Friday, February 4, 2011

Mrs. Ben Johnson

       It was the year 1969, and I was an awkward second grade student.  For the third year in a row, I was about to enter a new school, where once again I would have to learn all the intricacies and pecking-orders and cliques and rules and schedules and routines that determined the pace of academic life. I had started kindergarten in the segregated schools of Natchez, Mississippi, where we began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer, and all three verses of "Dixie."  It was there, as I proudly belted out ", Oh, I with I wath in the land of cotton" that my teachers realized I had a severe lisp, unable to pronounce my R's or S's, and enrolled me in speech therapy, the first of many awkward moments in my educational journey.
      Mid-way into my first grade year, my parents announced we were moving back to their native state of South Carolina. They put all the seats down in the back of their blue Ford station wagon, threw in a couple of mattresses,  piled four young and energetic children into the back, and we bounced and sang and slept our way across Alabama and Georgia until we reached the hallowed ground of home. I finished the term quietly as the new girl at  Foot Street School, where I simply called Miss Atkinson  "Teacher" for the rest of the year because I could not pronounce her long name.
       Tongue-tied and pigeon toed, once again I stumbled down strange halls as I searched for the room of Mrs. Ben Johnson, Second Grade teacher,  College Street Elementary School. I did not realize then that I was about to collide with a force that would change the course of my awkward world forever.
     When I first entered the second grade room of Mrs. Ben Johnson, I thought she must be a hundred years old. She was not tall, although at that age I thought she was a giant, perhaps because of the shock of snow-white hair that formed an aureole around her head and gave her the appearance of some other-worldly being.  She wore shirt-waisted dresses and sensible shoes, and always had a referee's whistle hanging from a chain around her neck. Mrs. Johnson  approached each day with vigor and vim; she did not walk the halls of the school, she marched, and she expected her students to march as well.   She believed that each day should begin and end with some form of physical exertion. Every morning, we had to stand beside our desks and stretch and bend, touching our toes then reaching for the stars. Next, she would herd her restless and fidgety students outside for an hour or so of daily exercise. She would blow her whistle and march backwards as she vigorously moved us around the sidewalks and paths of the neighboring streets, our arms pumping like mad as we tried to keep up with her rapid pace. I'm sure it was an amusing sight for those driving by, the image of Mrs. Johnson vigorously marching backwards as  a line of seven year olds tried to keep up with her, but it was on these daily marches  that my world began to change.
     For you see, these walks were not merely attempts to get her students to exercise. Mrs. Johnson was introducing us to the world.   We would stop on our little excursions to collect rocks,  and she would show us how the manifold stripes of color represented the unique environments from which they each were formed. We would stop to rest quietly on the grass as she pointed out  various birds that flitted among the branches of the trees. She taught us to identify the cardinals and blue-jays and sparrows and wrens that inhabited our backyards, and to identify those we could not see by listening for their unique whistles and cackles and warbles and tweets. We hung bird feeders from the trees outside our classroom window and diligently sprinkled seeds to nourish our newly found feathered friends.
        We learned the names of wildflowers and trees and grasses and shrubs. We would lie on the hard, scratchy ground, watching  the clouds billow and roll overhead as Mrs. Johnson introduced us to the world of   weather. She pointed out cumulus and stratus and cirrus, giving each puff of condensed water droplets a specific name. This would lead into discussions of soil erosion and conservation, and it was under the tutelage of Mrs. Ben Johnson that I completed my first project on the conservation of our land and become a life-long lover of all the things of our natural world.
      We set out rain gauges to measure the precipitation, and we recorded this in charts around the room.  We planted seeds into little clay pots that were lined up on the ledges of the window sills, and we recorded the growth of our precious plants as they timidly broke through the black soil and reached for the light.
      Second grade was the year I had to begin wearing corrective shoes, those bulky, horrendous, tight-laced saddle oxfords that doctors often prescribed  to straighten out the pigeon-toed or slew-footed paces of clumsy adolescents.  I was mortified with my ugly new shoes, and only wanted to slip quietly unnoticed back into class the first day I wore them. But this would not do for Mrs. Ben Johnson. She called me to the front of the classroom and proudly announced to the entire class that I was wearing a new type of shoe, and would I please tell the class about this special footwear. At first, I wanted to crawl underneath my desk and die a quick but painless death. I stumbled up to the front of the class, my cheeks burning crimson with embarrassment, and proceeded to tell my classmates about the atrocious footwear. In typical second-grade fashion, they received the information with a casual nonchalance that helped me to realize my shoes were not the most important element of second grade.   By exposing my most vulnerable self to the entire class, she had quickly defused a sensitive issue by exposing the unimportance of it, and in doing so, she had saved me from myself. She was teaching me to place less emphasis on my outer appearance, to accept life's challenges boldly and without shame,  and to listen to someone's story before passing judgement. It had been a brilliant move on the part of Mrs. Johnson, and it endeared me to her for life. Unbeknownst to her, she was also preparing me for a future role, the role of parenting a child with a disability. I have found that I continuously  draw on the life lessons I learned in second grade, and I think of Mrs. Johnson each time I try to teach my daughter to face life's challenges boldly and without shame, as I try to teach her to stand before the world and say, "This is my story. Get to know me before you pass judgement."
     But back then,  in 1969, I had entered a new world, a world where everything suddenly had a name and a purpose, where everything had value and was precious to behold. It was a marvelous world, a world I hungered to know about and to care for. She was opening our sleepy little eyes to the world beyond our mere selves, giving names to the ordinary things in life that we so often ignored, teaching us to care for more than our own narrow worlds, teaching us  to respect each other and the things of our world. But there was more to come, for Mrs. Johnson was just getting started.
      Mrs. Johnson didn't just teach us to see the world, and to know the world, and to love the world,  she taught us to write about it.  She gave us words and letters and sentences.  She read stories to us and had us write our own stories, we kept journals and notes, but most importantly of all, she gave us poetry, the language where letters come to life, where you nurture and grow sentences into something more than just stories, where there is a pulse and a heartbeat that keeps the words alive and gives them a rhythm. In that cramped little second grade classroom on College Street, Mrs. Johnson was planting the seeds of language into our fertile little brains, hoping those seeds would germinate and grow into a lifelong passion. And once again, she was saving me from myself.
    From that point on, I had a place to go when the world got tangled or unnerving. I could escape into my world of words, writing about the things I could not understand, hoping that through the words in my journals or poems I could somehow unravel the complex intricacies of life. At the very least, she gave me a place to unload the portions of life that were unfathomable, that somehow by writing about it I could lay to rest the unimaginable, and she gave me a place to record the portions of life that were worth savoring and remembering. 
      Little did I realize when I entered into the world of Mrs. Ben Johnson what an impact she would have on the life of this ungainly little girl. Little did I realize that in the second grade, Mrs. Johnson's impact would continue on for another generation as I tried to instill her lessons into the lives of my own children. Each time I taught them the name of a bird, or read them a story, or pointed out the drifting of a cumulus cloud in the sky above, the whisper of Mrs. Johnson's words were lingering in the wind. Each time they faced one of life's challenging moments, an embarrassing moment, an awkward moment, I reached back to the day Mrs. Johnson made me march to the front of the class and face my shame, and I tried to teach them to boldly do the same.
    It has been written by others that everything they needed to know about life they learned in kindergarten. For me, it began in second grade.

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