Like all of Johnson’s classes, the morning’s Modern World History lesson follows a structured format, and the boys pop open their laptops and notebooks to record the salient points. It begins with a review of the reading assignment, with Johnson coaxing information from his charges Socratic-style.
“When did Western civilization start?”
“Who were the Sumerians? What were their major contributions?”
“What did Egypt introduce to the world?”
As hands shoot up and students blurt out the answers, the point becomes clear: The Western world didn’t dawn with the Greeks and Romans but owes a debt — for written communication, city planning, irrigation, government and bureaucracy — to cultures many history books ignore.
Johnson gives a quiz every other class to make sure students keep up with the material. And he reveals the subject in advance to help them prepare. “I’m not trying to trick them,” he explains. “I’m on their side. I want them to win.”
As this session winds down, he suggests the boys prepare to identify three similarities among Islam, Judaism and Christianity the next time they meet.
“Be able to answer this if I were to ask it,” he says. “And it can’t be something as general as, ‘They’re all religions!’ And remember your topic sentence. Make sure you have a thesis. And have it relate to the topic sentence. And come in rippin’ and rockin’ and ready!”
‘Lucky to be drafted here’
Lunchtime at Landon is a caloric feast tailored to teenage boys’ metabolism: giant tubs of peanut butter, fajitas with mounds of guacamole and an amply stocked table of cold cuts and cheeses for constructing skyscraper-scale sandwiches.
Johnson avoids the temptation and makes a protein shake in the history department’s office, then heads to the track, where he walks three miles, twice daily, in an effort to shed the weight he piled on after quitting football. Three years into the routine, he’s finally under 400 pounds again, with a goal of reaching his high school playing weight of 275 by age 50 while tackling the diabetes, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure he’s saddled with.
A third-generation professional athlete (his father played for the Nets in the American Basketball Association; one grandfather boxed; the other played in baseball’s Negro leagues), Johnson was a track star at New York’s Peekskill High who excelled at the shot put, javelin, discus and hammer. Remarkably quick, his combination of upper-body strength, speed and size made him a formidable left tackle in college, charged with protecting the quarterback’s blind side.