I first met Lakshmi Kripalani at a Montessori conference ten years ago. Listening to her first-hand accounts of being trained by Maria and Mario Montessori was thrilling. Recently I had the opportunity to visit Ms. Kripalani in her home in Montclair, New Jersey. At almost 93, she is a fascinating and feisty storyteller with a sharp mind and keen sense of humor. A pioneer in Montessori education in India and America, Ms. Kripalani founded many schools as well as a teacher-training center in New Jersey. For the past 24 years she has written a column for Public School Montessorian. Covering topics important to Montessori educators, these articles are reproduced in her books, Montessori in Practice: Observations from a First-Generation Montessorian and More Montessori in Practice.
Calling to confirm the interview time, I asked, "May I bring you some lunch? Cookies?"
"You could bring some good biscuits, chocolate ones, " she replied.
My husband (who served as cameraman) and I arrived at 10 a.m., as arranged. After knocking at the front door for awhile, we discovered that it was open and let ourselves in, calling out to announce our presence. We found Ms. Kripalani in the kitchen looking fit and spry, dressed in slacks and a green embroidered Indian blouse. She said that since it was the full moon, she needed to do her pujas (the Hindu ritual of offerings and prayers). Showing us the tea, she invited us to make ourselves at home.
We enjoyed looking at the many awards that cover the walls of Ms. Kripalani's living room, interspersed with framed newspaper articles about her life, family photos and artwork from India. Honoring her lifetime of service as a Montessori educator, the awards include: Leading Educators, Notable Americans, American Biographer Hall of Fame, Golden Poet, Montessori Educators, and the International Peace Prize.
Two hours went by: Oil was delivered for the furnace; Meals on Wheels brought lunch; and we reflected on the American tendency to be in a rush. Then we heard a recording of Hindu chanting, signaling the end of the ceremony. Ms. Kripalani came downstairs, navigating each stair very carefully, due to her arthritis. She settled into her favorite chair and covered her feet with an embroidered Indian shawl. With tea in hand, the interview began.
(Irene Baker) What was it like being a young woman in India in the 1940s? Did you attend college?
(Lakshmi Kripalani) My uncle supported me to attend one year of college. I broke the record in mathematics. I stopped because my younger sister wanted to go to university.
(IB) Did you have any teacher training before you met Dr. Montessori?
(LK) No. So many people were migrating out of Karachi because of the war (World War II). You could get a job teaching.
(IB) You wanted to teach; did your parents want you to marry and stay home?
(LK) My parents couldn't get me married because they didn't have enough money. My father had worked for the East Indian Trading company and quit... then he lost everything.
He was very controlling and would not allow me to take a job. He didn't want his daughters to work because it was below his dignity. My father put me in the pickle jar so I cracked the pickle jar! I wrote a poem about it. (She smiled as she read it aloud.)
Born to be pickled in a bottle
When the pickle was ripe it cracked the bottle...
(IB) How did you have the courage to crack the pickle jar?
(LK) Father would not allow me to go apply anywhere. A teacher I knew, she begged my mother to give me the permission to come and teach. Mother said, "On one condition, that she [Lakshmi] comes [to the school] after her father goes to work and you bring her back before he comes back."
(IB) So he never knew!
(LK) After four or five years he asked, "Where have you been going?" (laughs)
(IB) Your mother was your ally and she was very smart.
(LK) She was not educated but she was more than an educated woman. She told my father, "She [Lakshmi] is not working for money. Would you feel it insults your dignity? But let her go." So he allowed it.
Later she lost her job, due to school reorganization.
(LK) I came home crying and had a temperature, because my freedom was lost. My mother told father: "Give her the living room and permission to get some children and do the teaching." So he agreed and my temperature went down. Amazing!
Ms. Kripalani first heard about Dr. Montessori while she was living in Karachi with her family and teaching in a municipal school. A supervisor came to test her students and was impressed by Ms. Kripalani's students' perfect dictations. He asked, "What is your secret?"
(LK) "I don't have any secret, I write on the board, they write." I had no training. I didn't know what was my philosophy.
He said, "You must meet Dr. Montessori." He told me to go to the south of India and meet her. He wanted to sponsor me and got the funding for my training.
Then the supervisor visited Ms. Kripalani's father to get permission for her to take the training.
(LK) I was shaking in my shoes. My father was angry and told him to get out. Can you believe what was going in my mind? I couldn't take any action if I wanted to! On Monday morning the examiner came back and I said, "Please leave me alone, my father will close down the school and keep me at home. He will not allow me to go."
The supervisor said, "If you're not going, I'm going to invite Dr. Montessori to come here and give the course here."
When she [Dr.Montessori] was ready to come [to Karachi], he came and said, "Now if you don't take the training I will close your school!" So when Dr. Montessori came to Karachi I had to take the training! (chuckling)
Dr. Montessori and her son Mario had arrived in India in 1939 to teach a three-month course just as WWII broke out. Being Italians, Mario was interned for two months (as an "enemy alien") and at first Maria Montessori was confined to the Theosophical Society compound in Madras. They did not return to Europe until the end of the war in 1946.They gave many courses and trained thousands of Montessori teachers in India and Ceylon.
(IB) Tell me about your training with Maria Montessori in Karachi in the spring of 1946.
(LK) When I did the primary training, Dr. Montessori did the lectures and then Mario did the practical presentations.
(IB) What were Dr. Montessori's lectures like?
(LK) She was strong; she knew what she was saying. And she was so confident of herself and what she was saying that she didn't care what other people thought. She knew English but she didn't want to lecture in English. She spoke Italian and Mario translated [into English]. She lectured in the evening because India was hot. Actually the first day I met her, there were no empty chairs so I found a chair right near the stage and that became my permanent seat. (chuckling with pleasure)
(IB) Good for you!
(LK) Because you can hear everything directly and you can see. In the back you don't get everything! Mario wanted a volunteer to come on the stage to be the two-and-a-half year old that he could demonstrate to. No one wanted to, so I dared to volunteer. Mario called on me and he extended his hand. I refused to shake hands with him.
(IB) Because of your culture?
(LK) Yes, because of our custom.
(IB) That men and women were not supposed to touch?
(LK) Yes. He understood. He presented and I was the child all of the time. He liked the way I handled it, the way I was able to question him. He refused anyone else to do it. I was lucky, especially in such a big crowd because the demonstrations were on the stage.
(IB) How many were there?
(LK) About 500 people took the course. If you were in the back you could not see or hear or question. I was very lucky. With my ability, I was able to challenge him, question him, ask him to clarify. So in a way, I think that I got the training that nobody got.
—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.
—Originally Published 2013
Read part 2 of the interview, in which she describes the partition of India, teaching in a refugee camp without any materials, slipping out of the camp to visit Dr. Montessori, and more.