But, he likes you
The story of Lewis Johnson

A short story based on actual events.

Chapter 1
About halfway through his shift, Johnny was summoned to see the supervisor in a cramped little office just off the factory floor.
“Your mom has been taken to the hospital.”
Johnny, sometimes called Johnson, gasped. The supervisor said he could leave work early if he wished. He did wish for that. He started working at the GM Auto Assembly plant soon after it opened in the 1950s. By the 1970s,a few lines were integrated, even though much of the plant was still segregated.

He walked alone across the parking lot to the bus stop at Employee Entrance Number 4. In the lot, three guys were hanging out at their cars, drinking, and laughing. Johnson, worried and deeply concerned about his mom and his brothers, walked right by them. Normally he avoided drunk white guys, but this time he wasn’t concerned about them. Until they interrupted his thoughts with slurs, threats, and jabs to his chest. Johnny knew better than to fight back. But that made him feel weak, humiliated, and ashamed. He finally was able to get away from the guys and jog to the bus stop. No one followed.

After his mother passed, Johnson turned in his resignation. The GM job had too many bad memories. He felt firsthand, the hatred others had for him because of his skin color. Traumatic experiences stayed with Johnny, but he repressed his hatred and desire for revenge.

At his new job, Johnny kept busy trucking demolition debris from construction sites to dump sites. He liked this job okay. For the most part, he was left alone; he needed little supervision; he knew what to do. Truck drivers were hard to come by. If not, his Foreman would likely have fired him. Nathan Baker, Job Foreman of Quality Construction, grew up in a religious Baptist household with very conservative values. Nathan was not afraid to tell people that his way was always right. America had changed from the one Nate enjoyed in the 1960s. He blamed the ‘Coloreds’ for making his job and life a little more trying. He had been fired from two previous companies for insubordination. There was an aura of hatred that enveloped Nathan, his words, and actions.

Today, he’d be considered a White Supremacist. Back then, he was just mean. There was no Confederate flag on his truck nor any stickers at all. This was the truck that he drove to church. Baker had recently chastised Johnson for an error he made several months ago that cost the company money. Johnny was wise and experienced enough to not let his boss hear or see his reaction to these accusations. An investigation within the company was completed to determine the source of the money error. Johnson was found not guilty and, as discovered, had even tried to correct the error while it was happening. Nathan Baker still blamed him.

Sometimes, during Johnny's drive home from work, some of the bitterness spilled over into his driving. He addressed Baker’s hatred by avoiding white people and acting cordial and polite only when necessary. His lifetime of facing personal and systemic discrimination and, now, the animosity from his boss, drove him to quietly withdraw. Among his family and his crew friends, Johnny was very open about his hatred of white folk.

Johnny had saved when he could and was purchasing his own truck. After rent, gas, and food, the truck payments didn’t leave much money for furnishings and entertainment. He was an avid Dallas Cowboys fan - that was his entertainment. When the season ended, he withdrew into his driving and his beer. He loved his children but didn’t like taking care of them. No financial support for any of his kids. He had four - two daughters and two sons, named with more common names. Johnny, just Dad to his kids, and his wife Letitia had decided, early on in their marriage, that their kids would have to overcome enough obstacles, they didn’t want their name to be one of them.

Chapter 2
Lewis Johnson was strutting down the hall at Madison High School. He was a slightly smaller than average freshman who was staying in South Dallas. He never stated where he lived, only where stayed. It emphasized his lack of roots and home stability. Lewis had some trouble concentrating on academics in school, but his outgoing personality got him through and kept him out of too much trouble. A flier on the bulletin board by the Counselor’s office caught his eye. It was a call for auditions or portfolio interviews for the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

    For students interested the arts.
    Consider a transfer to Booker T.
    Develop your talent and learn
    about careers in the arts.
    See your Guidance Counselor.

    Booker T. Washington High School
    for the Visual and Performing Arts

The arts school attracted two main types of students - those who had talent and the desire to learn their craft and those who, for a variety of reasons, wanted to get away from their home school. Lewis was that one. He got bored easily and thought this arts school might be a more interesting way to get through high school. He wanted to apply. He did like to draw, though he didn’t get much help, advice, or support from either parent.

Delores was the Guidance Counselor at Madison. She was one of those people who truly wanted to help, especially those in need. She welcomed Lewis in to her small but adequate office.
“Washington is a good school that will allow you to learn and practice your drawing skills. You’ll be exposed to a variety of arts disciplines. I think you’d enjoy it.”
She explained the application process and suggested how he could neatly present some of his artwork. Together, they worked through the maze of questions and requirements. Delores agreed to serve as a reference. Lewis did manage to get a signature from his mom - she had asked a few questions,
“Will it cost anything?”
"Is it a good school?”
“Do you wanna do it?”
“Well, then, fine by me.”
The counselor submitted his application. His next step would be an in-person interview at Washington.

Lewis nervously waited in the hallway outside Classroom 204. Some chairs had been pulled out of the room and lined up along the row of lockers. It was pretty crazy - lots of nervous kids eager to know where they would go to school next fall. Some sat confidently, as if they had done this before. A few had professional portfolio cases. Lewis held tightly the yellow folder that contained some of his school art projects and some sketches he doodled when bored. He wanted to doodle right then on that blank canvas of the yellow folder. He liked how clean it looked, so he refrained. The longer he waited, the more anxious he became. He went through the doubting ‘What if’ questions in his mind.
“Lewis Johnson!”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Come on in.”

Lewis’ personality, smile, and positive attitude began to show from behind his self-doubts. He hadn’t had to talk to many people in a setting like this. He wasn’t quite sure what to do. But, he managed. He answered honestly. He shared his desires for the future. He laughed occasionally, enough to ease some tension. A few weeks later in Social Studies at Madison, a student office worker stepped in the room and handed a pink note-sized form to the teacher. The teacher held on to the note until class ended. She caught Lewis as he was shuffling towards the door.
“Lewis, the counselor would like you to see you.”
“What did I do?”
“This is from the Guidance Counselor, you’re probably not in any trouble.”

Lewis walked down to the main entrance and the suite of staff offices. As soon as he stepped into the outer office, he saw a huge grin on the counselor’s otherwise serious face.
“Lewis Johnson, you have been accepted to enroll at Booker T. Washington. Congratulations.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Very good - it’s what you wanted. Washington is a good school.”
He wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He did feel good about being accepted to the Arts High School. . That meant he had or did something that was impressive.

Chapter 3
In 1892, Dallas established its first high school for Negro students. In 1911, the school was enlarged and named the Dallas Colored High School. It was moved in 1922 to even larger quarters and renamed Booker T. Washington High School, after the education pioneer. For many years, it was the only Dallas high school that allowed students of color. Alumni Ernie Banks, a Chicago Cub, was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The school was on the same street as the Moorland YMCA, opened in 1930, which provided sleeping rooms for African Americans who found limited hotel facilities elsewhere in the city. The school and the Y were important meeting places for those involved in the Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1976, the school was repurposed as an Arts Magnet, becoming a prototype for magnet schools across the country, as part of the Federal Court Desegregation Orders. The arts school required students to study foundations in each of the four disciplines: Music, Theater, Dance, and Visual Art. After their Freshman year, they would pick a discipline in which to specialize. The name was changed to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts. Lewis asked the Madison counselor for a tardy slip for his next class. He felt different walking down the hall. A bit prouder, more confident, and more scared.

Lewis often felt overshadowed by his older brother and his sister, both outgoing, popular, and doing well in school. Letitia Johnson, Lewis’ mom, worked two jobs: a Domestic and a Hotel maid, where she worked up to Shift Leader and Supervisor. She had worked at least two jobs for as long as Lewis could remember. When she was home, she was likely sleeping. Her kids learned to make or find their own meals. At least one of her four children were staying with her at any time. Some nights Lewis stayed with his mother; other nights with his father. Lewis sometimes got tired of his dad’s rants. He would sneak out and walk or, if lucky, bum a ride over to his moms apartment, about a half mile away. But, he didn’t know or fully understand what his dad had gone through.

Chapter 4
The explosive noise coming from the back of my car was startling and ominous. I was driving my Volkswagen van, engine in the rear, on a rural interstate. Fortunately, I could see the next exit. The clunking noise was still announcing its plea for help. Moving into the right lane, I eased off the freeway onto the service road. Ahead, about the length of a football field, stood a Nickerson Farms, a roadside chain much like Stuckey's: a cafe, gas pumps, and store. There was no car repair bay, but I figured I could still find help there. Besides, I could see nothing else around. The van coasted into the lot and into a spot across the lot from the front door of the restaurant. The rattling engine shuddered to silence. This was on I-35, about an hour north of Austin where I had spent a busy weekend visiting friends from college. I was on my way north, back to Dallas.

I went on inside the Nick, through the gift shop just inside the front door, and up to the cashier counter. The cashier was not able to leave her post, but she did offer directions to the Greyhound bus stop. She seemed quite young, possibly a local high school kid earning some spending money and a few bucks for community college. I stepped into the restaurant, where the few patrons sat in booths that lined the parallel walls. I politely interrupted and asked the first couple if they could give me a ride to a bus station in town, just a few miles down the side road. The hardened farmer or rancher type with his lovely obedient wife, apologized, saying they were heading back in the other direction after dinner. Next, was a young couple, maybe early 20s, who had just finished eating dinner. They said they'd be glad to help and they knew exactly where the bus station was, at the Georgetown Cafe, right on the main road.
“Great, thanks so much.”
I told them I'd go check on my car and then wait in the gift shop. I asked the manager for permission to leave the car overnight. I had just begun trying to solve one of the bent nail brain teasers, two interlocked nails that need to be maneuvered apart, when the couple came in and paid for their meal.

We swapped introductions and headed out to their light colored Ford pickup that had recently been hard at work. There was mud caked along the bottom edge of the doors and the inside served as a catchall for food wrappers, cups, and tools. The woman sheepishly cleared some space on the seat. There had been room for two, she now moved some of the clutter to make room for three. It was snug but not uncomfortable. I didn't care - I was so appreciative of getting a ride. Usually, when my car broke down, and it often did, I’d get a bit stressed. I had never quite learned how to take care of cars and they intimidated me slightly. Big dangerous machine versus a city boy. I didn't understand exactly how the machine makes the car go and I couldn't translate symptoms to solutions. But this time, even though it was a horrible noise that should have frightened me, I was at peace. Somehow, I just knew I could take care of this and it would work out fine. There was an inexplicable foreboding of something ahead. Something big. I had no idea what, but I could sense it.

After driving just a few blocks, the pickup eased into a vacant row of parking spaces in front of a combination cafe, store, and bus station. The only person visible inside was one employee mopping the floor behind the counter. I thanked that nice young couple and jumped down to the worn asphalt pavement and on in to the store. Immediately I was aware of the television; It was in the front of the store, facing a few tables that served as both dining and waiting.

Lou Grant, Murray, Georgette, Ted Baxter, and The Happy Homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens. I turned and stared at the sitcom for a minute, one of my favorite shows. Remembering what I was there for, I walked towards the back. The counter was a gallery exhibit. Old postcards under the glass top, business cards, some yellowed and faded, miscellaneous photos, a calendar that was of a year that now rendered it useless, and a menu or two. I introduced myself, bought a bus ticket, and picked through some of the souvenir-quality stuff as I made my way back to Mary Tyler Moore. Poor Ted Baxter, just a beat or two behind the rest of the universe, But Sue Ann, Betty White, was delightful.

The mopper had finished and was turning out the lights in the back. And then in the front. Illuminated by just the animated glow from the television and the street light out front, he mentioned that it was closing time, but, since the bus was late, he would stay a few minutes and watch television with me. That made me a little uncomfortable - I assumed the guy had worked all day and was eager to get home. Mary and the gang made us both laugh, so I felt better. Before the sitcom could resolve its weekly dilemma, the lights of the big bus streamed up to the store with the gasp of the brakes. Through the large plate glass window, I waved to the bus driver and turned and thanked the mopper. Stepping out a few steps toward the waiting bus, I heard the sound of the bus door swinging open mixed with the click of the store door locking behind me.

I stepped on up, handed the driver my fresh ticket, and quietly walked down the aisle. The bus was dark except for a few aisle lights that had not yet burned out. Most of the other passengers, the ones I could see, were slumped in a variety of sleep poses. I found a pair of empty seats about halfway back on the right. The bus was only about a quarter full. I settled into my seat as the bus lurched out onto the calm and quiet Georgetown road. For the first time since that horrible noise, I had time to relax and take stock of my situation. I looked out the window at the moonlit Texas farmland and smiled. It was quiet and peaceful. There was that feeling again: something big was about to happen. Not sure what, but a change was coming. I had never sensed anything this strong before. Like I was connected to the future and it was telling me that everything was going to be okay, even good. Just relax. But, my car was busted and I am a hundred miles from home. Relax. I gave in and enjoyed the ride.

I dozed a little bit, in that iffy state between awake and a nap. The click-clack of the tires over the pavement section cracks was soothing in its regularity. I perked up as the bus eased into Waco for a short rest stop and bathroom break. I called my parents to explain my plight and asked them to pick me up at the Greyhound station in Dallas in about an hour. Of course they would.
“Greyhound bus #344 to Dallas is now boarding. Please make your way to the bus.”
The announcement interrupted my call - it was time to reboard. Back to the Interstate and the mesmerizing beat of the open road. The bus exited and pulled into downtown Dallas. This bus station was alive and brightly lit. I went through it and on outside to wait on the sidewalk.

Back in my childhood home, I went right to sleep. I had explained all the details during the drive from the station to my parent’s house. I had no reason to go to my own apartment. I had no car and would just be stranded there. After breakfast with my parents, I borrowed my dad's car, and drove to east Dallas to have a rented trailer hitch installed. I put the attachment bar in the trunk and drove back down I35. A break in Waco was at an AYCE pizza buffet. I got to Nickerson Farms in the early afternoon, hitched up the VW bus to the car, and went inside to thank the Nickerson Farms people. Of course, it was a different crew and they were somewhat oblivious to and confused by my gratitude.

Chapter 5
I stopped in Waco again. This time on the northbound side. I had gotten comfortable with towing a car but still didn't want to have to maneuver city streets too much. So, I just stopped at a place right on the service road.

There was not too much traffic coming into the city from the south, towards downtown Dallas. But downtown was jammed. I did not want to drive up Central Expressway, notorious for traffic jams, slowdowns, and aggressive drivers. So, I exited in downtown and remembered reading about the Washington Arts High School. I maneuvered through traffic to the northeast corner of downtown and parked in an almost-empty lot behind the school. While waiting for the freeway traffic to subside, I wandered in through the school's double doors. The aroma of high school was unmistakable - cleaning fluid, lockers of gym clothes, and cafeteria food. I suddenly stopped. And froze.
“Oh my God. I want to, no, I will be a teacher.”

The feeling that overtook me and washed through my being was so clear - I was going to be a teacher. I probably will never for sure exactly what caused that feeling. I later suspected that these thoughts had been swirling around in my unconscious for years. Teaching wasn’t completely new to me - I had been a front-of-house trainer at a restaurant and was the pledge trainer at my college fraternity. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I had already explored the notion of identifying myself as a teacher. But, in that school doorway, it came rushing out. It was so clear. I just knew. And, that would change everything.

Slightly excited and confident about the revelation, I took a few steps into the hallway and then into a wider section that I later learned was the lobby to the school's theater. A directory was mounted on the wall - that kind with the white plastic letters with tabs that stick into the folds of the fuzzy black backboard with a metal locking frame and glass front. I recognized a name, Mabel Keel, Director of the Art Cluster. Ms. Keel had worked in the office at my high school. She was now my connection to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts - where I now stood, in the school smell, on the school linoleum tile, and surrounded by the institutional tan/green wall color.

The next morning, I called the High School and asked to speak with Ms. Keel. I began peppering her with the questions I had composed the night before:
“What are the qualifications I would need to teach?
“How do I get into the profession?
“Are there any openings at your school?”

There were no faculty openings, but I could be a teacher's aide. I would need a Master's degree and a Teaching Certificate to teach in a public school. I had dropped out of college and now I had to go back for a degree. I wasn't particularly committed to studying while at college in Austin a few years earlier. I was only a few courses shy of finishing a degree in Advertising Design at the University of Texas. I called the UT registrar and had them check my transcript - yep, I still needed 2 classes - an Advertising course and Spanish. Muy bien, sólo dos. Only two classes. I prepared to return to Austin for one semester to complete my undergraduate degree.

Lois Miller, Director of the Theater Cluster, at Washington called,
"We sure could use some help with the class in set design.”
They were between teachers. I agreed to pitch in since I wouldn't be able to take a class at UT until the spring semester. I showed up the next Monday to help an adjunct teacher who had too much to handle. I recalled the good art teachers I had in high school. I walked among the students and helped them with their assignments. I decided then, that instead of telling students how to do something, I would give them the necessary info and assignment specs, and encourage them to figure out a way to solve the given problem. I loved teaching, though I didn't quite understand it - I had never worked in a school classroom before. It was one of those things that just feels right. I belonged there. In that classroom. Right then.

Chapter 6
As I drove down I-35 back to Austin, it felt different - I was eager to go to school. A purpose was now much clearer to me. I was going to be a school teacher. A couple of hours into the trip, I passed through Georgetown and the Nickerson Farms to the left, off the service road. I laughed out loud, waved, and honked. While In Austin, completing those two courses, I answered another call from Ms. Miller, asking me to teach full time, starting in the fall. I knew I would have to work to pay for Graduate School and this teaching job would look good on my resume. I wasn’t planning on teaching at a high school, but this job was put in my lap and I loved those few months being in the classroom as an aide.

The first faculty meeting at Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts was both exciting and a bit scary. I felt unprepared - because I was. The school was in need of teachers and hired me with an Emergency Teaching Certificate. To continue teaching, I would have to submit a transcript that showed I was enrolled in at least 6 hours of courses that would apply to earning a Texas Teaching Certificate. So, when I began teaching, I had not taken any courses in Education. But, I loved the direction my life was taking. I had been waiting tables while searching for a career passion. Accepting that teaching was my passion gave me the confidence to attend the first faculty meeting with a room full of strangers more experienced than I was. I paid attention to the announcements and preparations for the year. I may have stuck out like the newbie that I was, but I didn’t care.

The following Monday was Back to School day. I was there early, doing final preps on handouts and chalking my name on the board. I didn’t have a class the first period - the students were all in Homeroom. I walked the halls, peered into classrooms, and felt the energy that is high school. The bell rang, signaling the beginning of my career as a classroom teacher. It was in that moment that I felt most alive and most confident of my abilities. I was now part of one of the most important jobs in a progressive society - tickling the neurons in the minds of young people to become better thinkers and better creative problem solvers. I loved participating in the forging of a stronger future.

To enhance my familiarity with the school, expand my comfort with teaching, and alleviate some of the anxiety, I sought help and advice from Ms. Miller, my supervisor. In addition, I made friends with a drawing instructor named George; a science teacher, Tom; and Scott, a former hippie, now avant-garde English teacher. The students loved them and their classes. One of these mentors shared with me the common name of the school. Instead of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts, students affectionately and respectfully refer to the school simply as Booker T. I was relieved; that was so much easier to say. He remembered Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs from 1962, but I doubted these students had that in mind. But, maybe.

Chapter 7
Margaret Patton was the ceramics teacher at the school. She also taught one class in Art History. Her best friend, Liz, was a math teacher, but at a different school. Peggy and Liz outside of the classroom and Ms. Patton and Ms. Richards in class. The two of them took advantage of the teacher lifestyle by traveling extensively during much of the summer. Peggy reveled in the museums and architecture of Rome, Milan, Florence, Madrid, Paris, and much of the rest of Europe. Her enthusiasm was infectious, Liz grew to be just as fascinated. They made a wonderful couple - outgoing and adventurous. They had a wide circle of friends, mostly women and mostly teachers.

Margaret, or Peggy, loved her students. She was very giving and would help her kids with food, clothing, field trip fees, and however she could help. Peggy became another mentor and a friend. She was quite at ease with the downsides of teaching: meetings, paperwork, discipline rules, and the school district politics. She helped me overcome the heavy cloud of administration that hung over new teacher’s heads. She had learned, years ago, to not take any of that too seriously. Focus on the kids. The young minds.

Teachers look for special attributes in students; interest, attitude, and talent. These students encourage and motivate teachers to push themselves; it is those students help make the job of teaching more enjoyable and more rewarding. In the early 1980s, Peggy entered her Freshman Sculpture room on the first day and as she scanned the room and took roll, one student’s smile and demeanor caught her eye. Checking the attendance sheet revealed that his name was Lewis Johnson. Next period, I met Lewis in my Intro to Drawing class. There was just something about this one student that intrigued both me and Peggy. Lewis had such a confident joy of life. A kid living with either parent, one at a time, and facing tough odds. But he had such enthusiasm, humor, and zest for life.

Chapter 8
I finally felt I had a job that I loved - helping young people, mostly students of color, become better thinkers, with employable skills, and helping prepare them for success in life. Many of the students came from single-parent homes. On Fridays, I invited the students to join sitting on the floor in a circle at the open space end of the room. This was an arts school; the students were used to sitting on the floor for breathing exercises, small group discussions, and movement classes. I created an environment in which students felt they could share, without judgment. And I was pleasantly surprised at how deep some of the students went with their sharing. Common issues were home life, fear of the future, becoming young adults, their own self-awareness, and pressure from peers, school, and authority figures.

One of the most painful experiences, according to several of the students during Friday Share, was parental divorce or separation. Some felt responsible. Some felt alone. Some frightened. School life for a teenager is tough enough without layering on such a major disruption in their home life. Lewis was one such student. He had put up such a tough veneer, as had many students, that it took a few weeks before he felt ready to share his own divorce experiences. He didn't live anywhere. He stayed - some nights with Dad and some nights with his mom. He no longer felt very close to either parent. His older siblings seemed to be handling the divorce better than he was, but that just added to his feeling of aloneness. For me, one of the confirming moments was seeing how empathetic the other students were. Lewis was comforted. Tears welled in his eyes. Students often cried during their shares or while listening to others. But, for Lewis, smiling, strong Lewis, to shed his inhibitions enough to open up his wounds and let his classmates help with the healing was a phenomenal moment. Students commented that Friday Shares was the most impactful part of their high school education. Making connections. Accepting similarities. Sharing their stories.
The Booker T administration had learned of Share day, when there was no academic instruction. They never intervened.

Chapter 9Lewis's mom lived in East Dallas; his dad lived in South Dallas. I had been in Dad's neighborhood before. I never witnessed any racial violence or any overt racial hatred. My parent’s household didn’t participate in discrimination. My parents were born and raised in Madison Wisconsin, a more open and accepting community, and had gone to the University there. I did remember that, in a small triangular block in downtown Dallas, there were some public restrooms. I later discovered that they were once for whites only, as indicated by painted signs. That was all gone when I went downtown to go to a movie or shop with my mom. To get downtown, my friends and I often rode the bus. It picked us up at the end of the street and went straight down Preston Road, along the route of a cattle trail - Preston Trail - that went up from Dallas to the Red River, ending at the town of Preston. The site of the town is now under the waters of Lake Texoma. Riding the bus, we kids would sometimes sit in the very back row - it was elevated and swayed differently from the front. Of course, we could sit wherever we wanted. As I became wiser with age, I realized anyone could legally sit wherever they wanted, but some wouldn’t sit up front, maybe due to years of habit, or a still lingering fear. As a pragmatic kid, the skin color rules just didn’t make sense.

Growing up in north Dallas, my family had domestic help, named Fannie, who came to the house twice a week. She was like a part of our family. She had a son, also named James, who was my age. One afternoon in the summer, my mother suggested that I go home with Fannie and spend the night at their house so we two boys could play. Mom had worked out the details with Fannie beforehand. That night, we had some of Fannie's excellent cooking. After dinner (the days were long) I and James played outside until dark. It was a fun sleepover. My mother never coached me or cautioned me that I was going to south Dallas into a black neighborhood. She proposed and positioned it simply as two kids playing together for an evening. It was a good lesson on what makes people more similar than different.

Chapter 10
I often gave Larry a ride home from school. Sometimes, we would stop and get a soda, other times, we’d drive around looking at neighborhoods and building architecture. We would talk most of that drive time. I learned more about Lewis’ parents and his siblings - one brother and two sisters. One sister had graduated from college and was quite successful in her job, his brother, Corky, had also gone on to college and worked at a Dojo, a martial arts studio. The other sister and Lewis struggled with school.

Lewis sometimes referred to an area of South Dallas called Bonton. It was that ‘bad’ part of town. Bonton was built in a flood plain, so the property was cheap. More poverty, more anger, more hatred. But, the more Lewis described it, the more intrigued I became - I really wanted to drive through Bonbon and see for myself.
“No, you can’t go to Bonton. It’s bad. You’ll get hurt. I don’t even go there.”
They didn’t go see Bonton.

One summer, Lewis and I were driving up the Expressway. It was very hot. As we eased up the exit ramp, both of us noticed the stalled car on the side of the exit ramp with one guy trying to push it up the incline. There was room for me to drive around the car. And I might have. But, before I could even finish routing that path in my mind, Lewis said,
“Pull over.”
I slowed down. Lewis swung his door open, jumped out, and went right up to the trunk of the stalled car and began pushing that car up the ramp. Aware of the line of cars behind me, I drove around the car, pulled into the adjacent parking lot, and parked the car. I went back to help as Lewis and the driver just about had the car ready to turn into the lot. I realized there was no hesitation or discussion from Lewis. He just did it. That was Lewis: If he can help, he will.

Chapter 11
I drove Lewis on home to his dad’s house. Lewis and his siblings only called their father, Dad. Johnny liked that - he wanted to keep his personal life and family away from the racial discrimination at work. The way Lewis described Dad had piqued my curiosity and I hoped to meet him someday. Lewis pointed to a house coming up and said,
“Stop at that house.”
I assumed Lewis lived where we had stopped; I started to drive off. But, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Lewis walking down the street away from where I had let him out. I was a bit confused, that wasn’t his dad’s house.

I obliged him with this for several other drop-offs, But finally, I insisted,
“I’m gonna take you all the way home. I want to meet your father.”
Lewis adamantly protested,
“No, no you can’t.”
“Why not?”
“You just can’t, stop and let me out here.”
I kept driving.
“Lewis, sometime I’m going to meet your father. I’d like to do it now while we’re here.”
Lewis was very animated,
“My dad really does hate white people. He’ll hurt you. He hates them.”
“Well let me just find out.”
“It’s a mistake, don’t go in there.”
“You can go in with me, if you want.”
“I’m gonna wait in the car.”

Dad kept his truck in the driveway beside the four room white frame house. There was little landscaping, but there were some large trees in the older neighborhood. Many of the houses had bars on the doors and windows, but they were neat with well maintained yards. I parked at the curb, stepped out and rounded the car. I noticed Lewis’ eyes following me. I turned towards the house. The security door of burglar bars was open and flat against the wall to the right of the door. An empty, but clean, porch beckoned me up. Seeing no doorbell, I knocked with a firm but non-threatening rap. I did not turn around to see what Lewis might be doing. A few seconds later, a slightly stocky man opened the door, straining it against the security chain. He looked through the opening without saying a word. Was he leery, was he confused, did he wonder if something bad had happened to one of his children?
“Hi, Mr. Johnson, my name is Jim. I am one of Lewis’s teachers.”
Pause. The door shut so Dad could slide the chain out from the door. A terse welcome,
“Come on.”

Twenty minutes passed and Lewis still heard nothing from the house. He was getting worried and was about to open the car door and go check on his teacher, but just then the house door creaked open and I stepped out and walked towards the car. Lewis was feeling quite uneasy,
“What happened?”
I got back in the car.
“Your dad is a nice man, we had a good talk.”
“Nuh, uh. Tell me what happened.”

Dad’s house was so empty, it was stark. The main room had a folding card table and two chairs. That was it. Canned food and soup sat lonely in a doorless cabinet in the adjacent kitchen; a used saucepan on the stove. A Cowboys poster and giveaway beer promo posters were the only art on the walls. There was one other piece - artwork done by one of his four children, Lewis. Dad wasn’t really close to any of the kids since the divorce, but he did think of them often and did like to keep up with what they were doing.

So, he invited me to have a seat, which I did. Seeing the Cowboys’ Defensive Four staring right at us, gave me a connection to kick off a conversation. There was a game coming up; we shared predictions, complaints, and desires for the team.
“Sir, you wanna beer?”
“Sure, thanks.”
Dad went to the refrigerator. That gave me time to look around. I was curious where the kids slept when they stayed with him. Peering into one bedroom, I saw that it was neat and clean - there was no teenager mess like he had expected. Dad returned and sat down. We spent some time talking about his job. Much of our time, though, was spent on another connection - Dad’s son, Lewis.

Dad appreciated the respect that I showed his son and that I was helping him. There was little black and white, there were just two men hanging out, laughing, and talking. Dad seemed to be a cordial, caring working man. Connecting with Lewis and his dad helped me better understand the toll that years of oppression and hatred can have on a person. But, as Booker T. Washington said in 1901,
“Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

I was probably one of the few, white people that had been in that house and, likely, the only one on a social call. Lewis was still skeptical. He knew his dad hated white people.
“Lewis, it was just two men talking. He’s a good guy.”
Lewis quietly got out of the car and went into the house.

The next day in school, Lewis came up to me in the hallway outside the cafeteria,
“My dad still hates white people.
But, he likes you.”
I stifled a brief victory smile.
“I liked your dad, also.”

Chapter 12
Liz was certainly a caring woman; a popular and successful teacher at a prestigious private boy’s school. Like most good teachers, her students became her kids. She followed their growth after graduation and enjoyed talking with them when they would check in with her. She found in Peggy, a companion, a comrade, and a travel partner. Even though they lived together and Peggy had brought Lewis home for lunch, Liz didn’t have the same emotional connection to Lewis, so Peggy did most of Lewis’ mentoring on her own. She hired Lewis do all of the yard work: mowing, edging, and raking. She also had him do odd jobs and chores around the house. Peggy bought Lewis clothes and provided plenty of home-cooked food. Dad accused Lewis of trying to be a white kid. It probably was tough for Lewis, to stay in a nice well-furnished home in a safe neighborhood, but still have his friends at school.

It was around this time that I was patiently teaching Lewis how to drive. I offered informal driving lessons for several students in the parking lot after school. Even when it was just the two of us, I never asked why Lewis’ own dad hadn’t taught him how to drive. Lewis was just glad for the opportunity and our time together. He was an eager student driver; he was sharp and mechanically inclined, so the nuances came to him rather quickly. The amount of trust a driving instructor has to put in his neophyte students made me a little uncomfortable. When we were practicing turns in a church lot, I emphasized checking the mirrors, looking at blind spots, and using the turn signal. In his eagerness and anxiety over so many tasks to perform, Lewis accidentally thrust his hand down on the turn signal so hard, the shaft broke out of the steering column. Not a big surprise, it was an old VW van.

At Peggy’s house, Lewis and I remodeled some overhead cabinets that hung between the kitchen and the family room. They blocked the view. Peggy loved to chat with guests and family while she and Liz were cooking. She had to keep ducking her head to see under the cabinets. So, we carefully took them down. Carefully so the finish, the internal structure, and the hardware remained in good condition. The removed cabinets were put to new uses - a single cabinet went up next to the sink by the window. It completed the symmetry, now there were upper cabinets on either side of the sink. The triple unit was installed on the wall in the adjacent laundry room, providing much needed storage. We left the cabinet that shrouded the exhaust vent over the stove. On both sides of that, in the void where the cabinets used to hang, we mounted wire shelves. Brackets in the stove vent cabinet and some hanging chains supported the open ends of the shelves. There was room for glasses and plates, but these shelves did not hang down as low as the wooden cabinets.

Peggy’s mom, Nana, lived with her. Peggy was her mom’s caretaker and Nana’s lifeline to the world outside of her bedroom and the living room. Nana had raised two children, lost her husband, and now was content to watch television. Her pastime was instructing the people on screen what to say, which vowel to buy, and how best to dress. She called out her questions to Jeopardy so loud, one might think she was trying to reach the contestant. She loved Alex.

A few years after Peggy met Lewis, Nana passed away. Peggy was as mentally prepared as a daughter could be. It was a painless death. While grieving, Lewis provided much needed support. He helped Peggy get through the worst of her loss. Earlier, Peggy’s doctor told her that she had to restrict her mom’s diet due to her high cholesterol and her diabetes. Peggy shared one of her regrets with Lewis,
"I wish I had let her eat what she wanted. I wish I hadn't restricted her. She loved hamburgers.”
Lewis quietly replied,
“She had them.”
Lewis had snuck out periodically to go to Whataburger to get burgers for Nana.

Chapter 13
Once the house was cleared of Nana’s personal treasures and the considerate casseroles that lined the kitchen counter, Peggy and Lewis repainted Nana’s room. Peggy let Lewis pick the color. When they were finished, had rearranged the furniture, and admired their work; Peggy invited Lewis to move in with her and Liz. It would provide a more stable environment for Lewis. Her offer of free room & board included the stipulation that Lewis would have additional chores in the house and yard and run errands for the ladies. Lewis readily accepted and hugged his good friend Peggy. Liz had prepared dinner for the three of them. They celebrated Lewis’ new chapter in his life - living away from both parents.

Peggy and I had been encouraging Lewis to operate a lawn care business. Seemed like a good fit - Lewis could pick his hours, he'd be working outdoors, and he wouldn't have to answer to a boss. Peggy would let him use her mower and car to get to jobs. When Lewis was about to turn 19, one of his former teachers at Madison High hosted Peggy and me at a birthday party for Lewis. I gave Lewis a weed-whacker. The others gave him clipping shears, a rake, and a hoe. Lewis was overwhelmed - he had never gotten so many presents before. He seemed embarrassed. But, he sure loved tearing into his packages.

After a couple of summers of yard work, Lewis surprised me with a ticket to see the Jacksons at Texas Stadium. I was hesitant to accept due to the price of the ticket, but it was something Lewis wanted to do and it was a very kind gesture; I gratefully accepted the ticket. I was a Michael Jackson fan. Lewis’ brother, Corky, and a friend of his went with me and Lewis. I drove the four of us.

The concert was billed as the Victory Tour, after an album of the same name by the Jacksons. Many called it the Thriller Tour since that album was the current rage. The production showcased Michael's single decorated glove, black sequined jacket, and moonwalk. Emmanuel Lewis (Webster) was in the audience, choreography was by Paula Abdul, and Eddie Van Halen played the 'Beat It' guitar solo. The MJ concert was a phenomenal experience - the excitement of a popular band, 60,000 fans, and a great entertainer.

Chapter 14
The lawn care business was not earning Lewis enough money to live on his own and buy the things he needed and wanted. Peggy helped get Lewis accepted into Job Corps, so he could learn a trade. Job Corps, a Department of Labor program that offers free education and vocational training to young men and women, had an opening in San Marcos, about 3.5 hours south of Dallas. Lewis did most of the driving when he and Peggy went to get him settled on the Job Corps campus. Because of his good mechanical and electrical mind, he enrolled in the Electrical program. Lewis started with his typical energy and enthusiasm. But, also typical, he bored easily and was distracted. He also missed his family and friends in Dallas.

Chapter 15
Angela was angry. Her boyfriend had told her it was over. He no longer wanted them to be a couple. Angie was about to break down; she needed to be alone. She grabbed the few things she had in the bathroom, rushed right by him and to her car. She sat in the car for a moment sobbing. He appeared at her rolled up window. She put the car in gear and backed down the driveway. Her teary eyes prevented her from seeing clearly; she drove partly in the yard. Fortunately, no other cars were approaching the driveway when she bumped over the curb into the street. She thought,
'Now what? What do I do? Where do I go?'

She drove off and after turning onto a busier street, had the idea to go see Heather, her best friend and confidant. She turned left and left again, going back the way she came, but on a different street. She scrounged around for her phone. She had just thrown her things onto the front seat. She finally felt the phone on the passenger side floor. When she looked up, she saw a car approaching from the right. She didn’t realize that she had run the red light. As she swerved to avoid the car, she saw a clear image of a young black man with a frightened expression.

Often, without much notice, people just slip out of one’s life - they wander away from each other, going down their own paths. They may remember them periodically but they don’t have much contact. Several years after I met Lewis, I took a teaching job at a University out of state. I kept up with Lewis through Peggy and on visits back to Dallas. I wondered if I should have searched harder for ways to better help Lewis. Things had soured a little between Lewis and Peggy. Maybe Lewis was uncomfortable that he hadn’t met our expectations. We were just two teachers befriending a student - but we had to finally realize Lewis didn’t quite hold onto the spark and energy that we originally saw.

In Dallas for a visit, I tried to track down Lewis. He still held a place in my heart and thoughts - I only wanted the best for him. I drove to Corky’s martial arts studio. Another instructor told me Corky had just left for the County Hospital. Said his brother was in a car crash.

A few minutes after I stepped out of the elevator to the waiting area on the 9th floor, Peggy stood up from a chair. We hugged. Caroline and Corky were already standing nearby. Within minutes, Dad stepped in and hugged his kids. I struggled to hold my composure. I wasn’t very good at it. We talked quietly in the waiting area and went in, two at a time, to Lewis’ room. After the others had returned from down the hall, I went in, by myself. I shared stories of our time together, and I thanked him for teaching me. I think he may have smiled, but I’m not sure. The machines in his room started to buzz and light up, and the nurse asked us to leave. About an hour later, the doctor came into the waiting room and told us that Lewis Johnson had died.

The Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts was a success, almost from the very beginning. It built relationships with professional companies in North Texas and students were fortunate to have numerous professional guest speakers and teachers. Edie Brickell, Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu, and Norah Jones were some of the graduates of the school. In 2008, the Washington school building was enlarged a third time when a new $65 million facility was completed. The expansion preserved the historic main building, which, in 2006, had been designated an official Dallas Landmark.

After officially obtaining his Teaching Certificate in Drama and Art, Jim continued his education, earning a Master’s degree and a PhD from the University of North Texas. After those two years at Booker T. Washington, he taught Design at a Community College in a Dallas suburb, and then reached his goal of becoming a university Professor.

Margaret and Elizabeth, Peggy & Liz, married as soon as it became legal to do so. Their destination wedding was in New York City. They celebrated in the city, on the plane, and back in Dallas. Each has since died. Just eight months apart.

Corky Johnson, Lewis’ brother, mastered several martial arts disciplines and was a 4th Rank Black Belt. He owns and operates Corky’s School of Martial Arts, teaching group classes and private lessons. The studio is in a middle class predominantly white part of town. A graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Banking and Finance, he was a Texas State Champion and National Quarter Finalist in Taekwondo.

Lewis’ sister, Caroline Preston, earned several academic scholarships and studied education. She began student teaching in her senior year. With her BA in Education, she took a break to earn a Teaching Certificate and a Master’s degree. She worked her way through the public school system, and served as the Principal of Josephine Houston Elementary in Southeast Dallas. She married Earl Preston after teaching for a few years. She loved her career, the kids, and the satisfaction of reaching young people and helping to open their eyes.

Lewis Johnson, the kid with the zest for life and who was always willing to help, died from his injuries. There was no service. No obituary.

© James I Watson    Email    Text

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