After nearly four decades in the Miami-Dade Schools system, Shirley Bailey Johnson stood before a third grade class for the first time.
She’d spent several years at the teachers union and away from the classroom before landing in front of the 28 third graders at Lake Stephens Elementary in 2005. Half of them had been retained because of low FCAT scores.
Her first lesson was short and simple.
“A book a day keeps the ignorance away,” she told her pupils.
A little boy raised his hand.
“Dr. Johnson, what’s ‘ignorance?’ ”
She asked him to grab the dictionary on the shelf and read the definition to the class.
“Ignorance ... a lack of knowledge,” he declared.
“You got it,” she said, smiling.
Johnson, 69, a lifelong educator, Civil Rights advocate, mother and mentor has spent her lifetime trying to keep ignorance away. She has passed this lesson onto her family, her students and all of those she has met and mentored along the way.
It’s a lesson she learned from the best; she was there when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world about his dream at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.
Then 16 and sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the NAACP logo, she’d traveled 18 hours by bus from Jackson, Miss., with her father and 14-year-old sister Verna. They came to listen to King and the five other Civil Rights leaders who spoke, decrying the unequal conditions for blacks. Like the thousands who gathered that day at the Lincoln Memorial, Johnson listened to the words of King — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’’ — and came home transformed.
“His dream actually became my mission,” she said.
Ebony Jackson’s membership in the NAACP pretty much began at birth.
“I started so young, it’s almost a way of life for me,” said Jackson, Johnson’s 39-year-old daughter.
Her mother’s involvement in the NAACP formed the foundation for her and her sister Valencia McDuffy’s activism. Jackson currently is the adviser to the Miami-Dade chapter’s Youth Council.
She said her mother has taught her many lessons, but one stands out.
“Really standing up for what you believe in,” she said. “That was one thing she taught me that really made a difference in my life.”
Now she guides members of the NAACP youth council, who meet once a week to organize Thanksgiving food drives, voter registration campaigns and discuss current events.
“I find that with youth, if you don’t keep them engaged a little bit more often, the passion does not stay the same,” she said.
The passion still hasn’t left her 22-year-old daughter Tamaya, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories about living through the Civil Rights movement.
“I feel like I have really good examples to look at,” she said.
Tamaya is a student at Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she splits time between school and work as a hair stylist. Growing up in Miami-Dade County and at one point serving as vice president of the youth council, she’s accustomed to taking on issues that affect black youths, such as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We still are dealing with the same kinds of issues,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”
From her time with the council and with her family, she has learned how to express herself effectively.
“Just the exposure ... I’d talk to a lot of kids my age, and they don’t know how to interact with older people,” she said.
Ties That Bind
Francis Francois was a quiet temp worker at United Teachers of Dade’s office in 2000. He wanted to register his young son for Pre-K, but didn’t have a car.
Mom had moved away after a separation, and the newly single father needed a hand.
Enter Shirley Johnson. She noticed the man who kept to himself in the corner and decided to strike up a chat with him.
“She sat at my desk and asked me about myself and my family,” he said.
That’s all it took for Johnson to lend Francois her car and call the principal of Phyllis R. Miller Elementary, where Francois’s son was soon enrolled.
“She didn’t have any reason,” said Francois, now 40. “She just is who she is. I found out later she just likes to empower others.”
Throughout the years, Johnson has remained Francois’ mentor, encouraging him to go back to school to get his master’s and his Ph.D (he’s now in the dissertation stage.) She got him involved in the local chapter of the NAACP, where he currently serves as chair of the young adult committee. She rekindled his Christian faith.
She even introduced him to his wife.
For the quiet man who grew up in poverty in Little Haiti, Johnson’s influence is immense.
“My employment, my faith, my family. She’s touched all aspects of who I am right now,” he said.
Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, a member of the Miami-Dade School Board, knows Johnson from worshiping at New Way Praise and Worship Center in Miami Gardens.
“She’s certainly Christ-centered and spiritually grounded in her principles,” he said.
Johnson took Holloway’s two sons under her wing through the NAACP youth council.
“I think she encouraged them to be leaders,” he said. “To not be normal, to apply themselves to whatever they endeavored.”
Francois puts it simply. With humility and reverence for her maker, she gets stuff done.
“She’s a doer,” he said. “We need more doers.”
Shirley Johnson retired from the Miami-Dade school district last year after 42 years.
Having worn many hats throughout her career, memories of that third-grade class are particularly special for her. She had 14 children who needed to get out of third grade, and the ticket was a higher FCAT score for each.
Each person had a job in her classroom, which she said she ran like a “company.”
There was a line inspector to keep the lines straight. An attendance checker to call roll. A clean-up crew to keep the room tidy.
“They all felt important,” she said. “I empowered them.”
Besides the academics, she took a personal interest in the children. She knew some of them had unstable situations at home. She’d chat with young boys who spoke of getting used to parents in jail. She took a mother and four kids to Walmart to get them eyeglasses when she noticed they squinted a lot in class.
The long nights — some so long custodians would have to kick her out — and extra effort made for a memorable teaching experience.
“I had the greatest year of my life,” she said.
She’ll never forget when grades were finished and test scores came in at the end of the school year. Tears come from her eyes when she recalls it.
“Every one of those children … every one passed.”