Tribute to Madolyn Johns given at July 18, 2015 Memorial Service
Mt. Calvary Catholic Church
When we heard of Mrs. Johns' passing, I know everyone here felt it intensely - as if no time had passed since we last saw her, heard her voice, learned from her. All of the Facebook comments referenced Mrs. Johns as an inspiration, an incredible teacher, a friend. And we all know why. Because Mrs. Johns helped shape the women we have become.
How do you engage high school girls in subject matter that can sometimes be dense or overwhelming? Just ask Mrs. Johns because she knew exactly how to do it.
Let's start with the obvious. She was young and beautiful. Stylish and a little mysterious. She seemed, to us, like someone who had seen the world and could give us a glimpse of it. How many of you bought a cartouche, scarab bracelet or two different colored pearl earrings (my choice) because Mrs. Johns made them cool?
But the real magic was in her approach to teaching. She made the humanities and art history come alive for all of her students. She told us stories, over and over again, until we were filled with as much passion for the subject matter as she was... well, almost.
I think part of the passion we felt as students was in pleasing Mrs. Johns. We wanted to do well for her... we wanted to make her proud. So when she asked us to go to the National Gallery on our own, we went. And when she asked us to write about the art and artists we saw there not only did we write but we sought to learn as much as we could about them so she would understand how much we cared about the subject matter.
Her task was not easy. We were distracted with relationships, sports, family, future plans, the dynamics of navigating a world as a teenage girl. But for those hours we were in her classroom, all of that disappeared and we were able to focus on Mrs. Johns and the stories she told. We were transported to Ancient Egypt and Rome, Florence, Paris, Tahiti...
Mrs. Johns had a knack for telling a love story. And let's face it, at 15, 16 and 17 some of us (maybe most of us) were a little interested in love. Picasso, Rembrandt, Titian, Modigliani and their many muses. Whose muse would we be? Who would write us a poem or paint us a portrait? Yep, she made it romantic.
She treated each of us as individual young women with great potential. She spent time with us one on one as a mentor – understanding what was going on in our lives – and helping us to see that our future was bright. And so we learned. And we were inspired. Some of us became teachers. Some of us studied art history. Some of us became passionate in sports, other subjects, doing good work because Mrs. Johns showed us how passion could pay off.
But I can't talk about Mrs. Johns without also talking about her courage. We all know it takes bravery to escort a busload of teenage girls to New York City year after year! For many of us, those trips sparked the love affairs we have had with New York City to this day.
A few months ago I was going through a cedar chest my mom gave me and came across my art history and New York City journals. It was fascinating to see the art I loved then and how it compares with the art my adult self loves. Also to hear my 16 year old self’s impression of those historic museums and artworks, the streets of Manhattan, my roommates shenanigans.
As a student of leadership now, I realize that Mrs. Johns was teaching us about more than just taking notes and observing life around us. She was teaching us the art of reflection which is so important in the practice of leadership. She was teaching us that taking Sabbath – by being quiet and just losing yourself in an artwork – is imperative to a well-balanced life. Almost 25 years later, I am still feeling her influence.
Of the 2 New York City trips I went on, I have 2 distinct memories. The first was in the Cloisters. A group of us came across a tapestry we had studied in class and freaked. We couldn't believe we were seeing it in person! We were so excited, pointing out elements we had learned about, when we accidentally got too close and set off the alarm. No damage was done but I now wonder how much that moment made Mrs. Johns smile. To see your students get so excited about a tapestry you had literally made come alive for them.
The other moment was getting dolled up to go see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Under a cloud of hair spray we took our seats. The music of that love story takes me back to high school every time I hear it. But the words of one song stand out as we say goodbye and give tribute to this amazing teacher and woman who influenced each and every person who crossed her path:
Think of me.
Think of me fondly.
When we've said goodbye.
Once in a while.
Please promise me you'll try.
We will think of you, Mrs. Johns. And we will remember you more than fondly. Thank you for all you were to each of us and for all you helped us to be.