Savannah Morning News
Feb. 12, 2017
You better believe Maggie Smith knew what she was doing 35 years ago when she chose a giant box of crayons as the logo for her school. You know the place. It’s on Abercorn. You drive past it 15 times a week, grinning every time, even if you don’t exactly know what’s going on there or you don’t have children who go there. You remember the joy (and the smell) of a brand new box of pointy crayons, never been used; the despair of misplacing your red; the anguish of breaking your orange, the discovery of combining green and yellow.
By now Maggie could have dumped the whole old-fashioned crayon thing. She could have gone modern. She could have replaced the sign with a tablet featuring WIFI, a kid friendly Web browser or a bi-lingual teach-and-talk tablet.
Not Maggie. She’s right up there with actor/personality RuPaul: “Don’t be afraid to use all the colors in the box.”
No one could ever accuse Maggie Smith of not using every color in the box. Not this blue-eyed, red-headed second-generation daughter of Ireland. Not this former cheerleader who grew up in Berkeley, Ca. Or of giving up on an idea once it takes hold. She had already started dipping her toe into the pre-school thing, perfecting what she calls “the creative alternative” when she spotted the empty concrete-block building next to Chuck E. Cheese’s on Abercorn, the place she now occupies. She knew she would need the space if she was going to go beyond a half-day program for kids and be flexible enough to meet the needs of parents, some of whom don’t need a school all week. So she called and called the owner. But she never got the green light she wanted – only, “no, no and no.” It was not for rent. The owner had bought the building. He planned to tear it down and build spaces for doctors’ offices. It was not available. Period.
In the meantime, she packed up the program she started in her dining room in 1982 and moved to a carriage house behind Blessed Sacrament across from Daffin Park. Then she moved again, this time to the Nativity School on Victory Drive, next to the former St. Mary’s Home.
Despite the name – Maggie’s Morning School – the place is open until 6.
All of this happened after she taught fifth-grade remedial reading at Blessed Sacrament in the mid-to-late ‘70s and art at the Jewish Educational Alliance. But Maggie’s mind was always open to new ideas. She was always searching. When she saw a Hallmark special on television about Marva Collins, an education pioneer in Chicago, she went to the library on Bull Street and read everything she could on Collins’ approach to teaching what people were calling “slow learners.” Then she discovered the ideas of Bev Bos- “my biggest mentor” – and what Bos called a play-based learning environment.
That was all Smith needed to hear. Let kids have a childhood, she likes to say. Let them play. Every square inch of the 8,000-square-foot place (it’s much bigger than it looks from Abercorn) – the floors, the walls, the ceilings – are filled with paintings, images, photographs, traced hands, shapes, speckles and sparkles. There’s a collage table, a table for writing and listening, a raised bed of baby lettuce and carrots, a mud kitchen, a place to make necklaces out of Cheerios, a room for toddlers, a place for pre-Ks. She puts together literary bags for parents to take home.
When she said, “If they don’t go home tired and dirty I’m not doing my job,” you get the feeling she means it.
Got an old bathtub? “Put some books in it and let them read. Rub a dub dub, just relaxing in the tub.” Got some extra mirrors? “Put them on the ceiling so kids can bend back and look up. It wakes up the brain.” Got some extra corks? “They’re great for sorting and easing your way into numbers.” The grapefruit tree in the garden? “We set up an easel, gave them some paints and they started painting the tree. The environment sends a message. We have to pay attention.”
How about a guessing game? “See that pumpkin there? We had kids guess how many seeds were inside.” Answer? 815.
She’s got a hissing beetle, a guinea pig, a cockatiel.
Give them a safe place to make memories with other kids – “and then watch how they become roommates in college; it’s amazing.” Give them time to make connections and create relationships. And that doesn’t mean sitting at desk, going through worksheets.
“We don’t give kids enough credit,” she said. “Let them figure things out for themselves. The other day two little boys were fighting over a piece of cake. I finally said, ‘I’ll take the cake. You two figure out what to do with it.’ And they did. They came back to me and said they would split it.”
Not that all of it is easy. About 10 years ago, burned out, emotionally drained and a wee bit tired, Smith, now 66, changed gears for a while. For five years she traveled the state and did teacher training. She needed the distance. She’d check into the school a few days a week but she trusted her staff. Most of them had been there 10 years or more. But in the end, she couldn’t stay away.
“I’m an idea junky,” she said. “This is where I need to be.”