May 28, 1996 in Nation/World

Teaching Whirlwind Winds Down Art Teacher Arden Johnson About To Hang Up White Smock

Eric Sorensen Staff writer
 

At first glance, Arden Johnson’s resume probably wouldn’t land her another teaching job:

“Position/Title: Teacher (an honorable title!)”

“Years of Experience: 23, but it is not enough! There’s still gobs to do!”

Under academic preparation, she lists five colleges and universities. Plus two weeks at NASA’s Ames Research Center, “where I was the only teacher who got claustrophobia in the space suit, had the only rocket that refused to fly, and threw up on three NASA Ph.D.s on the way to Mount Lick Observatory!”

This is experiential learning on all eight cylinders, motion sickness and the speed limit be darned.

Until next month. With the close of school on June 11, this farm community’s dean of painting, cutting, gluing and sculpting will pull the red sable paint brush from her hair bun and remove from her wrist the roll of masking tape she keeps ready to hang student projects.

Then, with the abruptness of a whirlwind stopping in midswirl, she’ll hang up her white smock.

Johnson, who teaches kindergarten and art in this K-8 school, is deliberately avoiding the preliminary long goodbyes.

“I’m not going to resign until everybody’s out of this building,” she said recently above the cafeteria’s lunch-hour din, “because I don’t want any party with a flat cake and roses on it.”

Colleagues are already getting misty.

“She’s made so much of a difference in everyone’s lives,” said fellow teacher Sue Lynch, her eyes tearing up. “She loves everybody the best, everybody the most.”

Johnson, a Spokane native and graduate of North Central High School, is living proof that one can still be an individual in a buttoned-down farm town. Neatness may be the order of the day - at least one woman has mopped a carport here - but Johnson lets chaos reign.

“Mrs. Johnson!” first-grader Eric Johnson, no relation, cried the other day. “Some paint dwibbed on the flo!” “It’s not the end of the world,” Johnson said. “That’s why we have a cement floor.”

Johnson was a Colfax housewife for the middle years of her life, raising three children, but she was inspired to leave the home in the late ‘60s after reading Betty Friedan’s “The Feminist Mystique.”

She enrolled at Washington State University, where she was one of only four older women students.

When she landed a teaching job in Endicott, her mother said, “‘Brother - I don’t know if you’re going to make it there. You’ve got too big a mouth.’ My mother knew me really well.”

She went on to fight a lot of battles, not the least of which was a losing struggle to save the old Endicott School from demolition. At one point she tried enlisting the help of Gov. Mike Lowry, Endicott graduate, but with no luck.

“There were the ghosts of children past there,” she said. “I could have wept. I did weep.”

Education School District 101 once turned down an Endicott grant proposal because its “language was inappropriate,” lacking a certain academic flair.

“We are a group of teachers who do not lack warmth and originality,” she shot back in a letter that featured nearly a dozen different type faces and styles. “We have given up manufactured and artificial language.”

Indeed, consider this straightforward snippet, which she once suggested for a curriculum guide: “If it has big letters, we read it. If it’s fuzzy, we pet it. If it has wings, we watch it fly.”

Her approach - to use a non-Johnsonian term - is constructivist, said Dick Scheuerman, assistant superintendent of the Endicott-St. John Cooperative School Districts and a Johnson alumnus.

That means letting children discover as they go, drawing conclusions on their own, “which means a noisy, messy classroom,” he said.

That’s one reason Johnson chafes at pushing kindergarteners to read.

“If you have never experienced an orange, you can read about it all day and all night and you still don’t know it until all of a sudden you try an orange and go, ‘Oh yeah.’ … It’s like that with little kids. They just haven’t had enough experience to bring anything to it.”

There are other portals of discovery.

A reporter and photographer, visiting on separate occasions, were each corralled by Johnson into talking to the school journalism class.

(Full disclosure: The reporter was greeted with a banner across the school lobby that included the phrase “superb journalist.”)

For a project in which students kept journals like the explorers Lewis and Clark, Johnson helped them make leather-bound diaries decorated with claws, rattlesnake rattles and the feathers of a wild turkey killed by a tractor trailer.

Johnson took to writing in school announcements, “be sure to bring in any road kill!”

But her reign as “road kill queen,” as she is now sometimes known, has taken its toll. At 65, she’s ready to let a youngster get a new job, possibly volunteer for the convalescent center in Colfax, maybe return to a domestic life devoid of road kill.

“I haven’t cleaned house in 25 years,” she said, laughing. “Maybe I’ll go home and clean house.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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