Once upon a time, circa 2009, in the magical land of Four Corners, was a kind and loving fairy godmother named Ms. Richelle, her flock of merry teachers, and their school of playful and imaginative children. While the children and teachers were very happy, Fairy Godmother Richelle was not satisfied. True, the children had a lovely outdoor space, colorful classrooms full of frogs and towers and secret nooks, but something was missing. Ms. Richelle saw that her teachers were full of energy and excitement. She says that her children simply sizzled with the electricity that only young minds can generate. What they needed to be inspired and reach new heights was something grand—something powerful—something BIG.
The famous SSDS dragon was once a 100-year old oak tree that fell down in Ms. Richelle’s yard after it was struck by lightning.
What could fulfill such grandiose dreams? Gowns for all the teachers? Too much dry cleaning. A castle? Too expensive. A moat around the school? Too complicated to incorporate into the parking regulations. A dragon? Hey, that’s an idea, a dragon! The whimsical nature of SSDS could use a magical creature like that. Fairy Godmother Richelle knew she had to leave something for her teachers and children to continue to inspire and motivate them. A dragon would do it, but where does one find a dragon?
Bringing in the the big oak tree.
This fairy tale story is true (in essence, at least) and like any good story, it’s also personal. Ms. Richelle felt compelled to leave a legacy to the school and community she worked so hard to build. Enter tragedy and magic—it’s a fairy tale, after all.
Around the time that SSDS moved into the space at Four Corners, Ms. Richelle’s father passed away. A Methodist minister, he was also a teacher whose life work was dedicated to the education of children. He was a mentor to Ms. Richelle and inspired her to choose a career path in education. He encouraged her to use her special gifts to build a unique school community.
Ms. Richelle refers to the Dragon as her father’s totem, affectionately naming him “Mr. B” after her father, Paul Meredith Bradley.
Shortly after his death, a 100-year-old oak in Ms. Richelle’s front yard was struck by lightning. She and her husband tried to save it, and hoped it would survive, but it was soon clear that it was not going to make it. Ms. Richelle reflected on her desire to leave something grand and lasting for SSDS. She thought about the loss of her father and the legacy he left for her. She pondered her desire to keep the memory of her majestic tree alive. From this cognitive brew grew a wonderful and whimsical idea.
The SSDS community was in the midst of transforming the playground into one of the first nature-based playgrounds in Montgomery County, as detailed in an earlier Spotlight post. To create a grand and inspiring playground centerpiece, Ms. Richelle and her husband arranged to donate their beloved oak to the SSDS playground.
Sculptor Jim Calder shows a child the carving techniques he used on the dragon by digging into a sweet potato.
But obviously some magic was needed to transform a dead tree into a lasting legacy. And here Ms. Richelle’s creativity shone. She contacted Jim Calder, nephew of the famous American artist and mobile inventor, Alexander Calder, and grandson to Alexander Milne Calder, a sculptor whose work is displayed in Philadelphia’s City Hall and whose columned arches are well-known landmarks at New York City’s Washington Square Park. Jim Calder is a sculptor, too, but his medium of choice is wood that he carves, mainly using chainsaws. He is a community member whose pieces can be found in Takoma Park, including the “bear bench” in Belle Ziegler Park. Mr. Calder agreed to undertake the commission and visited the unfinished SSDS playground. He stood contemplating the space and then, as Ms. Richelle tells it, he stated the obvious: “There’s a dragon here.”
The majestic oak was cut to meet Mr. Calder’s specifications and a large portion of a bough was delivered to the playground where the artist carved it on-site. The children, parents and staff working on the playground renovations were able to watch the transformation. Mr. Calder even taught the children his sculpting technique using sweet potatoes.
The Dragon is the perfect SSDS centerpiece. Conceived from the admiration of a lifelong teacher and the awe of nature’s beauty and power, it is representative of the SSDS’s ethos.
As for our fairy godmother, she refers to the Dragon as her father’s totem, affectionately naming him “Mr. B” after her father, Paul Meredith Bradley. She adds, jokingly, “I love the thought that kids are crawling all over him all the time.”
Community needs a centerpiece—something to inspire it and to compel it to achieve its potential. Ms. Richelle has left us with this powerful example of how to turn our fantasies and dreams into reality.
By Korin Davis (mom to Faye, Ms. Judy’s 3s and Amos, SSDS ’14)