By Emily Williams
Homewood’s M.H. Smith has always had a passion for writing and for teaching children, but she never foresaw writing and performing a series of children’s stories or publishing her own children’s book.
In retirement, she has done just that. Smith’s “Too Many Elephants,” was published this year.
The educational story has been performed for preschoolers for several years by the local non-profit performance group the Seasoned Performers. After retiring from a teaching career, Smith joined the professionally run group of senior adults who produce live performances and dramatic readings.
“Too Many Elephants” isn’t the first story Smith has written, just the first she has published as a book. She hopes it won’t be the last of either.
Her route to the stage wasn’t exactly what she had imagined as a child.
“When I was about 11, I wanted to either be a teacher or a Hollywood star,” she said. That doesn’t mean she dreamed of a career in acting. No, Smith wanted to bypass the hard work and head straight to the top with the likes of movie stars such as Jane Powell and Doris Day.
“I ended up teaching, so I suppose Hollywood’s loss turned out to be education’s gain,” she said.
One of her passions as a teacher was teaching reading skills to elementary students and later middle school students in the Birmingham city schools.
“I taught in some of the more distressed areas, where children didn’t have as much access to reading,” she said. “I had a student once point at a book on my desk and say, ‘My mom has a book!'”
She found that worksheets she had written herself proved to be more accessible to the students than some of the educational materials in the state curriculum. She also used the stories in the worksheets as an opportunity to introduce other subjects.
“I found that students responded to reading something factual just as well as something fictional,” she said. “I started writing about World War II and I remember a student once telling me that he had seen Winston Churchill, which is maybe better than seeing Elvis. What young child knows that Winston Churchill even existed, let alone gets excited about seeing him?”
Providing children with the opportunity to develop a love of reading and knowledge was something she grew to love most about her profession.
After retiring, Smith sought to continue educating children through her creative writing with the Seasoned Performers.
Though it isn’t the same as a Hollywood spotlight, Smith said she enjoys her post-retirement work better than her time teaching. Her work with the group has given her new goals and the support to achieve them.
“I remember my last day of teaching,” she said. “Usually on that last day in May, we would say something to each other like, ‘See you next year,’ or ‘See you in August.’ I remember realizing that I couldn’t say that anymore and thinking, ‘What do I do now?'”
Smith found that it was not just important to have something to fill her days after retirement, it was vital. Though she has always written, having a purpose to write and encouragement from the group is what led her to publish her first book.
“I wish that I could have had a bit more ambition or gumption when I first started writing these stories,” she said. “At one point I hired an agent for a while, but they didn’t really do anything. After a while I figured out that I could pay myself $50 an hour to do the same job.”
“Too Many Elephants” may have been Smith’s first published work, but she hopes it will be the first of many.
“I’m constantly thinking of new ideas,” she said. “It’s just a matter of putting the words down on paper that are in your head.”
Smith is ever a fan of the double entendre.
“I love to play around with the meaning of words,” she said. “I’m extremely literal. … If my husband says he has to get something done, I always ask him if he has to get it done or if he wants to get it done. If you want to get something done, you don’t necessarily have to. If I have to get something done, I usually don’t want to do it.”
Smith didn’t have to write her own material for her students, she didn’t have to join the Seasoned Performers and she didn’t have to write and publish her own book. But she wanted to, she did, and she created a goal she intends to continue working toward in the future.