“We pull kids from everywhere in the city, and there is a need for dialogue,” explains Ehren Federiwicz, head of the Upper School, who tapped Johnson to develop and teach the mandatory freshman course. “We have utter confidence in him. He can get into these issues and do it in a safe way. Ninth grade is the perfect age because they are forming a sense of self.”
On this day, Johnson’s freshmen are learning about affirmative action.
“We’re going to talk about one, Abigail Fisher, who has a legitimate beef,” Johnson said. “She took her case to the Supreme Court. And this could affect you.”
Johnson then sets the stage for a 16-minute PBS news program about Fisher, a teen who was denied admission to the University of Texas while others with lower grades were accepted in order to ensure a more diverse student body.
At the conclusion, Johnson said, “So what I want to ask you: Who thinks affirmative action should stay in place? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? You tell me.”
Four hands inch up. Then five.
“They can do a little of it,” one boy says.
“They should just take the smartest kids,” says another. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
After everyone weighs in, Johnson asks who is the best lacrosse player in the group.
They point to a classmate, Brian, who manages to both beam and blush.
“Okay,” Johnson continues, “so say I want to go to Princeton, Duke, U-Va. or Johns Hopkins. I have better grades, but they accept Brian because he rocks the lacrosse stick. Is this fair?”
Class adjourns without a tidy answer.
“He’s a tough teacher, but he gives us good information,” Ian Napolean, 14, said. “He doesn’t just give us the facts. He teaches us very thoroughly, and he’s not just talking all the time. He conducts the discussions, and he wants us to learn from it.”
Johnson’s own education continues as well. He plans to start work this fall on a doctorate of educational leadership, juggling schoolwork with teaching, with a goal of becoming a school administrator.
“There are a lot of 6-2, 300-plus-pound guys in the world,” Johnson notes. “What makes one person an NFL guy and another guy a bouncer in the front of a club? It’s work ethic. Doing the little things. Not only training when you have to train, but working on your technique, getting in the weight room, performing on game day. It’s the mentality you have to have.
“And I’m trying to make an imprint on these students about accountability and responsibility as it relates to their job in the classroom. You’ve got to be willing to do the little things, and whatever it takes, to be successful to get to that next level.”