A laugh-out-loud retirement bull roast


THERE SHE was, not exactly Miss America, but, nonetheless, wearing a tiara and a sash.

Bettie Johnson's colleagues at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City threw a festive, laugh-out-loud bull roast in honor of her retirement last week.

For 42 1/2 years, Johnson taught students in the Howard County school system, the past 32 years at Dunloggin as a sixth-grade science teacher.

A youthful-looking 65-year-old woman - with "Tina Turner legs" as described by close friend and colleague Michael Petrovich - Johnson said she "just felt it in my heart. Everyone has always told me, 'You know when it's time to go.' "

Johnson, who lives in Randallstown with her sister, a retired Baltimore City teacher, began her teaching career at Howard County's all-black Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School in 1963.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that schools desegregate in 1954, Howard County did not fully integrate until 1965 when Harriet Tubman School closed. (The building was converted into a school system administrative office and houses Head Start classes.)

Johnson was transferred to then-Clarksville Junior High School, where she noticed the stark differences between an all-black school and what was an all-white school.

"It was a big change, a big, welcomed change," Johnson recalled. "At an all-black school, everything was handed down. At the integrated school, it was a whole new world. It was absolutely wonderful."

In 1973, Johnson was asked to come to Dunloggin as head of the science department when the school opened. She held that job for 20 years until "it was taking too much of my time, going to meetings."

For her retirement party, Johnson wanted no tears. Colleagues who spoke at the roast were hand-picked by Johnson, or as she explained, it was a chance for them to get back at her for years of teasing.

Indeed, there were many inside jokes, gags and props, including a gold, plastic tiara and a sash that read "Best Teacher." And so much laughter from more than 50 family, friends and colleagues who attended.

About a dozen folks spoke in Johnson's honor, including John Quinn, the school system's coordinator of secondary science, and Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

One by one, they walked to the podium and told their favorite story as Johnson - sitting in the front row of chairs set up at the media center - listened, laughed and stood up often to receive a gift or hug.

The message was clear: Johnson's stern and "mean" exterior hides a passionate and compassionate person who wants only the best out of her students and colleagues.

"She's feisty," said Janice Petrovich, a sixth-grade reading teacher who has worked with Johnson for 25 years. "Her bark is worse than her bite."

Matt Jens, a sixth-grade special-education teacher, told of how his students - upon meeting her at the beginning of the school year - told him, "Ms. Johnson is so mean. I'm scared of her."

By the end of the year, however, "the very same kids love her. I've never seen that kind of transition with other teachers."

Jens added, "If you take anything, you should take [away] how much the kids love you."

A similar relationship exists with Johnson's colleagues. When Candy Taylor met Johnson 26 years ago, Taylor went home crying to her husband after a "woman in an Afro told me that my shoes weren't appropriate." (Johnson was chairwoman of the school's professional standards committee at that time.)

Today, Taylor said she has "followed [Johnson's] footsteps."

"I hope to be like her," said Taylor, an eighth-grade math teacher. "She's been an excellent role model for teachers and students."

Since age 5, Johnson knew she wanted to be a teacher. She grew up in North Carolina, the oldest of five children, all of whom chose teaching as their profession.

The story goes something like this: Johnson's father was illiterate, but a family friend who knew how to write and read some taught Johnson to write her first name.

"Then one day, he came over and he gave me a pencil and a piece of paper that had lines on it. He said, 'Close your eyes and I'm going to put your pencil in your hand and put your hand on the paper. I want you to print your name like how I taught you. When you open your eyes, and you have each letter on the line, you can become a teacher.'"

Johnson added, "I was so afraid to open my eyes. I had my eyes as tight as I could get them. When I opened my eyes, every letter was on that straight line. He said, 'You can become a teacher.' I jumped up and down, and that's how it started."

Now, at the end, there were no tears and no regrets from Johnson.

"I feel I've done what I wanted to do," she said later after some reflection. "I feel I've done a darn good job."

But tears flowed among her friends.

Cher Jones, Dunloggin's principal, got emotional as she spoke about their many conversations, usually initiated by Johnson asking, "Do you have a minute?"

"Bettie would share lots of things with me," Jones said. "I always appreciated her forthrightness. She'll never know how much those talks meant to me. It helped me grow and learn."

Getting the last word, Johnson left her colleagues and friends with her "leaving and thank you will" that bestowed some words of wisdom as well as her prime parking space, which she claimed because she was usually the first one at school.

"I thank the staff, administrators, community and student body for allowing me to spread my wings in doing something that I wanted to do from the age of 5 years old - teach, teach, teach," she said.

Like Howard County schools, this column will be on summer break.

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