JOHNS: Fond memories of junior high school teacher flood back
“Swing me up a little bit higher, Obidiah do
Swing me up a little bit higher, say you love me too.
Swing me over the garden wall,
Tie me up so I never fall,
Swing me up a little bit higher
Putnam Junior High School in Ashland, Kentucky, was built in 1937 as part of the WPA program put into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On any given afternoon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the musical scales were taught to students using the song above.
Interestingly enough, the song became popular in 1907 by Florrie Ford, a singer from England.
In the middle of the chorus room sat an ebony baby grand piano without the bench. Behind that huge piano was Miss Thelma Naomi Johnson, a music giant, though barely five feet tall.
She was known throughout the Tri-State area for producing award-winning choirs and soloists.
She was an accomplished pianist in her own right, and gave private lessons to many young students in Ashland.
There was always a wait list to become one of her pupils, and, well frankly, she only wanted students who were serious about playing the piano.
I was not the least bit serious, but my sister, Jana, was. She would practice for hours and hours.
While I played sufficiently, she mastered the piano, and was enrolled to be under Miss Johnson’s tutelage.
The first time I met Miss Johnson, I was in the fifth grade. It was 1968.
The world was in utter turmoil.
The Vietnam war was full blown.
Protestors wreaked havoc at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy rocked our nation.
Love poems by Rod McKuen were devoured by young women, and the Beatles hit the charts with “Hey Jude.”
We had a select choir that sang each year as part of a community Christmas concert from every school. Miss Johnson and Miss Thora Cooksey, the elementary music counterpart, directed the concert.
Miss Johnson walked into the auditorium, and to this day, I remember what she wore. She donned a cream silk blouse, a cashmere sweater the color of the summer sky and a caramel-colored wool skirt. Her brown alligator pumps clicked across the floor. A pearl necklace wrapped around her throat, and she had on pearl earrings to match. Her skin was the color of cafe au lait.
She smiled at all of us, sat on the piano bench and started playing.
This striking woman continued to be a source of inspiration throughout my lifetime.
She taught us manners.
She taught us the basics of music and musical theory.
She taught us that music was not only about singing, but the history that created the songs of the time.
In 1966, a group known as The Happenings had a break out song, “See You In September.” Originally sang in 1959 by a group known as The Tempos, and then by Frankie Valli, Miss Johnson taught us all the song.
For the next three years in junior high, it was the farewell for each graduating class at spring concert.
It is no coincidence this week over social media, the number of students singing to their teachers, that I thought of Miss Johnson.
She taught this northeastern Kentucky girl many life lessons. She taught me to love despite all differences; courage, although your body said otherwise, and to sing whenever fear overtakes world.
But most importantly, know that every September, I will see her in my mind’s eye, her lithe little body in pearls and brown alligator pumps.
Lisa Johns is a former teacher and librarian as well as an activist for downtown revitalization.