The graceful lady, often seen wearing a sari, who has been the heartbeat of Montessori Center School since its founding, is retiring from classroom duties—if anyone can be said to “retire” from a Montessori life. And what a life it has been for Nimal Vaz, intertwined from the beginning with the work of Maria Montessori, and dedicated to the service of the child.
Not often is a life path inscribed from the tender age of three. But that seems to have been the case in 1944 when Nimal became the first child enrolled in the first Montessori classroom in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was a Primary (ages 3–6) classroom especially set up for Dr. Maria Montessori’s first teacher training course in the island nation. Assisting on that course was Dr. Montessori’s close collaborator, Lena Wickramaratne (affectionately known as “Miss Lena” in the Montessori world), who happened to be Nimal’s aunt.
Nimal still remembers the simple opening ceremony when, together with Miss Lena, she cut a delicate pink ribbon to launch the school—and perhaps her own life’s mission. Five years later, Nimal was the Montessori Elementary child chosen to read an address of welcome on Dr. Montessori’s return visit to the school.
A Montessori Career, Unfolding
Upon graduating from the University of Ceylon in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy, Nimal rejoined her Aunt Lena. But this time the two met nearly a world away, in Oklahoma City. There, Nimal served as assistant as well as a student on the yearlong Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training course directed by Miss Lena. She received her AMI Primary Diploma in 1964.
As Montessori schools began to spread throughout the United States, Nimal responded to the need for teachers by helping to organize AMI training courses in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as Palo Alto, California; serving as assistant under Miss Lena on additional training courses; and teaching in Montessori Primary classrooms.
During these years, Nimal sharpened her focus on children with special needs, earning a master’s degree in special education from Arizona State University in 1966. By 1972, she was instrumental in establishing a Montessori classroom for children with developmental delays in one of Arizona’s largest hospitals, which she directed until 1985. She also served for several years on the advisory committee for the AMI special education training course in Munich, Germany, and has been a frequent speaker and writer on children with special needs for organizations such as AMI and the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association (NAMTA).
The Birth of Montessori Center School
Nimal founded the Montessori Education Center of Arizona, an AMI teacher training center, in 1980, and was its Director of Training until 2006. In conjunction with the training center, Nimal and her husband, Joe, decided to open a small Montessori school in their Phoenix home in 1987. Full enrollment at Montessori Center School (MCS) in that first year was just four students, one of them Nimal and Joe’s youngest daughter, two-year-old Amali.
MCS eventually moved to two bucolic acres of a former ranch, a setting that reflects another enduring theme of Nimal’s life: the strong connection between the child and nature. She wrote in The NAMTA Journal in 2013,
Why is nature so important for the young child? It is because man is both a spirit and matter.… For the spirit to soar, for the creative mind to take off, the material body must be firmly grounded in reality. Nature is real—there are controls of error in nature that keep us on the correct path on our journey from the concrete to the abstract.
The unique “sensory garden” at MCS embodies this theme and was beautifully highlighted in 2006 in two videos produced by NAMTA, The Child in Nature and Nurturing the Spirit. It was also selected as lead garden for the University of Arizona’s 2010 master gardeners’ showcase, Real Gardens for Real People.
It’s no surprise, then, that gardening is one of the passions Nimal looks forward to pursuing in retirement, along with travel and writing. Her husband, three grown daughters, and two granddaughters will rightly lay claim to much of her time.
A Remarkable Legacy
“Mrs. Vaz,” as the MCS children warmly call her, is a woman of many distinctions as a scholar, a teacher of both adults and children, and a Montessorian. First, she received both her Primary and Elementary education in Montessori schools. In addition, with 4 years as a classroom assistant plus 56 continuous years of teaching since she received her AMI Diploma, Nimal can boast 60 unbroken years in the Montessori classroom. During her 15 years as a teacher trainer, she directed 30 courses that developed approximately 325 Montessori teachers.
A greater distinction, however, lies in Nimal’s singular influence on individuals, from the three- to six-year-olds in her classrooms to the adults she has mentored into Montessori. In the words of one of her former trainees, “Nimal is a gift to the world. She brings new meaning to the word teacher. In addition to the adults she has trained to become Montessori teachers, she has transformed the lives of hundreds of children. She has made this a better world to live in.”
While Mrs. Vaz will certainly be missed in the Montessori Center School classroom, our program will continue to carry out her mission of guiding young children’s spirits and minds to soar. Nimal will remain with MCS as its Academic Mentor with in-house responsibilities including Education and Training of staff. We remain forever grateful for the years of service that Nimal has given to the Montessori community.
Copyright 2020 Montessori Center School, Phoenix