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A Journey to the Core

Tom Boyd

Michael Johnston was born and raised in Vail and is the son of Vail pioneers Sally and Paul Johnston. The September release of his first book, In the Deep Hearts Core [Grove Press] is the intimate story of Johnstons two year experience as a high school teacher in Greenville, Miss. As a member of Teach for America, Johnstons assignment sent him into one of the most impoverished school systems in the nation. A graduate of Yale University, Johnston has since earned a masters in education from Harvard University, and is currently working toward spring graduation from Yales law program. His book has been reviewed by The Denver Post and The Washington Post, and he has been noted as one of five new Barnes and Noble non-fiction Discover Authors. He spoke at Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver Sept. 23, and his book tour comes to the Christiania in Vail on Oct. 8.At first, the welcome Michael Johnston received from the filled-to-capacity crowd at the Tattered Cover came in the form of gentle, book-store applause. But it quickly grew to a raucous noise, like a football rally, a champions welcome, or the sound of a crowd overwhelmingly proud of its native son.Only a few stops into his ongoing book tour, Johnston is just beginning to find this kind of fervent acceptance in the rest of the nation. National media sources are beginning to examine Johnstons crystal-clear reports from inside a crumbling national school system. And although his message has meaning in every area of the country, no other region has as much on the line as the Mississippi Delta, where his book, In the Deep Hearts Core, is set.Protective and proud of their homeland, some Southern readers fear Johnstons book will be an expos on a backward land full of horror, decay and misery. But Johnston is not a modern carpetbagger, nor a political philosopher. And his goal is not to expose villains in a land still lost in racial discrimination. He is, first a foremost, a young memoirist, a storyteller, a man who fully expected to learn more than he taught, and discover more than he prophesied.In his efforts to be faithful the truth, he works to ensure that his fears, preconceptions and politics dont interfere with a well-rendered storyline. A careful distribution of his experiences allows room for a just and accurate portrayal of daily life inside Greenville High School, where bullet holes mar the windows and duct tape seals the broken spines of grammar books. But his students quickly take the foreground. Through sharp, manageable metaphors, Johnston brings forth the character of his students, not with conjecture or suspicion, but with fact and description, like this passage from a fight witnessed on his first day at school:Usually students reacted to a fight the way wrestling fans react when a chair is thrown in the ring, suddenly rising to glimpse the illicit entertainment they had come to see.The people of Greenville, with whom Johnston has spoken, agree to the factual nature of the stories. Still, debate has sparked at his three Southern book tour stops recently in Oxford and Greenville Miss., and in Memphis Tenn. But readers on both side of the political fence are pulling evidence from the text to support their arguments a sure sign that this is, in fact, a story and not a cleverly disguised manifesto.Johnston is certainly well-versed in the history of literary educational philosophers that preceded him. His sense of his own time and place makes his story timely and pertinent, and a source for understanding the position of the South forty years after the civil rights movement. Its clear, too, that he intends the book to become an extended part of the legacy left by such thinkers as John Dewey, Fanny Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Robert Coles (who writes the books introduction).Johnston steers clear of the political polarity that modern educational writers like Jonathan Kozol and Thomas Sowell embrace. In the Deep Hearts Core is not fodder for debates on Capital Hill, but rather one individuals account of a place ignored by much of America. Johnston isnt introducing a point hes simply introducing people, characters, American youths living in complicated circumstances.And life in Greenville, Johnston learns, can be far more difficult than life in his hometown Vail. Before he sets foot in a classroom, he is surrounded by suspicions on both sides of the racial fence. Throughout the book – at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car office, the Realtors office and the principles office – hes confronted with confused questions and looks. Why dont you want to live in a white neighborhood? Why are you working for Greenville High School? Why dont you go back to where youre from and teach there?Johnston doesnt provide clichd, easy answers to these questions. Instead he uses the length of the book to discuss their possible answers and implications. Even now, five years after the experience has ended, Johnston struggles with some of this. He still analyzes his experience in Greenville, he says, as he aspires to become a principle or superintendent in Denver.The heart of this book may lie in its conclusion, in a student named Kenji. Just an average kid struggling to graduate and move his life forward, Kenji typifies the Greenville student but is not a stereotype. He doesnt carry a glock concealed in his low riding jeans and he isnt going to Harvard on an academic scholarship or Duke on a basketball scholarship. To Kenji, graduation means a shot at a decent local job, and more – pride, accomplishment, and self-worth. When he walks into Mr. Johnstons room with his fists held high after passing an English IV final exam, we receive a taste of what its like to succeed at Greenville High.So it seems easy, at first glance, to pin this book into the narrow boundaries of a story told a million times since the Civil War: white Yankee sees suffering blacks, blames oppressive whites, and comes to the rescue. But by the turn of the final page all such criticism is forgotten. In the end the story, like Johnstons efforts, is about the students. Jed Gottlieb grew up in Vail and is currently a journalist for the Missoula Independent in Montana. Tom Boyd is a lifelong Vail resident and freelance writer for the Vail Trail and the Rocky Mountain News, among other publications. They have known Johnston since childhood and remain good friends.


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