I decided to read this book after hearing an interview with LouAnne Johnson on NPR’s This American Life. Johnson said the reality of her daily teaching experience wasn’t much like Michelle Pfeiffer’s experiences in Dangerous Minds—a sentiment that made me laugh and nod as I parked my car at a recently-remodeled school filled with smart minority students. I liked this woman—but wait, what? She wrote the book that inspired the Dangerous Minds film?
Yup. I kept listening.
Turns out in the book, Johnson never has her life threatened by a student, like she does in the movie. In addition to teaching Limited English Placement, she teaches an Honors program for gifted students who have some of the academic struggles and behavioral challenges depicted on the big screen, but not to the same degree.
So when the movie turns into a television show, Johnson said she didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and no wonder: at one point the television character hosts a school fundraiser at a strip club. Johnson took the royalty check from the television show and returned it, un-cashed.
In the book, Johnson explicitly rejects the “teacher as savior” narrative that made the movie so successful. When her colleague Bud criticizes her grading methods and then proceeds to glorify the time he spent working at a “dilapidated high school in the poorest section of the city” a few years prior, Johnson retorts, “Well, that was real white of you to go and help those poor little nigra and beaner heathen” (170).
I couldn’t believe it!
I appreciated Johnson’s commitment to plot. The stories here are driven by action and start with real hooks. The first few pages of the book contain these attention-grabbing sentences: “I couldn’t concentrate. Raul Chacon was standing in the middle of the parking lot outside my classroom, shivering in the freezing rain,” and “I had intended to keep Raul after class and give him a stern lecture, but I ended up giving him a hundred dollars instead” (3, 4). Who’s not going to keep reading?
Johnson keeps the movement up by squeezing lots of everyday action into very few words. “He leaned forward, crossed his arms on his desktop, and looked me straight in the eye,” she writes (33). And, “I asked with exaggerated politeness. He ignored me. I leaned down and spoke close to his ear” (77). I once heard that good writers often intensify and strengthen details in stories by activating “three sensuous strokes”—a fancy way of saying they use at least three of the five senses. It’s a good rule for poetic description. If we’re talking pacing, I think Johnson’s Rule is just as good: speed up the momentum and heighten the specificity of a scene with a series of three or four everyday actions.
I also enjoyed Johnson’s intentional repetition when describing characters, especially Troy Jones, a student with lightning bolts “shooting across his head” (77). A few pages before that, Johnson described the young man with greater detail: “His hair was cut close to his head, and a lightning bolt was shaved into the left side of his skull. Three tiny gemstones glittered on his left earlobe” (73). Johnson teaches four classes a day. Readers need identifying details like lightning bolts to keep students straight in their minds. What’s remarkable is that Johnson never lets the repetition reduce the humanity of her students.
Each student is a person—just like Johnson herself.
Post-script: Johnson still teaches today. I emailed her recently, and she wrote me back. “I taught in the at-risk program for six years, then went to graduate school for a year, then taught high school in New Mexico, ESL classes in North Carolina, and college in New Mexico,” she wrote. “I have continued to teach all of my life.” She currently teaches in a high school diploma program for adults.