What was it like to work and learn from Magda?

We hear so much about her it's impossible to not wish we could have met her. What was it really like to study and work with Magda?

Where do I begin? Having the opportunity to have Magda as my teacher, my mentor, and at times my therapist was amazing, but having her as my friend was the greatest gift of all. I had the opportunity to study and work with her for more than 20 years, and I continue to be guided by her wisdom in my work life. But the memories of our friendship and the life’s lessons I learned during our time together are so deeply rooted in who I am.

Once during a fun weekend at my condo on the beach in California, I told her I would write a book about her. We laughed, and she made jokes about the content, but then asked, “What will the title be?” I responded, “Magda, They Hardly Knew You.”

That came from a feeling that our friendship was such that I was the only person who had real insights into her thoughts, her vision for children and families and her hopes for our society. But then I quickly realized anyone who was close to her could write a similar book because of the relationships she created with people. Relationships that were uniquely theirs, yet different from my relationship with Magda. It was her way of being with people. When you met her, she seemed to make you feel she waited all day to meet you and nothing she did was ever more interesting than what you did. She would spend so much time asking questions and getting to know all the many details that made you who you were.

While I had the opportunity travel and work with her, my favorite times were the middle two weeks of July on Whidbey Island, Washington. It happened every year for more than 15 years. I believe she was most relaxed during those times, teaching the RIE® I Course (now called FoundationsTM). We were hosted by Chris and Edna Hansen in their dome house built by Chris. She loved going there, and I loved listening as she shared her work. I took many notes, especially during those times when she challenged her students to go deeper in their thinking about the Approach.

I was especially focused on her quotes. Magda had a way of expressing herself that was uniquely Magda. She would make a simple statement that was like poetry. She painted pictures with her wisdom in a way one would never forget.

I recall one special evening when Edna had arranged for Magda to speak at a senior citizens meeting. She reluctantly agreed because it was important to Edna but wondered why they would be interested in her work. “Well, they were babies once,” I teased. She laughed and asked, “Do you think they will remember that?” She was her sweet, charming self as she greeted each one and began asking them about their lives. Soon she came to the most important question of the evening. “If you could go back to your youth, to the adult in your life who was responsible for your care, what would you say to them?”

After some false starts and a bit more reflecting, the responses poured forth from each person. I was happy to have my small notebook, so I began to take notes. Each one responded, some quiet emotional, and others with great joy. There were tears. Magda seemed to have unleashed memories that touched each person in a special way.

Later when I had the opportunity to recall each person’s story, they were all different, but I noticed there was a common thread that ran through all of them. Some said they would thank their person and acknowledged that the person knew them and loved them for who they were. Others said they wished their special person had spent more time with them and known them better. When I shared my insights from the evening with Magda, that’s when I first heard her now famous quote, “Everyone wants someone who understands.”

There are many more memories but I will stop here and close with this last memory, and I dare add, a challenge from Magda. It was our last year together on Whidbey Island. As was our ritual at the end of the Course, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of the dome and joined Magda on her bed. We shared a Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey, and I drafted the student evaluations for her approval.

We discussed this would be her last trip and talked about the memories through the years. Then she asked, “Pollyka, what will you do when I can no longer work?” I couldn’t imagine life on Whidbey Island without her present. “Magda, I am not one who will do great things, but I will share your work with anyone who asks me to come.” I never realized so many people would ask me. It is heartwarming to know her message is growing internationally and I am grateful for all our Associates who reach out and share her work. But I recognize that it’s not me they want to hear, but the message. The message of respect and demonstrating our love in the way that we care.

As the evening ended, I promised her I would continue to do her work. She said, “Pollyka, don’t do it, live it.” This continues to be my challenge as I try to “live the work.”

About Our Associate:

Polly Elam (Paso Robles, California) studied and worked with Magda Gerber for 20 years and has been a member of the RIE® Board of Directors since 1986. She has served as President since 2011. Polly studied at the Pikler Institute in 1986, 2005, 2008 and 2012 and presented at the Pikler International Conference in 2007. She is a WestEd PITC Graduate and has experience as a Regional Child Development Program Administrator and Community College Instructor. She was a contributing writer to Authentic Relationships In Group Care for Infants and Toddlers, RIE® Principles Into Practice. As an ECE Consultant, Polly has worked with a variety of infant/toddler programs and has conducted seminars and training in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and throughout the United States. pollyelam@aol.com + www.pollyelam.com

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