I wasn’t a very good student.
If I was completely honest, I’d have to admit that it was mostly due to an overwhelming interest in social experiences rather than cerebral ones that kept me from achieving better grades. But I’m not that honest, so I’ll blame it on poor study habits and a lack of innate understanding. I made it my mission to sit in the back of the room and not draw too much attention, for fear of getting called upon, except for presentations. Those were my specialty. I could muster up the most dramatic and dynamic presentations for any subject, guaranteeing me enough extra credit points to offset my lousy test scores. I don’t know if it was because my presentations were so engaging or if my teachers just didn’t feel like sifting through all of my smoke and mirrors to grade them more carefully.
There were a few teachers I enjoyed while I had them, but was quite content to not be in their class again.
Mrs. D’Ann Johnson, the head of my high school English department, was my honors English teacher freshman year. She was also the Creative Writing instructor and the sponsor for our literary magazine. I came to her with a writer’s spirit already, a passion years in the making. My journals were filled with personal poetry and prose. Although I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did know my creativity would be my guide. I could tell you all the contrite and obvious things like Mrs. Johnson helped me become more fluent in literature or that she helped mold my talent into something more polished. I could praise her for encouraging me to submit work every year to our literary magazine and serve on the magazine’s staff, teaching me how to be a more purposeful writer. And I could go on for days about how hard her assignments, grading and organizational requirements were – making me better prepared for college.
But it wasn’t her teaching that kept me in her classroom for four years.
I finished freshman English with Mrs. Johnson and then took her Creative Writing class Sophomore and Junior year. I served on her literary magazine for three years. Then my Senior year, I served as her student aid during her Creative Writing class. It was the only way I could get credit for being in her class again. As an English teacher, she was amazing. But it was her ability to make everyone feel important, needed, creative and loved that kept us together. Her elective classes were a mix of characters, from the stereotypical 80’s bow-head (that was me) to the perpetual pot-head dropout (yeah, I had a crush on him too). We all fit together like a family. We learned how important it was to accept each other for who we were, make no judgements, and celebrate diversity. In class, we were a close-knit, all-inclusive network of artists. It didn’t matter who we were on the marching field or behind the drama department. It only mattered who we were in those shared moments. (I’m suddenly picturing John Hughes‘ Breakfast Club. Except I secretly wished I was more like Ally Sheedy‘s character than Molly Ringwald‘s.) Mrs. Johnson let us write what we felt, and not what we thought we were allowed to feel. All of our pain and our passion was embraced. We felt validated. I think being able to use words like a mirror, unfiltered and uncensored, gave us the ability to develop our true personalities.
Because for at least one hour a day – we could be ourselves, not a label.
My most precious memories of Mrs. Johnson are the “sleep-overs” at her house. The entire literary magazine staff would camp out in her living room, hallways and dining room eating junk-food and sorting through submissions. No one really slept. Our job was to go through hundreds of poems, prose, art and photography and decide as a group which submissions would make it into print. Mrs. Johnson created a system that kept all submissions anonymous until our final choices were declared. That way, we could only judge the work and not the person.
Everyone was considered.
Sadly, in the spring of 1998, Mrs. Johnson passed away. My understanding is that she suffered a stroke or aneurism while driving and died at the scene. I was unaware of her passing until some time later, missing any opportunity to pay my respects in person, although I still think of her often. Although there is much I did not know about Mrs. Johnson, I do know that she was a fair and honest woman. She did not have favorites.
In fact, I think we all felt like her favorites.
Some of us just made sure to be in her presence more than others, whether she wanted us to or not.
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