DeeAnne Ashby and her daughter, Megan, approach each day with a very serious purpose: To put a smile on everyone’s face.
Ask Logan residents who drive and walk by Mount Logan Middle School every weekday around 8:30 a.m., and many will tell you the pair is meeting their goal.
The Ashbys’ prescription for lifting people’s spirits is simple. When DeeAnne pulls in front of the school to drop off her seventh-grade daughter, they both get out of the vehicle, lift the back hatch, crank the car stereo, and start dancing and waving at all the kids, buses and passing motorists in front of the school. DeeAnne supplements the routine with shouts of welcome and encouragement.
“You’re awesome, girl.”
“Have a great day.”
“Don’t know you, but you’re wonderful.”
“Good morning. Have a great walk.”
“Thanks for your support.”
Their display last Friday morning was met with a steady stream of honks, waves and smiles, and one driver even slowed down to hand a gift out the window — a gesture of appreciation that has become a regular occurrence for the Ashbys.
“It’s so nice to have someone who makes everybody feel joy in the morning,” said school crossing guard Kendra Penry, who has witnessed the phenomenon through this entire winter. “It’s a difficult time for all of us in general, but the morning is even harder for many, so to have someone out here whose whole purpose is to try to get people to smile makes my day and makes a lot of people experience a little happiness.”
School Principal Paul Wagner is another believer.
“It’s wonderful actually, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” he said, referring to the disruption in basic human interaction brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a great morale booster for our students and faculty. It always gives everyone a good smile to see Dee out there. She dances with endless energy, and so it’s a great way to start the day for everybody.”
If you are passing by the school and in no mood for such antics, you might find the woman now widely known as “The Dancing Mom” pull a smile out of you anyway.
“We’ve had a couple of grumpy people come by. But you know what we do? We send them love anyway,” DeeAnne Ashby said in an interview Friday after Megan rushed into school to catch her first class. “Our goal is to find the grumpiest person and get them to give us a little smirk.”
That can be a tall order when it comes to middle-school kids, who are notoriously taciturn with grown-ups, but the Ashbys have even coaxed a few kids to join them in dance for a song or two before running off to rejoin their friends. Ashby said she was worried this might lead to teasing of the rogue participants, but that hasn’t appeared to be the case.
It was concern about pandemic-forced limits on socialization that spawned the dancing and waving idea last September. Having just moved from Smithfield, Megan was having a hard time meeting new friends, so mother and daughter decided to set up in the back parking lot at Mount Logan to play music and wave at kids arriving for school. It went over so well they decided to move out front and add dancing to the mix.
“With the masks and everything, it was really difficult for Megan to make friends because people couldn’t see her smile and she couldn’t be energetic,” DeeAnne said. “The pandemic kind of stunted the ability for social skills of some of our kids, and we thought, she’s going to get out there and wave at people and smile at people, even if she has to slap on a mask and run inside later and follow the rules.”
Principal Wagner echoed the concern about student socialization during the pandemic and said what the Ashbys are doing dovetails well with several efforts by Mount Logan and the Logan School District. Among these are assigning students to specific places at lunch to enhance interaction outside students’ usual friendship groups. The school is also striving to devote half of every class period to interaction between students or between students and teachers.
With students’ psychological well-being in mind, DeeAnne has devoted a lot of time putting together playlists with positive messages that “make everybody feel special.” One of the songs played on Friday, for instance, was “Everybody Got Their Something” by pop singer Nikka Costa.
But the morning feel-good hour is aimed at both adults and kids.
“The only thing I’m aiming to do is make people happy. We gotta get people happy. We kind of missed a little joy over the past couple of months and we just need to get people happy,” DeeAnne said.
For HollyJo Karren, a valley resident who drives by the dancing duo every morning and has been swept up in the their enthusiasm, smile therapy like the Ashbys offer should be implemented far and wide.
“Once you see it, you’ll think we need to do that everywhere. The community just needs more people like them to just to make you smile,” Karren said.