The child, instead of being a burden, shows himself to us as the greatest and most consoling of nature's wonders! We find ourselves confronted by a being no longer thought of as helpless...but one whose dignity increases in the measure to which we see in him the builder of our own minds; [he is] the greatest marvel of the Universe, the human being.
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Montessori made a great contribution to the world in drawing attention to the importance of children as humanity's future. She emphasized the need to understand our way of relating to children and the environments that we provide for them. As a teacher, she articulated the importance of spiritual values for children and of looking at the child as a miracle of creation.
Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in the province of Ancona in Italy. Her father was employed by the government, and he came from a noble family. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was unusually well-educated for a woman of the times. She was described as a lady of piety and charm, and Maria and her mother had profound love and understanding between them.
When Maria was five years old, her parents moved to Rome to be able to provide her with a better education. Maria was very interested in mathematics and science, which were not considered usual interests for a girl. The local girls' school did not even offer courses for her to pursue her expanding interest in math and science; consequently, she attended classes at a technical school for boys. At this time she voiced the desire to pursue a career as an engineer, but this was especially unheard-of work for women. Her parents encouraged her to become a teacher because it was generally the only career open to women at that time. But Maria refused to even consider that option. Her interests grew, and she developed an overriding interest in biology, deciding to study medicine. This decision distressed her parents greatly–women simply did not attend medical school.
But Maria was determined to fulfill her goal, and her determination moved her mother, who eventually became her biggest source of support. At first–not surprisingly–she was refused admittance to the medical school, but after much struggle and with an appeal to the Pope himself, she was admitted as the first woman medical student in Italy. She won scholarships throughout her years of study and also augmented her income by giving private tutoring. She largely paid her own way through the university.
Maria confronted many difficulties during her student days, primarily from male students who resented her presence in a school that had always been all-male. She was not allowed to dissect dead bodies in the presence of male students as it was considered improper and, thus, had to do her dissecting work in the evenings, alone. She also had to deal with the overt opposition of her own father to her decision to study medicine. She became discouraged under the oppression of this compounded opposition and at one point reached the decision to drop out of medical school and seek a less controversial career.