Bouncing around at the bottom of a hilly driveway, about 200 Atlanta Speech School students were limbered up and antsy to get to the race starting gate.
Their coach saw an opportunity — time enough for one more warm-up before the 36th annual Fun Run.
So they could see her, Maggie Deaner scrambled atop a narrow brick wall, relatively short on one side but with a 10-foot-or-more drop overlooking the runners on the other.
With less than 2 feet of room to maneuver atop the wall, the 66-year-old broke into jumping jacks. She hula hooped. She did knee bends.
As some of the parents cringed above, the kids below just looked up and followed her movements. They’re used to the amazing antics of “Ms. Maggie,” as were students before them.
Deaner retired in May after 41 years at the Atlanta Speech School, a Buckhead-based center for language and literacy that serves children and adults with speech, hearing, language or learning disabilities.
Thinking about leaving made her “get a little dust in my eyes, you know what I mean?” Deaner said. But she said it’s time for her and her husband, Dick, to travel, do more volunteering, and focus on being “Old Dad” and “Grandmag” for their six grandchildren.
Her profound impact on children is illuminated each year in the 1-mile Fun Run, a parent-driven event that raises funds for the center’s Wardlaw School, a program for children with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities.
Beginning with six weeks of incremental training and meticulously charted progress, the Fun Run is not a one-time event but an experience with year-round impact, said Comer Yates, the Atlanta Speech School’s executive director.
“It’s not just about showing up and giving it your best that morning. It’s about getting better every day,” Yates said. “It’s a victory lap for these children who have worked so hard in all they’ve done here.”
Parent Deborah Blase, who chaired the event with parent Tina Reese Blitch, said Deaner teaches kids to aim for short-range and long-range goals. “With that planning, preparation and practice, they can do anything,” Blase said.
Katie Robinson, 9, provides living proof. “At the beginning of the training, I couldn’t run around a lot,” Katie said, “but at the end of Fun Run training, I ran a mile!”
“She inspires me,” said Avery Grace Messner, 11. “She encourages me to do stuff and makes me feel good when I do it. She cheers me on.”
The students got to cheer on their teacher at the recent annual Fun Run T-shirt reveal.
Assisted behind the scenes, Deaner once again managed to put on the T-shirt from every previous Fun Run, including the 2015 shirt.
The students chanted her name as the shirts were pulled off, one by one, down to this year’s tie-dyed shirt and an extra one slipped on by her sneaky T-shirt assistants — a “We (heart) Ms. Maggie!” shirt.
Deaner took her bow by springing into not one, but two cartwheels.
Yates said Deaner is “a force of nature” who is devoted to the school community.
“She has more goodwill and more will than maybe anybody I’ve ever met in my life,” he said.
The petite human dynamo is at the YMCA every weekday morning by 5:30 a.m. for swimming or boot camp exercise. Deaner said she’s always been an ‘outside’ person, adding, “I always got an A in recess.”
She was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee when she learned about the job at the Atlanta Speech School, a place at which both her mother and aunt had volunteered.
When she started work there, most of the school’s children were hearing impaired and she couldn’t understand them. But by the end of two months, teachers were coming to her to ask her what their students were saying, Deaner said.
Children say they love her, and parents have a tough time talking about her leaving. Many of the alumni who joined in the Fun Run were parents of children who are now in Deaner’s classes.
Mary Reed, 40, one among that number, calls Deaner “the spirit of the school.”
“She hasn’t changed since the first day,” Reed said.
An active volunteer at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Deaner is known for being the first to give birthday cards to her coworkers at school. She insists that her students learn names rather than refer to each other as “that boy” or “that girl.”
Her reason: “I just think you need to make a new friend every day.”
–By Donna Williams Lewis