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As One Chapter Ends, an Old One Resumes: Welcome Back, Teacher Monty

By: JB ’20, Editor-in-Chief

“I’m not sure I’ll have this opportunity again if I don’t take it now. I’m trying to grab life by the horns and take this adventure with the person I love.” These were the final words uttered by Teacher Monty Ogden before he left his post at Friends’ Central School in June 2017 to courageously move to Costa Rica with his now wife. Two years, dozens of hikes, and an infinite number of majestic experiences later, Monty finds himself back in the position he once held on City Line Avenue as an English teacher and advisor. The binational, multi-cultural, dual-lingual super-educator remarks on his return to Friends’ Central, “It’s starting to feel really, really good.”

While it’s fairly uncommon for a former teacher to return to a school where he once taught following years away (though this seems to be an increasing trend at Friends’ Central with the notable recent returns of Ms. Megan Shumeacher, Mr. Jason Polykoff ’02, and Mrs. Beth D. Johnson ’77), it’s doubly unique for the same journalist to have the privilege of interviewing such a faculty member both as he prepared to depart from the School as well as when he returned. As soon as I caught word that Monty, who had been a phenomenal advisor to me during my first year in FOCUS, would be coming back, I knew I would relish the chance to continue the conversation as a senior that I began with him as a freshmen. When we last spoke in June 2017, Monty expressed a bit of nervousness and an abundance of excitement about moving to Costa Rica to teach at Monteverde Friends School. With the experience now behind him, he reflects, “It was humbling. There was definitely an adjustment period, which felt a little strange because life there is actually much gentler. Yet, after settling in, which took a few months, it felt really awesome to slowly integrate myself into that world. It’s so strange that it has now ended.”

Though in Monteverde, Monty obtained a role similar to that which he had held at Friends’ Central. He shares that, unsurprisingly, there were an immense amount of difference between the Friends school in suburban Philadelphia versus the one in Costa Rica: “I spent a lot of time with other forms of life beyond just the human beings that I normally conceive as my community. You can’t help but notice those forms of life that surround you.” Another major difference between Monty’s two communities is the emphasis on college. Monty explains, “[In Costa Rica], they are just talking about college less. Parents talk about it less. Students talk about it less. I definitely had high-achieving students...but it’s just not the first point of contact. I think there are many families who would be just as happy for their kid[s] to become a naturalist guide in the area or help out in the family’s hotel business as they would for them to go on to college. Many do go on to college, but they don’t always do it immediately. I think there is a mental health benefit to that orientation.” He adds, “My commute was also very different because it was an eight-minute walk to school with my partner and eventual wife. We walked together because we were working there together, and that was a big change.” All differences considered, Monty emphasizes, “Teenagers are teenagers. It’s not as though they were always relishing their access to nature. I think, in general, they do have an ecological literacy that kids who don’t grow up in a setting like that don’t have. Even so, many of them were anxious to get out of this community that they had lived in for so long and see other parts of the world.” He continues, “Cell phones were an issue, definitely! We had to figure out as a school how to deal with the distractions of cell phones.”

About race relations in the United States versus Costa Rica, Monty observes, “I’m half Cuban, but I’ve never felt so white as I did teaching in Costa Rica. Teaching at a Quaker school founded by white Quakers from the US, in English, to majority Spanish-as-a-first-language students, it was strange. It was strange to reckon with the history of colonization and scrubbing away of home languages, which isn’t to say that that was what we were about at the school at all. Race is real in Costa Rica, but they think about it in different ways, whereas I was coming from the US in this moment of a lot of painful growth around racial consciousness and conversation,” he testifies.

Monty may have left Friends’ Central, yet Friends’ Central never left him. Monty recalls a special time during which his Wynnewood community came to mind during his time in Monteverde: “When I was in Meeting on Wednesdays, especially early on, I found myself thinking a lot about Friends’ Central students, and just how wild it was that somewhere in another part of the world, there were these kids who were also sitting in silence.” In regard to another situation which connected him to FCS, Monty expounds, “The year before I came to MFS had been a particularly painful year. They’d had several teachers for a single position leave...You could kind of feel some of the pain from that. Strangely, that was something that also connected me to Friends’ Central, because the year that I left was a year of a lot of painful transition and departure at a school that doesn’t see a lot of it.” Some new skills Monty developed during his time away include playing pool (billiards) and birdwatching. “I’ve gotten pretty good at my bird call,” the humble-yet-enthused Ogden admits. Throughout our conversation, it became evident that Monty became greatly accustomed with the Costa Rica lifestyle. When asked if he and his wife considered remaining in Costa Rica longer, he responds, “We both were interested in potentially staying longer, but felt pulled back to be with family. In some ways, it feels like an important moment to be in the United States, even though it was pretty nice to get away from all that.”

Now that he’s back in full swing at Friends’ Central, Monty discloses what it was like for him to return: “Strangely I feel like the transition this time was more jarring than my first transition to Friends’ Central.” Yet, he assures, “I felt incredibly welcomed. I felt myself on the receiving end of a lot of love and good will. People were genuinely excited that I was back, and that felt really good. It was also overwhelming because it was a strange blip in time to be back in a place that was familiar but has changed while I was gone.” Since returning, Monty has noticed, “It feels like we have gotten a lot better at figuring out how to have difficult conversations as a community. It feels like that’s happening in healthy ways. It feels like some hard, loving work was done, which I’m very appreciative of.”

With this two-year undertaking of a lifetime as a part of the core of who he now is, Monty guarantees that, while he’s excited to return to the familiarity of Friends’ Central, he will be bringing elements from his Costa Rica experience to his work back at FCS: “In Costa Rica, they say, ‘pura vida.’ The phrase is used regularly to encourage people to take a chill pill. If something hasn’t gotten done yet, there’s just a sort of faith that it will get figured out, and we don’t need to worry about it too much. I think there’s a much larger emphasis on immediate gratification and success and progress and accomplishment in the US in ways that we should feel very proud of, but that can also rob us of the moment.” To bring the spirit of “pura vida” into his classroom at FCS, Monty has eagerly integrated plants into his classroom decor, as well as further weaved poetry and gratitude practices into his teaching style. He also mentions that at Monteverde Friends, e-mail is less a part of the daily experience. While he acknowledges how the electronic communication method can be helpful in a larger environment such as Friends’ Central, the break from Internet overload made Monty realize that “sometimes, we get lost in the web of e-mail,” and that it could be beneficial if we consider ways to increase our face-to-face interaction. On the topic of e-mail, though, Monty displays some “pura vida” gratitude about the fact that while his current email address is the same as before he left, he did let an old-school American grumble slip through: “all of my old e-mails are gone, and I want ‘em!”

Teacher Monty offers one last remark of appreciation: “It is so sweet to be in Dr. P’s old room. [Dr. Patterson is another of FOCUS’s beloved former co-advisors, who retired from Friends’ Central in 2017.] Thomas had moved the desk to the other side of the room, but in order to fully celebrate Dr. P’s legacy and memory, I decided to move it back.” Having certainly “grabbed life by the horns” as he had set out to do over two years ago, Monty offers one last piece of wisdom that he picked up along his journey: “Transitions are intense and beautiful, and people should be patient with themselves during periods of transition and have faith.”

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