The best teacher I ever had was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Sarah Johnson. She also was my mother’s first grade teacher, my brother’s first grade teacher, and my sisters’ first grade teacher. Mrs. Sarah Johnson is, was, and always will be, a family tradition.
I went to first grade in 1968, at George Washington Carver Southside Elementary, in Luxora Arkansas. The school was racially segregated. Every student was exactly like me, African-American. The next year, 1969, I went to Luxora Elementary School, an integrated school. I never skipped a beat in the transition from a classroom full of color to a classroom of black and white faces, peacefully and cooperatively sharing the same classroom. Due largely to Mrs. Johnson’s teaching style, I had no concept of beign different from any other little boy or girl.
For me, consequently, and for the overwhelming majority of my first-grade classmates, integration was a peaceful process for the black and the white students in my second grade classroom. It had been a long-time coming, this change. In 1957, the “Little Rock Nine” had required support from President Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne Division, a U.S. Army military unit, in order to attend Little Rock Central High School, along with other white students. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Rock_Nine
What was Mrs. Johnson’s part in all this, the successful racial integration of the Luxora Public schools in 1969? For me, personally, she had been the teacher who recognized a lot of my potential, and ensured that I always shared with my classmates. She had taught me to read with classmates, to add and subtract with classmates, and to lead when a leader was needed.
One day, when the Physical Education teacher was missing, she appointed me to lead the PE class. No problem. We spent an hour running and jumping. One day, the third-grade teacher, Mrs. Strong, came to the classroom. Evidently she was having a problem with her class and she needed Mrs. Johnson’s help.
I noticed Mrs. Johnson giving some advice to her, and Mrs. Strong nodding her head affirmatively. Mrs. Johnson was really smart. And then suddenly they were both walking in my direction.
“Oh no”, is what went through my mind. “What have I done to get myself in trouble?” I asked myself. I quickly reviewed my behaviour in my mind. I could find no deed worthy of their attention. I held my breath and tried to disappear like I’d seen a guy do on TV. It didn’t work.
“Thomas, go with Mrs. Strong”, said Mrs. Johnson to me.
“That’s it”, I thought. “Mrs. Johnson doesn’t want me in her class anymore.” Sadly, I took Mrs. Strong’s hand and walked out of my first grade classroom, waving goodbye to my classmates. Surely, I’d never see them again. Cedric, my best friend, (he had a kite that he let me fly when the March winds blew) loked like he was going to die. Judy Walters, my secret girl-friend (it was so secret even she didn’t know) looked like she wasn’t going to miss me. The door closed behind me. “Where was Mrs. Strong going to take me?” I didn’t have a clue.
We marched swiftly up the hall. At least she wasn’t taking me home. There was no one at home during the day. My mom worked and my brothers and sisters were all at school, like me. We walked past the second grade classroom. We continued past the school library. We stopped at the third grade classroom where Mrs. Strong taught. She opened the door and went inside.
This was where the really big kids had classes. I could see their faces, none smiling at me. My new classmates. there was Bobby, and Barbara, Leon, Carlota, Mel and the Walters brothers. They had told me they were going to beat me up if I didn’t stop bothering Judy. Now here I was in their classroom, their new classmate. “Was I even going to survive one day with this bunch?”
I quickly prayed for a miracle, any miracle that would let me become a first-grader again. Why was I here? I didn’t want to be a third-grader. At least, not if the Walters brothers and Bobby and Barbara and Leon and James were going to be my classmates.
Then I noticed Mrs. Strong pointing to a math problem on the board. It was long addition. Mrs. Strong wanted me to do the problem. I looked at her without saying anything. She repeated herself. “Do the problem on the board please, and then you can go.”
My miracle had happened. This problem was too difficult for the third graders to do. So, Mrs. Strong had asked my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, if she had anyone who could do the problem. That’s why I was here. All I had to do was do the problem, and i could go back to being the King of the First Graders
I took up a piece of chalk to write on the blackboard (it really was black). I added up the numbers in the right hand column first. I carried over my tens to the next column and finished adding. I turned around, knowing the answer was correct. Mrs. Strong told me to go back to my class. She knew I would find it without her help.
Relieved, I left the room, returning to my world. Mrs. Johnson, Cedric, and Judy Walters. Later that day I was cornered by the Walters brothers.
“Do you think we couldn’t do that math problem?”, they asked me.
“I’m sure you guys could have done it,” I replied, knowing full well that if they had been able to do the problem, then I would never have been called for. The answer pleased them, and they left me alone though.
So, what had Mrs. Johnson done for me that was so spectacular that I’ve never forgotten her so many years later? Just this: She believed in me enough to send me to a classroom 2 years ahead of mine. It really didn’t matter if I got the problem right or wrong. She trusted me with her reputation. Let me explain.
In that third-grade classroom of Mrs. Strong, I represented Mrs. Johnson’s teaching. My math abilities were the product of her teaching, and she chose me, and not Cedric; she chose me, and not Judy, to put her teaching on display.
Years later, as an adult, I had a chance to read on my official elementary transcript what Mrs. Johnson had commented about me. It read:
“Thomas is a really smart boy with a bright future ahead of him.”
I would like to think that her prediction came true the day I became a teacher. Mrs. Johnson is obviously now long departed from Earth, and no doubt gone to heaven. Here’s a poem I think she would have liked dedicated to her from me:
**A Prayer for Mrs. Johnson
THE DAY GOD CALLED YOU HOME
God looked around his Garden and found an empty place.
He then looked down upon his earth and saw your loving face.
He put his arms around you and lifted you to rest.
His Garden must be beautiful, he always takes the best.
He knew that you were suffering, he knew you were in pain.
And knew that you would never get well on earth again.
He saw your path was difficult, he closed your tired eyes,
He whispered to you “Peace be Thine” and gave you wings to fly.
When we saw you sleeping so calm and free of pain,
We would not wish you back to earth to suffer once again.
You’ve left us precious memories, your love will be our guide,
You live on through your children, you’re always by our side.
It broke our hearts to lose you, but you did not go alone.
For part of us went with you on the day God called you home.