In 1913, a 27-year-old schoolteacher named Mary Gardner “Mamie” Bright was frustrated about her teaching predicament, but not about education in general.
The Fayetteville, Tenn., native had already been teaching in the Chattanooga city school system for several years after attending public schools here, but the situation was not ideal.
One of her stints, for example, included teaching a large class of 50 students in the morning and another 50 in the afternoon.
However, she had taught and thought long enough to know what an ideal educational setting and learning environment might be.
So, with no appealing alternatives like magnet schools then existing in the local public schools, she decided to start an independent elementary school.
To announce the new school, she ran a newspaper advertisement that ended with the following sentence: “The school will accommodate boys and girls from the kindergarten through the sixth grade, preparing them to enter GPS, McCallie and Baylor-Couts School.”
Nearly a century later, the school is still trying to prepare students for such local preparatory secondary schools and beyond.
As Bright School celebrates its centennial this school year, a look at the life of Miss Bright shows a woman who was apparently a natural educator. But, as with the educational process of her students, the full development of her school took some time.
She had started Bright in the fall of 1913 with 35 students and one other teacher – longtime Bright educator Kate Thomas – in a rented space at 803 McCallie Ave. Before the school built an expansive structure in 1924 on Fortwood Street with the help of benefactor George Holmes Patten, it was also located at three other now-razed addresses – 642 McCallie Ave., 639 McCallie Ave., and 869 McCallie Ave.
Within a decade or so after the school opened the Fortwood Street location and was trying to survive the Great Depression years, longtime local real estate broker and musician Fletcher Bright began attending Bright.
Of course, he already knew Miss Bright well because she was his aunt. His father, Gardner Bright, was one of Miss Bright’s eight siblings.
Mr. Bright believes his aunt – who was the only one in her family to become an educator -- was a true scholastic pioneer locally. “She was a disciple of John Dewey, who was a noted educator,” he said. “He had a revolutionary style of teaching, which was less structured and gave more freedom in the learning process.”
She also believed in developing the whole child through such activities as manual training or shop, art, music and physical exercise, and wanted to make school fun, in part through smaller class sizes. Mr. Bright believes she succeeded, based on conversations he has had with fellow alumni.
“They all have happy memories of the school and they looked forward to going to school, so she succeeded in that very well,” he said, adding that his musical development was aided in part by taking violin lessons at the school.
While her ideas worked at that time, she also seemed to have a natural knack for handling children that would probably work in any era of education. The reason was apparently a personality that gained both likability and respect among her students.
“She was a soft speaker,” Mr. Bright said. “She had an easy manner, but she was a very good disciplinarian. With a soft voice, she would tell a student Miss Bright was disappointed in them and they would just melt. She had the respect of every student at all times.”
Current Bright headmaster O.J. Morgan also has respect for her, but from afar. Among several admirable facts he has learned about her since becoming head of the school in 2004 is that she saw the larger world outside of Chattanooga.
“In the ‘20s and ‘30s, she had her teachers traveling to New York City and other places to observe the best schools in the country, and that breadth of experience and appreciation of culture brought a richness to Bright School that we still enjoy today,” he said, adding that such philosophies are still embraced.
Libby Wann, who attended Bright at the end of Miss Bright’s tenure, gained additional respect for her from an in-house history of Miss Bright and the school she wrote several years ago. She particularly admires the way Miss Bright pushed forward during a somewhat challenging era in the early 20th century.
“At a time when the concept of public education was only 12 years old, she gave the private grammar school the backbone and character to withstand the most sweeping social and educational changes ever and imbue it and its students with the notion that ‘there’s nothing finer than in the trying,’ ” Ms. Wann said.
Part of Miss Bright’s interest in the wider world came because she and longtime fellow Bright teacher M. Ellen “Mac” McCallie, the sister of McCallie School founders Spencer Sr. and Park McCallie, used to travel regularly in the summer.
“They would go around the world and they would come back with all sorts of stuff and talk to us about their travels,” said Mr. Bright.
While Miss Bright would periodically find herself in different locales in the world, Mr. Bright would observe her in different settings in Chattanooga.
“She would be at our house for dinner for about every major event,” he said, adding that she and his father were close. “And we would go out to her log cabin (on Lookout Mountain’s West Brow, which later burned) and her apartment at Bright (on Fortwood Street). And I remember going on vacation to the beach and she was there.”
He added that she had a longtime maid, Valie, who was a wonderful cook, as well as a black terrier, Noche, who became kind of the school mascot.
Mr. Bright said that in the late 1950s, as Miss Bright was getting ready to retire from the day-to-day operation of the school, she built a home at 118 N. Hermitage Avenue on Lookout Mountain, where she and Miss McCallie lived. Miss McCallie continued to reside there after Miss Bright’s death in 1967.
Mr. Bright later added on to the home and has lived there for a number of years.
The school Miss Bright saw move to a new location in Riverview/North Chattanooga in 1963 in her later years continues to expand in a variety of ways as well, showing that her ideas for education were apparently on target.
“Miss Bright’s early vision – now 100 years old – continues to echo in the classrooms, halls and playgrounds of the school, where it provides nourishment and direction for the present,” said Ms. Wann.