Doing School

I was never a stellar student. It's not that I'm not bright; I always tested well, 98th and 99th percentile on standardized tests in everything but math. Most of my teachers, however, utterly failed to engage my interest.

Out of dozens of school teachers, I only remember the name of one: Mrs. Margaret Johnson at Layton Hall Elementary in Fairfax, Va. I remember others--the hunky blond high-school English teacher, the psychology professor who taught stoned, the perpetually annoyed band director--but I don't remember their names.

I absolutely adored Mrs. Johnson. She was the first to recognize that this shy, quiet little girl in the peculiar homemade clothing wasn't slow. By the time I was in her sixth-grade class, I had attended four different schools because we had moved that often. I was forever the new kid, coming into classrooms in the middle of the year. My mother insisted on sewing clothes for me and my two sisters, and being Austrian, she dressed us like Austrian children, in bright dirndls (think "Sound of Music"--full skirts, puff sleeves and aprons). Mama thought nothing of her girls wearing the same weird outfit for days at a time: She grew up that way, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for us.

It wasn't, of course, and I was the object of much teasing, which mama pooh-poohed from her cross-eyed and flat-footed youngest. So I learned to compensate. I learned that being alone was far easier than trying to fit in. I learned to lose myself in books and sing in the woods when no one was watching and to handle baby birds and butterflies gently. I could spend hours happily watching ants bringing food to their nest, and I could tell you the names and habits of dozens of birds and mammals, but I never learned how to "do" school.

In Mrs. Johnson's class, though, I was a star. While other kids were practicing spelling and math problems, I drew and lettered the posters that hung from every wall. I was the best reader in the class, so I got to read all the really cool parts. Mrs. Johnson encouraged me to "act" the parts. I was the princess in the class play. And for the first time in my life, people wanted to know me. Even Patty, the prettiest girl in class, suddenly invited me to play. It was almost too much to bear.

During the eight months of sixth grade, I cautiously learned that it was OK to be myself. Mrs. Johnson, with her soft English accent and steel-gray hair, took a special interest in an unusual and withdrawn little girl who wasn't athletic and didn't know her multiplication tables. I made all A's that year. It was the first and last time in my academic career that I uniformly excelled.

Fast-forward: Today, two of the great pleasures of my life involve teaching. The first is at the Jackson Free Press. This summer, the JFP has had a dozen interns working with the editorial staff, along with several others working in other areas. I've had the privilege of getting to know a great group of bright, capable young people, helping them shape and improve their writing and editing skills. They have gotten a taste of what it takes to work in a newsroom and produce a publication on deadline.

I've also had the great privilege of teaching yoga for just over two years now, which is an amazing and humbling experience.

The two disparate environments have one thing in common: what yoga philosophy calls "the seat of the teacher." The viewpoint holds that the teacher has a responsibility to her students that goes beyond the transmission of knowledge. Teachers should be firm, yet kind and compassionate, modest about their talent and honest about their limitations, while understanding that students expect her to be more knowledgeable and have a deeper relationship with all aspects of her subject. The teacher is always in service to the student.

Mrs. Johnson knew that. Sure, it was her job to cram the curriculum into our thick little heads, but it was also her job to recognize and gently nurture our differences. She took the time to work with kids who weren't the best at anything, drawing forth that which was uniquely good and great in us individually. She remains a "one in a million" teacher, and my life is a demonstration of the inquisitive and creative nature Mrs. Johnson effectively nurtured: I've performed on stage, danced, owned a graphic-design studio, rappelled off a mountain, traveled far and wide; and now, I edit and write--all without completing a degree.

For decades now, experts and journalists have written volumes about what's wrong with education in the United States: lack of funds, poorly trained teachers, the failure of constant testing and narrow focus on "core" curricula, parents' lack of input, the achievement gap that mirrors our ever-widening prosperity gap, our deplorable dropout rate, the exorbitant cost of higher education.

As Jackson State University professor B.L. Fish wrote May 19 in a JFP column, since the early 1980s business has heavily influenced education, demanding a focus on producing workers: "Our children need to know the things that are important for business and future employment: to be able to read on grade level ... and perform complex math functions." But it's not enough. Fish continued: "... [O]ur children desperately need to find their identity when they are young. Overemphasis on academics ... is robbing our children of initiative, inquiry and imagination."

We know what works to educate children: Stimulate their minds from the time they're in diapers, instilling a love of learning; nurture their curiosity and creativity; give them good food; and allow them time to play. It's not rocket science. Politically, however, we deal primarily with the failures of education--our prison population, for example, and emphasis on creating low-skill jobs--spending our collective treasure at the wrong end of the issue.

As kids return to classrooms in Jackson in the next few weeks, they may become pawns in political games. With a nation on economic tenterhooks and a growing dissatisfaction with the rate of recovery, it will be easy to succumb to finger pointing. Don't be deluded into thinking your tax dollars are best spent on squeezing children through poorly funded and ever-narrowing assembly-line educational systems. We must do better, Mississippi.

Maybe we should start by going to the horse's mouth: Find our schools' Mrs. Johnsons and ask them what works. And then demand accountability from our politicians instead of the other way around.

Previous Comments


Such a wonderful article, Ronni. Such truth in it. Thank you. Jackie Warren Tatum


Great story, & great point. Too bad there's not a simple solution. Keep on keeping on!

Sara Anderson


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