Thursday, March 15, 2018

R.I.P. Colie Johnson

From the day I started school... jezus, back in the early 1960s... I was fortunate to have had one excellent teacher after another, many of them being exemplary, inspiring, and memorable individuals. Mr. Colie Johnson was my art teacher in 8th and 9th grades at Martinsville Junior High. A gentleman who was passionate about teaching and who steered me in the right direction when it most counted, back when I was struggling to find an outlet for my budding creative aspirations.

I was an artistic youth, to be sure, and reasonably accomplished for my years — though my opinion of my talents far exceeded my actual abilities. Mr. Johnson recognized whatever talent I had and appreciated it; yet, whatever level I reached with my art, he refused to allow me to be content there. Inevitably, however proud of a composition I might be, he would study it, smile, point out everything that was right about it... and then he would become thoughtful and ask me if anything about the work was missing, if there were any other approaches I might consider. His expression I most remember was "yet and still..." "You've captured this texture just right, yet and still, I wonder if there's anything else you might find, something more you might see." This frustrated me because, no matter how highly he praised my efforts, he also... always... found things I could or should do better. He never specifically identified these things. He left that up to me.

Thank the lord.

Mr. Johnson drew the ire of many of us kids because he pushed us to look beyond whatever level of achievement we might reach in his class. He did this with warmth and humor, which sometimes made it worse because in my brash youth I would rather have told him to kindly piss off. But I couldn't do that. I liked him. I so wanted to be mad at him for foiling me, yet also I wanted to please him. It frustrated me no end that I might so consistently fail, at least in his eyes, even though everyone else around me was telling me I had achieved some level of genius. I could have listened to those voices, I suppose, and been content to rest on my laurels. But no. My appreciation for... any my loyalty to... Mr. Johnson would not allow for that.

I can't say with any degree of certainty that I've ever lived up to the potential Mr. Johnson expected of me, or at least hoped for me. In fact, I'm certain I have not because, over many years of expressing myself through various media, I have determined that, no matter how good I might get, I can always get better. There is great beauty in this, and I'm sure, at some point, I would have come to realize it even if I had never been in Mr. Johnson's classes. But it would not have been with such appreciation, personal guidance, and genuine care.

Mr. Johnson died the other day, at the age of 75. I had seen him a handful of times since junior high school, and somehow, I had it in my head that he'd be around for a long, long time, and that I would at some point be able to see him and talk with him again.

But no. No.

Quite a few of the most influential educators in my life have passed on now, and I've grieved for many of them, but at the moment I am grieving hardest over Mr. Johnson. It's a rare teacher who could touch me on the level he did. I did a little crying today.

If you have a teacher, or teachers, who have touched you, let them know. For god's sake let them know because, before we can blink, they may be gone. Years ago I told Mr. Johnson that he had moved me, and I so hope it registered. I wish I could have the opportunity to tell him again. Just for good measure.

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