Dr. Ed Johnson, principal of Brentwood High School, prides himself on being vulnerable and honest–which means he readily divulges that he watches Super Soul Sundays on the Oprah Network. “It captures life’s most natural moments. You see raindrops and they’ll hit a flower leaf, or a kid on a random run. It just captures those simple moments in life,” he gushes. He has a pep assembly at school today at 2:20, and has dressed for the occasion: a festive red sweater with a matching black and red-speckled bowtie. He’s the kind of person who you might talk to for a few minutes and then discover yourself running your large life decisions by him–he gives great advice. The bookshelves facing his desk hold many photographs of his wife and young son, a chubby, smiling toddler named Tristen, who is just four years old.
Dr. Johnson has worked in education for over 20 years, from coaching basketball at Ladue High School, his alma mater, to earning a Ed.D from Maryville University in Educational Leadership. Today, he is Brentwood High School’s first black principal. In the life of a high school administrator, no day ever looks the same. The one constant in his routine is his morning cup of coffee, which he’ll typically have around 7 or 7:15 when he arrives at school in the morning. If he has time, he might break a sweat on the elliptical beforehand–then it’s time for meetings, teacher evaluations, budget reviews, and his favorite: wandering up and down the halls, just talking to kids. He makes himself available as a mentor for hundreds of students, past and present. Recently, some of his current students staged a walkout in response to the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer who shot and killed a black teenager while on duty in St. Louis County. As an educator, it was a difficult teaching moment, but he was thrilled to see his students impassioned about an important cause and exercising their rights.
While he’s surrounded by hundreds of students every day, some of his greatest mentoring moments are reserved for Tristen. “I get to be a dad. I get to go home and kiss my son and do all of the loving things I always wanted,” he says cheerfully. “He is the sweetest, kindest little kid in the world.” In one of the photographs on the bookshelf, Dr. Johnson is holding Tristen, a wide smile spread across his face. The shiny photograph is encased in a frame that says, “Daddy and Me,” in large letters on the bottom. When Dr. Johnson was that age, his mother was raising him without any help from his father, and worked 12-hour days to support them. His father lived in the basement of their house, but was absent for almost all of Dr. Johnson’s life. His mother would take him to daycare at a foster home during the day and pick him up at night until he was old enough to go to school. When he turned five, she moved them to Indian Meadows, where he was able to attend the well-respected Ladue School District.
Growing up, Dr. Johnson didn’t like school at all, which is ironic now that he’s a high school principal. But most of his early life was about just getting from one day to the next. “I come from a broken situation,” he says. “I never had a real relationship that I would have wanted with my dad.” A drug addict, alcoholic, and what Dr. Johnson calls “a street guy,” his father would sometimes disappear for months, or even a year, at a time. “He went and took off to San Francisco a couple of times. We didn’t notice. Some days he just showed up out of nowhere.” When he was young, Dr. Johnson found confidence in sports, and won almost 100 trophies while playing competitively on traveling teams. One night, his father came home after a bender and smashed almost all of them. Painted plastic was shattered everywhere.
His father was also physically abusive. “I was wearing a scar like you wouldn’t believe. And I was just too afraid to share my story with people.” He pauses, trying to put together the words the right way. Looking back, there are large parts of his childhood he doesn’t remember. “I very seldom ever talk about this stuff. It’s difficult to recall,” he says. He often thinks about his students at Brentwood and what they might be going through–things they feel they can’t share with anyone. “I think about kids and our expectations on them to learn when they come to school. Never at any point, from kindergarten through high school, was school the priority for me.”
Even so, he graduated from Ladue High School and attended Jackson State University on a basketball scholarship, hoping to create his future around sports. He played there for about two years when his mother had a stroke, and he transferred to Missouri Baptist University to be closer to home. While he didn’t get drafted to the NBA, he thought he still might have a chance to play professionally overseas. “I had my mind set on basketball–hoop dreams, they call them. I never really looked at pursuing the academic side of my life. I was always trying to rely on sports, and I realized quickly that basketball wasn’t going to work out,” he says.
It was at Missouri Baptist that he began applying himself as a student. After he graduated and received a business degree, he began substitute teaching in the St. Louis Public School District. It was spontaneous, unpredictable, and he loved it. One day he’d be at Vashon High School, then the next day he might be at the Juvenile Delinquent Center or Continuing Ed, a school for pregnant teenagers. “I got a chance to meet young people and hear what was on their minds,” he says. “Teachers would leave behind a worksheet, and I’d be like, ‘Let’s not do this–today we’re just going to talk.’ I’d answer questions and mentor on the spot–‘What’s going on? What are your biggest fears in life?’” he remembers.
Teachers began requesting him, and a well-respected teacher he worked with who’d been in the field for years encouraged him to get his teaching certification. “I never forgot that,” he says. It was then that he decided to be a teacher. He took a job at Ladue High School as a hall monitor while going to school, earning his teaching certification. He remembers reviewing flashcards in the hallways while making sure all of the kids got to class. Eventually, his persistence paid off: Dr. Johnson was asked to coach high school basketball at Ladue, while also working as an administrative assistant. He then came to Brentwood to accept an assistant principal job, which he held for eight years before being promoted to principal two years ago.
While Dr. Johnson was working at Ladue, he felt like he’d made it through the tougher times of his youth–which mostly meant that he hadn’t spoken to his father in years. “I’m like, ‘Yes! I can’t believe I made it!’” he remembers. One day, his mother called to ask him over for Christmas dinner at her house, and said she was planning to invite his father. Dr. Johnson was stunned. “I’m like, ‘Mom–you’re asking me, at this key part in my life, to sit down and invite this monster back into my life? Do you know what it took for me to cleanse myself of all of that hurt?’ And she’s like, ‘Honey, I want you to do it.’” he recalls. “Well–when mom asks you to do something, and she’s got a certain tone and a certain amount of persistence, it’s for a bigger reason. And you need to get by her.” Dr. Johnson agreed to go.
He remembers it being painfully awkward. His father gave him a Christmas present for the first time: $50 cash. Rather than huddling around a tree, unable to sleep in anticipation, Dr. Johnson received it in his mid-thirties. “I couldn’t believe that. I think I almost lost it and found it 10 days later,” he says. “I just was not connected to him in that way.” On the Tuesday after Christmas dinner, his father wound up in the hospital. This wasn’t uncommon–Dr. Johnson remembers him undergoing many hospital visits in his earlier years. “I don’t know if he was going on dialysis, or if it was kidney failure,” he recalls. But something was different this time–something within him told him to see his father in the hospital. “The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Go see your dad,’” he says. “I was trying to heal.”
Dr. Johnson arrived at the hospital, where a nurse exclaimed how lovely it was that her patient’s son had shown up. “It’s perfect, he can take you home!” she said. Dr. Johnson could feel his father preparing to get him off the hook, and relieve him of the responsibility. “It was kind of hard to say we didn’t really know each other like that.” Then Dr. Johnson heard himself say, “No, Dad–I’ll take you home.” It was an overwhelming feeling, the beginning of understanding and forgiveness. “I think he’d always wanted to get things right with his son,” he says.
That day in the car together was the first time his father had ever seen him drive. “He missed all those moments,” says Dr. Johnson. “So now, I’m driving and he’s a passenger, and this is my big moment.” He almost felt like a kid again, thrilled to show off what he had learned over the years. “Look Dad, I can drive you home!” he remembers thinking. When he dropped him off, his father said, “Man, it sure is good to have good friends.” Looking back, Dr. Johnson still remembers feeling heartbroken for both of them. “I’m like, ‘Damn.’ My dad didn’t even feel the confidence to call me his son. He knew that he had fallen short of that.”
The next week, Dr. Johnson’s basketball team at Ladue was preparing for a big district game against MICDS, one of their rivals when he got another call from his mother. “She’s like, ‘How’s everything going?’ I’m like, ‘Everything’s going good, getting ready for the game.’ And she says, ‘You got a moment? Honey, your dad just passed.’ And I’m like–‘Whoa.’” He held on to the memory of the Christmas dinner, and driving him home from the hospital. “Those scars and those open wounds had to be closed for both of us,” he says. His father had no life insurance at the time he passed away, and his mother didn’t have enough money to pay for the funeral. Dr. Johnson had been diligently saving up money over the years, and he agreed to cover the costs. “I didn’t know how to bury somebody. Who knows how to do that?” he exclaims.
“Your dad’s going to need a suit,” he was told. “I thought, ‘This is so–weird.’ But I wanted my dad to be buried in a nice suit.” His father would need a full outfit: underwear, an undershirt, socks. He made sure his father’s burial attire was dignified. “I took so much pride in picking out the right clothes and clean underwear. I don’t know what came over me … this man was very abusive.” He chose a tan suit with pinstripes. Dr. Johnson didn’t plan it, but one of his best suits at the time was very similar, and he wore it to the wake. “Me and my dad, we looked uniform–like how I look with my son when we go to the baseball game. We get a chance to wear our Cardinals shirts with each other. I finally got that opportunity for me and my dad.”
The landline on Dr. Johnson’s desk rings. It’s a short administrative call that he quickly answers before clicking the receiver back down. “Believe it or not, I’ve kept this so incredibly private,” he says. Outside of his office, group of teenage girls laugh and joke while walking down the hallway–you can hear them chirping through the wall.
“At the very end, we finally got it right,” he says. “My mom and I both were somehow able to grant this guy the forgiveness that he needed, bless his soul, because he just–fell short in life.” Forgiving his father opened up a new joy in himself he didn’t know he had. “Blessings like you would not believe started coming my way,” he says. He quietly surveys his office for a moment, looking at the indicators that he has moved through a difficult past: photographs, mementos, academic awards and certificates. Walking down the hallway and towards the door, he runs into a young student bogged down in duffel bags for school, sports, and extracurriculars, who excitedly shares her plans for the day with him.
In an email he sent over a few days after being interviewed, Dr. Johnson wrote, “All day I have been thinking about forgiveness. The process for initiating positive change towards solving our life’s biggest personal, family and societal issues must start, gain momentum and ultimately end with acts of forgiveness,” he continued. It’s not atypical for him to get this deep very early in the morning–he routinely meditates on forgiveness and gratitude, and often comes up with meditations of his own while exercising. “Sometimes people think it’s a cheesiness or a corniness,” he says. “It’s a choice. It requires a whole lot of work to be positive.”
For more information about Dr. Ed Johnson and Brentwood High School, visit www.brentwoodmoschools.org