Tribute to Jeanne Elisabeth Anna van Dijk - Koning (1930-2024), President and Founder - March 2nd, 2024

Tribute to Jeanne Elisabeth Anna van Dijk - Koning (1930-2024),  President and Founder  - March 2nd, 2024

Tribute to Jeanne Koning van Dijk, Peasmarsh, March 2, 2024

by Gerard Leonard

Good afternoon, I am a Montessori teacher and a teacher trainer for the Association Montessori Internationale, headquartered in Amsterdam. I first met Jeanne in 1981, when she hired me, sight unseen, over the telephone, a new teacher just out of training, to come from Ireland to Connecticut, USA.
I immediately had a good feeling about Jeanne, sensing her warmth, and also what seemed like a seasoned knowledge, and an ability to get me into the US at short notice. And she did! I arrived, a green young Irish lad, a full 3 days before the school year opened and discovered that I had to set up a new classroom! Thank God I had Jeanne, who true to who she was, came in as Head of School, rolled up her sleeves and worked hard… as she knew how to do, and side by side guided me… showing me how it was done…with precision, with a great sense of design and beauty, and with her gift of creative adaptation to the present circumstances, a great early lesson to have had as a new teacher. How lucky I was to have had Jeanne as my first mentor. And, of course, Jeanne and Rudi were to become dear friends, and through them, Walter and Felix. I have often reflected on this good fortune.
Jeanne had been Montessori educated herself as a child in The Netherlands. She obtained her Montessori teaching diploma in 1951, in one the final courses offered in The Netherlands while Dr. Montessori was still living. And she had been guided by none other than Dr. Montessori’s chief collaborator, Mr. Mario Montessori himself.
Jeanne shared instructive stories with us about her training and her formative experiences, and always with a lightness and with her wonderful laugh, and with a wisdom that we could tell came from well-rounded lived experience. Such a gift! An old friend and fellow teacher from our days in Northwestern Connecticut, Susan Wilkinson, reflected with me over these past several weeks on what we learned from Jeanne. We remembered her extraordinary positivity, her creativity and artistry, her sense of humor, and what always came through was an unshakeable faith that one could ascend through difficulties. Belief in children as the great hope for humankind was central to Jeanne’s philosophy.
I recall one story she loved to tell of a day when Mario Montessori visited her class in Hampstead. Jeanne described how she worked so hard to have everything beautiful in the environment and just so for this esteemed visitor. When Mario came in, he greeted Jeanne saying… “Why don’t you come here and sit next to me, and we will see together what is going on in your classroom.” This is the ultimate test for a young Montessori teacher, indeed for any Montessori teacher… to step away and see how the children work and interact without your close presence!
When Jeanne sat down, she noticed something right away, and I can still hear her horrified description of a messy set of boxes and objects on top of a high shelf that she had not noticed, which of course is understandable in a room prepared at the scale of 3 to 6 year olds. However, she saw Mario’s eyes right away traveling up to those boxes. Well, she always laughed heartily at that recollection. It was for her an experience to be related with good humor, and a lesson in the preparation of the environment, so artfully and humbly passed on to us, the next generation of Montessori teachers.
Jeanne had a deep understanding of Montessori pedagogy, and in particular Dr. Montessori’s perspective on the child and world peace. I would like to read to you a selection from some profound words written by Jeanne for a talk to parents and teachers given during the time I worked with her. The topic was Peace and Education:
She begins with: “I would like you to close your eyes,” so please do as she asks, if you wish, while I read Jeanne’s words.
“ I would like you to close your eyes and take an imaginary trip with me through time. I would like you to imagine that you are eleven years old. You are living in a large house surrounded by a beautiful garden. In front of the house there are three large trees, one of which is a towering pine. When you follow the path around the house you pass a rose garden followed by fruit trees with their branches bowed low under the weight of their blossoms for it is a beautiful spring evening.
…It is very peaceful and nature is very still and all around you is an atmosphere of expectation. Your mother appears on the balcony that runs along the back of the house. She calls out to you that it is time for bed. Once in bed, you are listening to the evening sounds that come drifting through the open window. You hear your parents’ voices floating up to you from the garden and all is well with your world.
…Just imagine now that it is about four o’ clock in the early morning hours… It sounds like a hive of angry bees. A small fear is starting to build up in your stomach. You know there is something wrong, but you do not know what it is. You call out but no one hears you and you know that you have to get up and find out for yourself. Your feet hit the cold floor and you run out into the hallway… you see your parents. You rush towards them… your father utters a low moan and murmurs, Oh, my God!” His voice alone tells you something is very wrong indeed… [They are] staring up into the sky.
…All of a sudden your attention is drawn towards one particular plane, for something white comes fluttering away from it. But it is only the first white flutter of thousands to follow…It looks beautiful and should make you feel good for such a spectacle you might never see again but you know deep inside that nothing good is coming from this. You realise there are little dolls hanging on them and all of a sudden you hear dull plopping sounds coming from the fields in the back of the house…You are now bursting to know what is going on and once again you ask, “What is happening?” This time it is your grandmother who turns to you and says only one word, “War.”
War? What is war? Besides the Cowboy and Indian games you have been playing you have no real concept what war is or means. But you will soon find out, for shortly after there is a loud banging on the door and twelve paratroopers break into the house…The house is fired upon incessantly and it is obvious to all that soon nothing will remain. At that moment… one of the soldiers is dragging you to the front door, pushing a white apron of your mother’s into your hands and shouting at you to hold it up high when outside…And suddenly, you are outside on the front stoop with the door slammed shut behind you and the roar of the heavy artillery directed on the house in front of you. Instinct alone raises your arm high with the white apron fluttering in the wind.
In that small moment of time the guns suddenly fall silent and time stands still for you. A silence so heavy that you can almost feel it surrounds you and out of that ominous quiet comes floating towards you the beautiful song of a bird sitting in the tall pine tree.
And there, born in that silence, broken by the song of the bird, is a thought that will travel with you through life that you will do anything so that this may never happen again to you or anyone else.”
Please open your eyes.
Jeanne goes on to say that this thought, that she will do anything so that this may never happen again to anyone, never left her during the 5 years of terror, suppression, and famine that followed…but grew stronger as did her understanding of what true peace is…not the peace that comes with armistice after a war, but peace meaning, “ being in harmony with yourself and through that, in harmony with the world.” These are Jeanne’s words…, “[peace is] being in harmony with yourself and through that, in harmony with the world.”
Jeanne believed and communicated in her very being, in how she lived, and in her writing that “the highest law of human life is love.” She saw this love as most visible in the young child and always said that we must have faith in the great powers of the child to be an instrument of peace. Jeanne wrote the following in a beautiful book she made for my colleague Susan Wilkinson when she was leaving Connecticut for further Montessori training.
Jeanne wrote: “To commit the most unforgiveable is to lose your trust in the children of this world.”
Jeanne told us that, “Wars are based on mistrust, greed, suspicions.” She counseled that, “ We need to educate ourselves, and start thinking along universal lines of respect for human rights, rights for people’s fundamental freedoms and equal justice for all.” She communicated to us and to the many teachers, parents and children who had the privilege of working with her, a sense of our basic goodness as human beings, and that if were to truly strive for the protection of children and their rights we would solve many of our social ills.
Jeanne loved to quote these beautiful words of Pablo Casals, words spoken at age 96 at the UN:
“The child must know that he is a miracle, a miracle that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been and until the end of the world there will not be another child like him.”
Recalling the children in my first classroom, I remember how Jeanne truly enjoyed and celebrated the unique personality of each child; she took the time to know each child as an individual. I can see her standing and looking down happily on the big field behind the school watching the children playing and running free. She loved to see them running free!
A thousand thank yous, Jeanne, for sharing your journey to wisdom, and for showing us by your example that children are our teachers of peace.
At end of Jeanne’s talk on Peace and Education, she again asks her listeners to close their eyes.
Let’s do that now and listen to her beautiful closing thoughts:
“Let us close our eyes to focus our minds on the inner light, our common light, in whose brightness we shall be able to walk together in the dark.
Let us close our eyes as a gesture of trust in the guidance of the one Spirit who will move us if we open our hearts.
One is the human spirit, but the human spirit is more than human because the human heart is unfathomable.
Into this depth let us silently sink our roots. There lies our only source of peace.”

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