In 1998, the Montessori School of Ithaca was renamed the Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca, in honor of one of our most beloved students: Elizabeth Ann Clune. As a three-year old, Elizabeth, a child with Down’s syndrome, had been a student in Andrea Blitzer Riddle’s pre-school classroom. In contrast with special education practices of that time, Andrea taught Elizabeth using the same materials and methods as every other child in her classroom.
Elizabeth thrived and was a student at the school for the next 12 years.The relationship between Elizabeth and the school proved to be formative in defining its mission. The faculty became passionately committed to educating all children – regardless of their personal strengths and weaknesses – using the Montessori Method. Furthermore, inclusion became a basic tenet of the school.
Elizabeth’s Message to the Community
The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth’s 2004 annual speech to the school community during Disability Awareness Week.
“Hi, my name is Elizabeth Clune. I was a student at Montessori for 12 years. I was a student here until I was 17 years old. I loved this school so much, I think I would still be a student, except I became too old. This year, I will be 28 years old. Now I work every day in a law office. But I am getting ahead of myself.
“I was born with a disability. I have Down syndrome. Down syndrome is something some of us are born with. It is an accident, and once you have it, you are stuck with it for life. It happens when a baby is conceived and it means the baby will be mentally retarded. I am mentally retarded. How did I get it? All of you have 46 chromosomes in each cell in your body. I have one extra chromosome. I have 47. In every 800 babies born, one will have Down syndrome.
“One extra chromosome helps me in a special way. My chance of having cancer is cut in half. But one extra chromosome causes lots of problems. I had open heart surgery when I was one year old to patch a hole in my heart. My muscles and ligaments are loose and my kneecaps kept flipping out, back and forth. So I had surgery to tie my kneecaps in place. Recently I needed a pacemaker because I kept passing out. Something was wrong with the electrical system of my heart. Picking up small items, turning door knobs, and things like that are hard for me because I don’t have good fine motor skills. But my friends help me.
“Andrea and my mom tried and tried to teach me to tie my shoes, but gave up. I just could not do it. Guess who taught me? One of my classmates at Montessori. Andrea thought she was a miracle worker.
“There are certain signs we have that should tip you off we have Down syndrome. I have oval shaped eyes with extra folds around them, and the bridge of my nose is flat too. I also have a straight line across the palm of my hand. Mine is straight. Yours is not. I will show it to you later if you like, and you can see how it is different from the lines in your hand.
“I can learn, but not as fast as you. I have to do things over and over and over and over again until I finally get it. My dad calls it “reps”. It means repetition. If I keep doing it, I finally get it. And boy! Have I kept doing it! All this repetition allows me to read, write, spell, play the piano, read music, swim, play the recorder and dance in dance recitals.
“You know, most Down syndrome people cannot read. Montessori taught me to read. It was not easy. Andrea and the teachers, and my classmates, had a lot of patience as they all helped to teach me to read. Can you imagine what life would be like if you could not read? I read all of the time. Every day. Thanks to this school.
“When I graduated from Montessori, I went to ACS, the Alternative Community School. I became a varsity cheerleader for the Ithaca High School basketball team and was also a member of the Ithaca High School varsity girls swimming team. That year the swimming team were the champions of the Southern Tier Athletic Conference and were undefeated. I swam one of the relays and also the butterfly.
“But I could never have done all of this without Montessori and the help of regular Montessori kids, who have been in my classes and been my friends. I have learned so much simply by watching regular kids work and play in school each day. That is why I am now able to work each day and do a good job.
“I have learned so much from watching and being with my friends who are not mentally retarded. And the surprising thing is that no one has said a mean thing to me. I have never been called a “retard” or names like that. My classmates and friends on the swim team, cheerleading squad, in my dance classes and at work have always watched out for me. Most of these kids were with me at Montessori.
“I have Down syndrome, but don’t be sad. I am the happiest person in the world with my extra chromosome. Tomorrow, I fly to my home in Florida for a few weeks to swim and relax. I come home and go to New York City to see a Broadway show. And I am going to a Yankee baseball game. I have lots of brothers and sisters who love me to pieces and they will protect me if my parents have an accident.
“So you see, Montessori taught me to read. Montessori taught me to write. Montessori found a place for me in all of its plays and on all of its trips. And most of all, Montessori loved me just as much as it did regular kids. And because of that, I am always happy, and I will always love this school. I will always love its teachers and I will always love its students.”