In the Spring of 1981, Michael Johnson gave his ninth-grade students at John Muir Junior High School in Burbank an assignment--and a promise--that would follow him for more than five years. Last week, he did something about both: Johnson gave back the former and kept the latter.
Students in Johnson's freshman English class entered his classroom each morning, read the topic for the day that was written on the chalkboard, then went to a file cabinet to retrieve their personal journals. Topics ranged from the ridiculous ("Pretend you are a flea: Tell me your life story.") to the more profound ("If you walked into a store and knew that you never would get caught, would you steal something anyway?").
For 10 minutes each day, the students wrote in the journals, then returned them to the file cabinet, which was kept locked except during class hours. They were not allowed to take the journals out of the classroom, and the teacher had pledged that no one else would ever read them. The students had Johnson's assurance of privacy, he said, except in three cases.
"I let them know right from the start that there were certain things that could force me to break that vow of privacy," he recalled.
Grounds for Breaking Vow
One of those subjects, he said, was if they wrote about physical abuse in the home. Another was if he believed they were entertaining suicidal thoughts. "The third," he said, "was if I asked them to write about their summer vacations, and they said that mom hit dad with a frying pan and buried him in the back yard. I would have to say something about that, too."
Students were not graded on what they wrote or the language they used but rather on the thought they had given to the topic at hand. His goal, he said, was to encourage students to write honestly and openly about emotions, relationships and the world around them.
At the end of the semester, Johnson realized that the journals were too precious to hand over to their owners. "I knew freshmen too well to trust them to hold onto these and knew they wouldn't appreciate the continuity to your life that having something like this can give," he said. "Their emotions are going wacko, their bodies are changing faster than their brains and their love lives are the most important thing to them."
Gain Value Over Time
Johnson felt that, given time, the students would have a far greater appreciation of things they had written about and perhaps gain insight into the changes that had occurred in their perceptions.
And so he kept the journals, promising that after five years he would give them back. To ensure he would be able to contact the students, he asked them to tape a photograph of themselves on the inside of the journals, along with the full names and telephone numbers of their parents.
Johnson, 33, concedes that he had mixed motives for giving the assignment. Since students wrote during the first 10 minutes of class when he was required to take attendance and do "normal bureaucratic paper work," the assignment bought him time. But it is possible that an incident in Johnson's own past was a far stronger force.
When Johnson was 13, his mother and father divorced. Johnson, his twin sister and an older sister were separated when Johnson was sent to a foster home for four years in Modesto, where he and his family had lived. Photographs and other meaningful items linking him to his past were destroyed in the transition.
"I know what it is not to have that connection and to want that connection," he said. "It's very possible that, if I had been able to keep all of those things, I might have thrown them away myself. In either case, maybe holding onto my students' journals was my way of giving back what was taken away from me."
Johnson recalled that the semester he taught at John Muir Junior High School was his first job as a full-time teacher. At the time, he says, he still was completing his teaching credential requirements at California State University, Northridge, after receiving a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1979 and a master's degree in theater and telecommunications in 1980 from California State University, Stanislaus.
Changed Schools Since
To fulfill his credential requirement, Johnson had worked as a substitute teacher at John Muir Junior High School for nearly a year. When an opening was created there by a teacher's mid-term departure, Johnson was offered the position. After two semesters, he went on to John Burroughs High School in Burbank for one semester and later to Van Nuys High School, where he taught English and creative writing for three years.
In 1985, Johnson decided it was time to go back home. He now teaches English at Thomas Downey High School in Modesto.
In December, Johnson drove his pick-up truck packed with journal-filled boxes from Modesto to a friend's house in Van Nuys to fulfill his promise to his students.