The following is an open letter to my 11th grade Chemistry teacher, Mr. Eddie Johnson, one of a list of teachers I had over the years in Compton Unified School District that I regularly tormented and whose class I disrupted on a regular basis. Now, as a teacher myself, I have had to reflect on my behavior and have had karma place students in my classes who were just like, or worse in some instances, than myself. I came across his email and have mentally labored over what to say to him, and today inspiration ensued. The email was kicked back by the email program as not existing, so I will print it here, in the hopes that he or someone he knows, or some other teacher whom I have traumatized will come across it:

Mr. Johnson:

This is Lincoln Johnson, one of your prior students at Compton High about 22 years ago! I am emailing you because I was at the high school recently and did not get a chance to see or speak with you. About two years ago I was at Compton High and saw you in the office but you did not recognize me. I was so disruptive in your class in 1988-89 that I thought you would NEVER forget me, but then I thought about how many times I got put out of class and see how that could be quite possible.

I am writing you because I wanted to give you an update and let you know that even the most challenging students can have some redemption, as it were. When I left Compton I went to Morehouse and got my BA in English. I came back and taught at Centennial, but had a class of forty students who acted just like me and quit teaching for good (or so I thought). I went and got my masters in Publishing from Pace University in New York, but ultimately came back to LA to teach; my wife decided it was my calling. My time in LAUSD was fraught with payback for all the things I did to my teachers. I began teaching Special Education and at one of the continuation high schools and every year, year after year, I would have the most challenging students. It was the big payback.

I decided that since I could not get away from paying back for all my sins as a student, I would seek out and assist students who, such as myself, were caught in this thing called the achievement gap and who are missing something and starving for attention. I have continued in this vein for the past 12 to 13 years, working for a school for the severely neurologically disabled, a school for severely emotionally disturbed students, an alternative school through LA County Office of Education and several other schools where I would teach students and remark to my wife how this student or that student reminded me of me. The difference is, I have honed my skills to deal with them and can say I truly understand the disruptive class clown or the disrespectful wild child. This is really my calling!

I received my Special Ed and English credentials from CSU and am now beginning the dissertation phase at USC in Higher Education Leadership. I believe my penance to be paid, well, after one more stop at the State Youth Facilities to inform and inspire those students who have lost their way. I teach English at LA Southwest, because, believe it or not, I carried some of my bad behavior and habits to college, so there is some payback waiting for me there as well! Once I am complete with my doctorate, I plan on starting a campaign to become president of Morehouse. This has two meanings for me: one, it will cement the fact that a behavior problem and all around bad student can turn it around and become something great, and two, my parents named me Lincoln Johnson; with a name like that, they definitely planned on me being president of something somewhere!

I do hope my letter finds you in good health and great spirits. As a writer, the term short note means little to me and I apologize for the essay. Just know that your influence and my memory of you lives on, as it does with all our students and our teaching legacy lives long beyond our years here on earth. I have just been contemplating this email for some time and decided now was the time.

Like an addict coming back to apologize to the people they hurt in their disease, this brings me peace to let you know that out of the many, there are a few of us who work hard and strive to make you proud.

You are, in fact, one of the reasons I have attained the levels I have. I may not have learned everything I could about Chemistry, but those quiet times spent in the hallway gave me time to think, to grow, and to mature into the man I am now. Thank you.

Linc Johnson
Compton High School, Class of 1990

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