Maggie and her morning school

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.”

 

 

You were not supposed to die

Savannah Morning News

Sun., Feb. 5, 2017
It’s popular, I know, to read the obituaries in the newspaper, to keep up. Just not my style. I’m more of the “bad news travels fast” kind of gal. I know a goodly number of people who are ill or struggling. And I keep up with them. Sort of. The best I can. But how do you stay in touch with the people who are not in poor health, who are not below par, not on anyone’s sick list, who are not going anywhere but forward? Why would I waste time worrying about them? Those are the people you expect to be with us forever. Wrong, I know. But it’s a fact. That’s what we think. People who explore, change course in their 70s, rent an apartment in New York City, go to the opera in Santa Fe, sell properties and then buy more in Budapest. Budapest! Of all places.

Ronnie Kronowitz, you were not supposed to die. You are supposed to be here to listen to my complaints, to laugh at my jokes, to commiserate with me about the world’s fakakta ways. It’s not that we were close friends but we liked one another, especially when I learned you were born in Chicago, which meant we shared a few Midwestern traits. But that’s the way it is in Savannah. There are people you see sporadically, but when you do see them you can pick up the same conversation you had a year ago. Two years ago. These are people who can finish your sentence.

You could finish my sentences. You were leading the way for the rest of us, showing us how to regroup, refocus, rekindle. You of the many opinions, the broad gestures, the eager ear, the good taste in art; you, the traveler. You could show up in Savannah out of the blue (to me, at least, not to your family or good friends or neighbors on Bull Street), walk around Forsyth Park, go to a concert, visit your son Lowell’s store on Broughton Street, shake your finger at me and say none too quietly, “What’s going on?” (and mean it) or “Why haven’t you visited me in Budapest?” (and mean that too). I dutifully transferred all your information into my phone’s contact list and you added me to your legion of “friends” on Facebook. (“Aren’t we modern?” you said).

The last time I saw you we were at some gathering — there are no dearth of gatherings in this little/big town — and you said, “Who are these people? I don’t even know them.” That’s when I said, “Isn’t that great? That you or I don’t know them?” and you shook your head because you knew what I meant. We like our circles. We like our clan. Because we’ve been here a while we think we know Savannah. But it’s changing. New people are popping up and popping out all the time and it’s exciting. Still, we have to note it because we remember when it wasn’t quite so exciting.

I have no memory of how we met, how we started talking. I’m not from here, not in your work circle, not in your family (maybe your tribe but not your family). I didn’t go to your synagogue. I did live across the street from you and Bailee on Jones Street when I first moved to town. That’s when you lived next to Gloria and Ben Tucker. I would see Bailee, your wife. I went to some of her cooking lessons. But I didn’t see you. I think you were in your heavy work phase back then. You weren’t on the street much. Except Forsyth. You were a regular there. And you would kibitz. You would say, “How’s your mother? I want to know more about your mother” because that’s when I was writing about my Jewish mother (who passed away in 2010) and everyone can relate to the Jewish mother thing. When Lowell moved to town you would say, “You’ve got another University of Michigan compatriot. Are you watching the game? It’s on today.”

I don’t like that you’re not here, Ronnie. I know. Me, me, me, right? If you were here I would tell you how I teared up when your grandchildren — also teary — talked about you, their Papa, especially when your granddaughter said you told her, “Don’t pay any attention to what people think.” I would say how many people turned up at Bonaventure for your funeral. I would say, “What are we going to do the next four years?” and, “Maybe it’s time to buy stock in blood pressure medicine.”

But Lowell got us off the hook. He said — and I thought it was pitch perfect — that he didn’t want anyone crying to him about you. Instead, he wanted to hear Ronnie stories. I know there are plenty of them out there. Still, I’d rather be telling them to you.

Jane Fishman’s columns appear weekly in Accent. Contact her at gofish5@earthlink.net or call 912-484-3045.