“Mag-GIE! Mag-GIE! Mag-GIE!” shout a dozen boys lined up on either side of a playground basketball hoop. “LET’S go MAG-gie!” CLAP, CLAP, CLAP-CLAP-CLAP! “LET’S go MAG-gie!”
Who is this Maggie they are cheering so loudly for? It’s Maggie Korff, Central Elementary fourth-grader, who’s poised to shoot the basketball yet again. With a two-palmed underhand hoist, she tosses the ball toward a bright blue sky, where it spins lazily before falling toward the orange hoop.
Let’s hear it from the boys:
Jaiden Acker: “When she smiles it just makes me smile, just to see her that happy.”
Caleb Clinger: “She’s really funny and she doesn’t care who she hangs out with.”
James Wiercinski: “When she makes a basket she just makes me so happy.”
Justin Gorman: “When you really get to know her, she’s just like a regular person. Like, she’s one of us.”
“Yaaayyy!!!” the boys yell as they converge and mob her with high fives.
You’d think Maggie had just scored the winning basket of the NCAA finals. No, it’s just recess. But these fifth-grade boys make Maggie feel like a winner every time they step onto the asphalt court and cheer her on – which is often.
They will do anything to help Maggie make a basket. They’ll form a circle of boy-power around her as she shoots. They’ll fall flat on their backs when she makes it. They’ll even run off the court and plow into a dogpile to celebrate an especially hard-won score.
Why the big deal over Maggie? Because these boys love to see her laugh and smile, just like any other kid. Because to her, their hoops-happy schoolmate with Down syndrome is just like any other kid. She just needs a little extra encouragement to hoist that ball toward the hoop.
Always SUNny at Central
That’s why they started hanging out with her earlier this spring. They noticed that she liked to play basketball, but sometimes other kids would take the ball from her. So they decided to give Maggie her own basketball – a pink one. And they started playing hoops with her at recess – or football, depending on the day.
She loves both sports. So do the boys. In fact they like all kinds of sports, which is why they’re friends. So playing sports with Maggie is a bonus because of, well, Maggie — the girl with the grin who also loves camping, fries and wings, her family and her dog, Charlie.
Their spontaneous outreach to Maggie fits well with Central’s inclusive culture. Teachers there this year started the S.U.N.S. Program – Students United Navigating School – which pairs special-education with general-ed students who spend lunch and recess with them, and up to half an hour of class time to work with them.
Maggie is part of the S.U.N.S. program and attends mainstream classes along with her special-education classroom taught by Kelly VanDyke. Though her recess time with the boys is not part of the program, it has added to Maggie’s growth, VanDyke said.
“She’s become so much more independent,” said VanDyke, who’s had her since kindergarten. “It just gives her a boost of confidence. To see how she’s blossomed has been huge.”
To see Maggie laughing on the basketball court, and making try after try toward the hoop with her boy fans cheering her on, it is hard to miss the blossoming.
She bunches into a huddle with the boys, and joins them in a rousing shout: “One-two-three basketball!” Then, after several misses a shot finally, slowly falls through the hoop, and the boys run jubilant into the dogpile.
Coming back to class after recess, Maggie proudly announces her shooting performance: “I got eight,” she says, by which she means baskets, a few of which didn’t touch the rim. “You got a swish?” VanDyke asks her. “Ha, yeah!” Maggie pipes. “I won!”
As for her boy playmates, she simply says, “They’re nice.”
Which is what all of them say about Maggie.