All aboard: Hello, Minot

Savannah Morning News

Feb. 26, 2017

The day after a 7,000-mile Amtrak train trip across the the northern part of the country on the Empire Builder, down the California coast on the Pacific Surfliner, then east on the Southwest Chief before catching the Capitol Limited and finally the Silver Star to Savannah, I sat up in my own bed and thought, “Why have we stopped? What’s going on? Where am I?”

Things were too quiet, too still. Something must be wrong with a coupler or a signal light. We must be waiting for a freight train to pass (freight trains have priority over Amtrak’s passenger trains and they’re not always very generous). Or was it Elyssa, a mechanic, dressed for bear, wielding her duct-tape-wrapped blow torch, who appeared early one morning in our car to unfreeze the sinks and shower? “They’re all froze up,” she said.

That was in Minot (rhymes with “Why not?”), North Dakota. We had stopped at 8 a.m. for a smoke break. And there was that issue with the frozen switches.  No kidding. The bank clock read “0 degrees.” A few weeks later on a return trip through Albuquerque, New Mexico, the conductor called the same stop a “fresh air break.” Same thing as far as I could see. “If you detrain” – that’s a word they use (really!) for when you step outside – “watch your time. We will not be waiting around for you.”

Trains are like that. Rumbling along at 79 miles an hour, they bring everything down to a human level. “Raise your hand if you need a 7:30 dinner reservation,” said a sharply dressed attendant striding through the car as if he were walking around the park, so comfortable was he with the rocking and rolling of the train. At night passengers slip off their shoes for slippers, young children change into one-piece flannel pajamas. During the day experienced travelers set up shop in the double-decker, floor-to-ceiling observation cars. Some knit. Others read, play solitaire, work crossword puzzles called Holy Land Places, watch movies. Or they look out the window at machine shops, spray-painted walls, old opera houses, boarded-up shops, rivers, waterfalls, hills, ballfields, scenes out of Edward Hopper.

The observation car is where you get some of your best conversations. That’s where I met an Amish couple. Their children (or maybe they weren’t their children but they were dressed alike) were playing Bible Bingo when I started talking to the adults. They were heading home to Indiana. The missus had just had dental transplant surgery in Tijuana, Mexico. They detrained in San Diego, walked across the street to the commuter train, caught the blue line and got off in San Ysidro at the Mexican border.

“Then we walked up with our passports – and a big smile – to the immigration office, passed through and took a taxi to the dentist’s office,” her husband said.

They were there in a hotel for one week. The first night was free. The dentist pulled all her teeth and prepped her for two implants. They’ll return in two months.

The Amish don’t like to fly. It’s too fast paced. This couple runs a general store. They put all their expenses on an Amtrak credit card – “See?” he said, holding up the card – and then travel on points. They seemed to be traveling with nine or ten friends. It was hard to tell who knew whom.

On the Empire Builder I spotted two more couples sitting with a beautiful triple-decker homemade coconut cake in the middle of a table in the observation car. One of the men – a professor in downstate Illinois – was celebrating a 65th birthday. When I eyed the cake they picked up the clue and gave me a piece and that’s when we got to talking. They were headed to Spokane, Wash., to interview a 90-year-old uncle. But before that they planned on stopping for a return visit to the Izaak Walton Inn at the foot of Glacier National Park in Montana.

When I got back to my seat I started thinking about the Inn, called them up and made a reservation for that night.  I was traveling on a 30-day USA Rail Pass. This allowed me to get on and off the train 12 times. I already had several segments planned for visits in Minnesota, Oregon and California.

That night around 8 I grabbed my suitcase, waited for the Essex, Mont. stop, and met up again with my four new friends. The inn had sent a van for us. The Essex station is what they call a flag station. The only people who get on and off are going to this Inn. There is very little to do in Essex. “It was the cake,” one of the men said when he saw me. “You wanted more cake.”

The Inn, which included rooms in several old refurbished cabooses, was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway for lodging railway workers. There are no televisions and no cell service. Digital detox at the Izaak Walton. My room was on the second floor. In the morning I woke to the sound of a crackling fire in the fireplace. Many people go there for the cross-country skiing. I considered it until I stepped outside and looked at the thermometer. Three degrees. Then I looked at my sneakers and jeans and opted for the outdoor hot tub. By the time I slid into the steamy water the first few inches of a predicted 30-inch snow fall had just begun floating overhead.

That night I caught the same 8 p.m. westward bound train, snuggled into my coach seat and fell asleep. No too many people travel that direction in winter so I had two seats to myself most of the way. In the morning I awoke to what I learned was the wild and wooly Columbia River running between us and the Cascade Mountains for what seemed like hours. A thin layer of snow dusted abandoned cars, the red roofs of train stations and parked Airstream trailers much like it covered that triple-decker homemade coconut cake. Time stood still.

By the time I got back to Savannah I had one segment left on my Rail Pass. I could still go somewhere. But how would I get home?








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.”