April Johnson was always an avid reader and a good student. But when she started ninth grade she was struggling to fit in and skipping school. When she brought home a report card with six F's, her mother sent her to an alternative school.
It was small and bare-bones, but it had an art room filled with colorful paints. That's where Johnson found a passion that led her to a triumphant return to her old elementary school on Thursday.
Johnson first entered Tuckaseegee Elementary as a fourth-grader in 1990. On Thursday hundreds of students and colleagues lined the drive to greet their art teacher with signs, songs, cheers and hugs after she was named Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' 2018 teacher of the year.
CMS presented the award, which comes with $1,500 and a one-year lease on a new car, at an assembly Wednesday evening. Joseph Little of Vance High was named teacher assistant of the year.
Johnson, 36, is a teacher's daughter. But her career choice wasn't an obvious one for her. In fact, as a teen she told her mother, "I wasn't going to be a teacher; I was going to make money."
The quirky path that got her here is part of what makes her a great teacher, her principal says. Johnson knows what it's like to struggle, to feel like a misfit and to find that spark that lights the future.
"It's almost as if she removes the scales from (students') eyes and they can see what can be," says Tuckaseegee Principal Rhonda Gomez.
Johnson, a self-described nerd, has eclectic interests. She loves reading science fiction and commentaries on religion and social life. She gets excited about chess and cartoons, grunge music and musical theater.
As a student Johnson spent her first three years in Gaston County schools, where her mom taught and she was often the only African-American in her class. When her mom got a job with CMS, Johnson enrolled at the mostly black Tuckaseegee Elementary in west Charlotte, where classmates asked her, "Why do you talk so white?"
Still, Johnson says she loved school and piled up A's. Things didn't get shaky until she enrolled at Harding High.
"I wasn't very successful. I was discovering who I was. I didn't carry over a lot of my friends from middle school," she recalls. "You're an African-American kid and you're smart, you're open minded — you get a lot of feedback from that and it's not always positive, particularly from other African-American kids. I got picked on a lot."
She brought home six F's, a B and a C — "that's not even a whole point GPA!" — and her mom said things had to change. Johnson moved to Wesley Alternative School, located in a couple of rooms in an uptown church, where she discovered art. "I was in there splashing things, messing around, but the colors really did come together and I could see it."
She also auditioned for Heart to Heart, a teen theater troupe that focused on dating violence. The next year she got into Northwest School of the Arts, where creativity mattered more than conformity and she found friends of all backgrounds and races. She graduated in 1999 and went on to study art at Winston-Salem State University.
It was a teacher in her senior year of college who helped Johnson discover her calling — by rejecting Johnson's competent but unoriginal works and demanding that she try again. In rejection after rejection — "I don't see you yet" — the teacher brought forth a bright, abstract style that lit up Johnson's soul.
"It was like giving birth. I had to squeeze it out of me, what was important to me," Johnson recalls. She came to see great teachers as midwives: "I feel like that's what I do here: Pushing and squeezing and watching, the privilege of watching beside somebody while they kick and squirm and figure it out is an honor."
Johnson taught in Winston-Salem, took time off to earn a master's degree in divinity from Wake Forest University and eventually found herself back at Tuckaseegee in January 2016. The building had changed — her art room is in the former kitchen — and so had the children. When Johnson was a student, she says, meeting a Hispanic or Asian classmate was noteworthy. Today they make up almost half the student body.
And while she acknowledges she may have been insulated as a child, Johnson feels like more of today's children are battling poverty and homelessness. She spends her summers "scouring the clearance rack" to stock up on pencils, stickers, folders, containers and small toys.
Beyond providing supplies, Johnson prides herself on providing hospitality: Every child who enters her class is seen and valued. And every child who glimpses a talent is pushed and squeezed to deliver it into the world.
When Johnson got to school Thursday, she wept as the glee club she helped create sang Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" to her. The girl confidently singing the lead role in front of a crowd and cameras "had such a tiny voice, and was so unsure of herself" when the club started.
Johnson agrees with colleagues who say teacher working conditions have become overwhelming. Even as an art teacher, she says, she's pressured to prove her value through documented student gains and contributions to tested subjects. "We are inundated," she says.
And no, teaching hasn't turned out to be a way to make big money. But Johnson's mother had told her all those years ago not to bother if she was in it for money.
"There is a joy that contributes to our longevity, and it comes from a deep down place," Johnson said. "I love what I do."