Old School

Why I Adored Mrs. Johnson

Fourth grade in her classroom floods back in Technicolor light and sound

When I am in the final, sweat-drenched, muscle-screaming yards of a very long run, a skein of poetry begins to unfurl in my mind: "If you can keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you / If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you ..."

Blame it on Mrs. Johnson.

When I was in fourth grade at Penn Wynne Elementary School, Mrs. Johnson made us memorize and recite Rudyard Kipling's poem "If"—four verses with a cadence so regular you could march to it, a long, iambic mouthful for a 9-year-old. But I adored Mrs. Johnson, so I practiced aloud, every day, while Mr. Fenimore's yellow bus ferried me to school.

Forty-four years later, I'm stuck with Kipling. Never mind that the poem reeks of chauvinism ("and which is more, you'll be a man, my son") and reflects a starched world view out of sync with my own ("and lose, and start again at your beginnings / and never breathe a word about your loss"), those are still the words that bubble up, one beat per panting stride, every time I finish a race.

While portions of elementary school yield mere scraps of memory—first grade, a broken blue crayon; third, the rasp of Mrs. Marsh's voice—fourth grade in Mrs. Johnson's room floods back in Technicolor light and sound.

She had glossy black hair, glasses and a tamarind-colored dress that skimmed her knees. She asked us to lie on mats—"Close your eyes, boys and girls, and imagine that you're clouds floating in the sky"—then write about what we'd pictured. Later, she taped our poems to the corridor's blond brick.

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In Mrs. Johnson's class, no question was too stupid or too strange. One day, I trotted up to her desk to inquire, "Why doesn't all the water just fall off the world?" Another day, after she'd announced her pregnancy to the class, she found me poised in fascination over a two-page spread in a book about the human body. There were diagrams, one for each month, showing how a baby grew from barely there to a creature tethered with a pinkish cord and scrunched into a pear-shaped space.

I felt a wave of shame, as if I'd been spying on her womb. But she murmured quietly, "It's interesting, isn't it?" and let me stay there, looking.

We must have spent at least part of that year tackling spelling words, fractions and colonial villages. But it's the poetry that stays with me. Not just Kipling's words, but the whole experience: the effort required to comprehend those stanzas (what did "twisted by knaves" mean, anyway?) and commit them to memory; the stomach-flipping thrill and terror of speaking them back to the class.

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I learned that when you take a poem to heart, it's hauntingly close to slipping inside someone else's skin: you breathe where the poet breathed, you pause where he (alas, in 1971, it was usually "he") paused, you inhabit the words as they take root inside you.

And who knows how they might flower? Decades after Mrs. Johnson's class, except for those involuntary reprises each time I crossed a finish line, Kipling's poem had lost its gleam for me. Metered verse was out of vogue; feminism had tugged me toward the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton.

Then I began coaching high school students in Poetry Out Loud, a national contest in which kids compete by memorizing and performing classic and contemporary poems. In Camden, I worked with Rashid, a boy who'd been taught to tuck in his shirt and say, "Yes, ma'am." He chose "If" as one of his selections, and I asked him to think about the voice of the poem: Who is talking? To whom are the words directed?

Rashid paused for a long moment. "It's my uncle," he said. "Or me, giving advice to my little bro." Then he began: "If you can keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you." Outside, a siren squalled. "If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you …"

The year I learned "If," the Supreme Court ruled that districts could order busing to create desegregated schools. Today, I can't hear Kipling's words without thinking of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of every African-American parent who has given their son "the talk," then sent him out the door, heart torqued in panic that he might not come home. "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting / or being lied about; don't deal in lies. Or being hated; don't give way to hating …"

Did Mrs. Johnson realize what she was asking us to learn by heart? Did she imagine the long arc of her teaching and what it might yield, decades later? Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, I understand that learning isn't a one-way street. The "teachable moment" isn't just when the teacher seizes an opportunity to instruct; it's also the student, in a moment of readiness, cupped to learn.

At age 9, I was wide open, my joy and curiosity not yet clipped by the meanness of adolescence: girls who would whisper about my frizzy hair; boys who would write crude rhymes about my nonexistent breasts. Nine was the last pure year of childhood, a year when I wasn't afraid to ask or dare, or open my mouth in class.

Toward the end of fourth grade, the principal strode in to tell us that the next year would be different: We would change classes and have a cadre of teachers, one each for social studies, English, science and math. In May, the moms (alas, in 1971, it was always the moms) pooled funds to buy Mrs. Johnson a high chair, and we had a party with cupcakes and juice. I cried when she told us she and her husband were moving to Iowa.

I didn't want anything to change—not fourth grade, not Mrs. Johnson, not my perfect, lean body that could pedal a Schwinn so fast it felt like flying. I wanted to lie on my mat and imagine being a cloud, forever.

But we had to move on—all of us, even the kidney-bean baby in the pregnancy diagrams that would grow and grow until it could no longer be contained. That spring, when warm air blew through the classroom windows and I labored over cursive writing, clutching the pencil so tightly my knuckles paled, Mrs. Johnson came to lean over my shoulder. "Don't hold on so hard," she said, then reached down to gently loosen my grip.

Tags: memoirs