it and we had to throw it away. There’s that one chair that is wobbly by the end of the day no matter who tightens it, the colored pencil mark on that table that no one can seem to get off, and we’ve swept and vacuumed and swept again but there’s still quinoa from the pouring work on the floor, hiding under shelves and in corners.
“It’s that Montessori magic, and it’s nothing you can buy, because it’s Us.”
No, it’s not perfect. If we’re aiming for perfect, sometimes we’re immobilized by fear, too much so to do something, to start, to even try. It is as Haim Ginott states, “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element…” It can be frightening! We are so powerful, just by Being.
For better or for worse, it starts and ends with us. It’s not the fact that the pencils are all sharpened, it’s that I am ready for you to do your best learning. There’s nothing inherently better about dressing your child in sweatpants, but thinking through their toileting process and realizing the button on their jeans might be an obstacle is absolutely fantastic. It is frustrating to remind the same child a hundred, a thousand times to tuck their chair in, but that’s why I’m here, right? And one day, not so long from now, they’ll be the one reminding others to tuck in their chair.
The Prepared Environment is a representation of our own preparation, and each small touch is a thousand times greater than the space it takes up on the shelf, it’s just a symbol of how we are prepared, ready, eagerly anticipating the learning the children will do in this space. We’ve prepared all the small things. All that is left, is to try.
Written by:Charlotte Snyder