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.”



Shampoo ginger: a new beauty queen

Savannah Morning News

September 4, 2016

It’s one thing to be drop-dead good looking and low-maintenance to boot but to have function and purpose as well? We call that a two-fer. That’s exactly what you get when you plant the pine cone ginger. Plus – get this –  the plant’s nickname is “shampoo ginger.” Could that be, especially when it thrives with no water, no soothing words, no worry, when it cares nothing for shade or no shade? Last year I used the oozy, medicinal center of the comfrey plant – nicknamed “bone knit” – to heal a busted knee cap. This year I followed instructions, plucked the bloom, took it into the shower, squeezed the squishy liquid center and used it to “restore luster and brilliance” to my hair, just like the Breck commercials used to promise.

My only beef is this: pine cone gingers spread. They make themselves at home. They take over. And all of this on a spot of land I’ve taken to calling “the garden that used to be a driveway.” The beautiful Texas red-star hibiscus a few feet away? Dwarfed. Overshadowed. Complaining (“Hey, what about me? Last year you thought I was the cat’s meow. What am I now? Chopped liver?”). Dear red-star: I have not forgotten you. You are my first-born (sort of). In a few months, when plants can be moved with minimal stress I will give you a new spot. You’ll have your own turf again. I promise.

I’ve made a lot of these promises lately. Gardens are mutable; they’re liable to change, sometimes for the worse. Last year’s favorite (or was it two years ago?), the delectable dotted horsemint, a member of that sprawling monarda (or perhaps you say mint) family, took my breath away, so delicate, so subtle was she. And that was before I was even sure of her name. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the swamp sunflower, prized for its stature and hardiness, edged closer and closer, took more and more territory and, in a battle royal, edged out my sweet little horsemint. None of this happens quickly. You think all is well, that you’re in control and then you look away, maybe go away for a few days. When you return you forgot you ever had horsemint. Horsemint who? But then this survivor of the fittest pops up in the middle of your drought-tolerant, non-complaining variegated zebra grass and you remember. Aha! Horsemint! Must do something about horsemint. Put it on the list.

Then there’s the beloved indigo. Last year it towered 10 feet high, more a statement than a material for a dye. I’ll leave the dyeing to the good people at the Ossabaw Island Foundation. I just do the planting. Up until now, I never worried about shaking out seeds and replanting it because I never had to. For the past seven or eight years my indigo has always come back on its own. Until this year. Until I broadcast some itty-bitty amaranth seeds I snagged from Janisse Ray’s seed-sharing project at the Tattnall County Library. I thought I had tossed them a safe distance away. Au contraire. I forgot to factor in the strength of those seeds. After all, the grain known as amaranth does go back some 8,000 years. It’s got some pretty good staying power as well.

And it’s a stunning plant. I don’t have any flowers yet and I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to grinding this gluten-free product, but the leaves are two-toned and striking. And it’s tall. At least as tall as the indigo, which it seems to have been dislodged and/or displaced. Boo hoo.

Even worse is what I did to the Scarlett runner beans, another plant I have grown for the heart-shaped leaves and the red, red color – who doesn’t love red? – but which I have never eaten.  In my zest to clear some real estate for more runner beans I inadvertently unearthed some roots of the mother plant. Quick like a bunny I tried to bury them back before anyone noticed the error of my ways. But no dice. No cigar. No one likes to be disturbed that way. The vine died. And I silently cried. They were no beautiful. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I didn’t ingest some brain-eating amoeba while swimming in a lake. I didn’t dislodge the remote control and leave the batteries for some child to put in his or her mouth. I didn’t nick the spleen of a cat in the process of trying to neuter her (not me – someone who should have known better). I merely made a few mistakes in the garden. But that’s OK. Gardens are very forgiving places. Even if certain plants do tend to take over.

Anyway, it’s unseemly for Breck girls to complain.