Meet Keith Johnson

A picture of Keith Johnson, teacher, and his 1980 sixth grade class.

Over on Twitter, some foolish person posted the following question, which I will replicate here with all grammatical confabulation intact, because it’s necessary for context:

As a straight male, how would u feel about your child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around 8hours a day !

This was my response:

As a straight male, the best teacher I ever had was a gay man. Among many other things, he taught me the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” His name was Keith Johnson. I would have been absolutely delighted for my daughter to have known him. I sang at his funeral.

This tweet, boosted by folks like Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling and Nick Offerman, has now been seen by over three million people. So now I would like to tell you a little bit about Keith Johnson, the best teacher I ever had.

To begin, in 1980, when he was my sixth grade teacher, I had no idea he was gay. It was 1980, when bluntly it wasn’t safe for a teacher to be out (he may have been out to colleagues but I wasn’t aware of it if he was). Also I was eleven years old, and in that time and place, I wouldn’t really have known what it meant to be gay. Not that I hadn’t heard the word or ones like it, which we flung around as slurs — “that’s gay,” “don’t be a fag,” and the game we rather obliviously called “smear the queer,” in which someone caught a ball and then everyone else in the game tried to drive them into the ground. But I didn’t have a very good idea of why those were slurs, nor how those slurs would have been applied to Keith.

No, in that time and place, Keith was simply “Mr. Johnson” — not Keith Johnson, mind you, as the idea of calling a teacher by their first name elicited the sort of holy terror that convinced you that if you were to do so you would promptly burst into retributive flame. “Mr. Johnson” would do. It wasn’t until years later that I could even say “Keith” without feeling I stepped over some still-glowing, forbidden line.

Keith’s reputation preceded him. At Ben Lomond elementary’s “MGM” (“mentally gifted minors”) program, the upper grades went through Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Swirsky and Mr. Johnson, for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Even in fourth grade you heard about what a hardass Mr. Johnson was, how he didn’t suffer fools, and how if you got out of line, you were in for it. He was legendary in a way that elementary school teachers could be: Here was this fearsome leonine visage, and he was coming for you. Well, not coming for you exactly, but one day you would be in his class, and then you would feel his wrath. Sure, you get away with some things in Mrs. Swirsky’s class. But if you tried that in Mr. Johnson’s class? Principal’s office. Or worse.

Which, when you was finally ended up in Keith’s class, turned out to be only about 30% true. Certainly, Keith wanted you to pay attention, and if you weren’t, he had a boomy baritone voice which would snap you back into line. And if the entire class was lazy or inattentive, then Keith had a phrase that let us know we disappointed him on a fundamental level. “Boy, I’m telling you, some people,” he would say, loudly and with a slathering of reproach, and then would detail what some people would do, and it was clear that some people were foolish and silly and would eventually lead lives of regret and disappointment, and the genesis of those regretful lives would be now, in this moment, when we weren’t getting our history projects done in a timely way. And it would work, because obviously we didn’t want regretful, disappointing lives, but also because we didn’t want to disappoint Keith.

Because here was the thing about Keith. Fundamentally, he wasn’t frightening, or mean, or an indiscriminate hardass on eleven year old kids. He was in fact kind and attentive, and more to the point, he saw each of his students in the way teachers are supposed to, and the way the best of teachers do, seemingly by reflex. He saw us, and saw our quirks and flaws, where we needed encouragement and also what kind of encouragement we would need. He saw us as individuals and as a group, and while he always had the same educational goals year in and year out, it became clear he would get us to those goals in ways that we could get there.

Being seen by one’s teacher, as it turned out, was especially important to me in the sixth grade. My mother was having a bad divorce that left me, my mother and my sister briefly homeless and then shuttling around between houses for the rest of the year. There was little stability, emotionally or physically, in my home life, and it would have been easy — and understandable — for me to fall down a hole and not come out of it for a long time. I didn’t because as it happened a number of people stepped up to help save me. One of those was Keith, who in seeing me saw some of the possible paths of my future, and gently but with just the right amount of push, set me on those paths.

I’ll give you two examples. The first happened when Keith asked me to write a letter. Every year Keith had his class perform a play (my year it would be “Oliver!” in which I would play the Artful Dodger; I can still sing most of the songs from that play by heart). To pay for it, he would have the class run a small business selling doo-dads to other students and parents. We would do the whole nine yards, including registering the business with the city and issuing stock (and at the end of the year, paying off the stock with dividends, if any), and by naming officers of the corporation.

Among the things Keith had us do was publicity, and one day while explaining the concept of publicity to us, he said one of the things he wanted us to do was contact a local TV station and try to get them to do a segment on us for the five o’clock news — and as he was saying this, he turned to me directly, pointed at me, and said “and I want you to write the letter.” Why me? He told me later and privately it was because I wrote differently than everyone else in class and he thought I could make the argument in a way that would interest the news crew. Keith was the first person aside from my mother to see that writing was a thing I did — and the first person to say to me that it was a thing I could do well, in a way that set me apart. It would be a few years until I decided for myself to become a writer, but I never forgot that Keith saw it first in me.

(Also, he was right: I wrote the letter with his editorial guidance, sent it in to Channel 7 News, and then a couple of months later they called and wanted to do a segment on us. We did an extra run of doo-dads so they could see us in production, and then sold those for a nice profit. And that’s how we paid dividends on our stock that year.)

Another example I’ve detailed elsewhere, when Keith gave me a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, said to me I would enjoy it, and said to me it was one of his favorite books. For me, this wasn’t just a teacher suggesting a book, it was my teacher sharing a confidence that was for me alone. And again he was right — The Martian Chronicles is in many ways foundational to my understanding of a field that I would eventually come to write in. I can’t say I became a science fiction writer because Keith gave me Bradbury’s book. But I can say I believe he understood me well enough to believe that it was the right book at the right time for me. And it was.

When I left Keith’s class to middle school, I would still drop by after class to chat with him and catch up; he always seemed pleased that I would come to say hello. I wasn’t the only former student who would do that — others told me they did it as well — but perhaps I was the most persistent, keeping in touch through high school and then college and then in the early parts of my professional career. Somewhere in there I directly asked him if he were gay, because by that time, several years on, some rumors had begun to circulate among his former students. Keith by this time had retired from teaching and told me it was true, named his partner and seemed perfectly at peace with it, and with me knowing.

By this time Keith was also sick. He was one of the many gay men who contracted HIV in the early days, before it was well understood and before there was a good treatment regimen for the virus. It developed into AIDS and he died of it, as did hundreds of thousands of gay and other Americans (and as do thousands still do, even today). I went to his memorial service, as did a few other of his former students, and at his funeral, with the permission of his family and partner, I sang a song I wrote for him.

Keith Johnson was a teacher and I can’t claim that I was more special to him than the hundreds of other students who passed through his classroom over the couple of decades he taught. But I think that’s the point of him being one of the best teachers I’ve known: His skills and talents as a teacher were for everyone, and were there for every student who came through his class. I don’t think I’m alone in saying he was the best teacher I’ve had, and I’ve had some magnificent ones over the years. But he stands alone.

To go back to the original question of how I as a straight male would feel about a homosexual teacher with my child eight hours a day, the answer is: A homosexual teacher was my best teacher, was the right teacher for me at a critical time, and saw me when I could have been lost. It’s even possible that in his way Keith Johnson saved me at a time when I most needed saving, simply by being the teacher he was with each of his students. I would have loved to have been able to introduce my daughter, born after he died, to Keith, my teacher and my friend. And I would want my daughter, and for every child, to have a teacher like Keith — one who saw her, one who taught her, and one who helped make her more herself, as Keith did with me. How could one not wish that for one’s child?

And now you know a little more about Keith Johnson, at least from my perspective. He was my best teacher. His memory is a blessing.

97 Comments on “Meet Keith Johnson”

  1. I, too, had a great teacher who happened to be gay. Neither of my children ever had the opportunity to be in this man’s class, and I regret that. He was a builder of confidence and a believer in learning for learning’s sake.

  2. I don’t know if any of my teachers in school were gay. However, a sentence you used in this post reminded me of something related to how I pay attention to language, and learned to recognize a slur.

    I was reading (Daily Show Senior Ass Kicker & Hardcore Legend) Mick Foley’s first (of about 4 to date) memoir, when he was talking about his childhood and referred to a game called “Kill the guy with the ball.” I didn’t recognize the name at first, but later recognized it by the name you used above (which I won’t repeat for obvious reasons).

    This got me thinking about why Mick used a different name, and lead to me recognizing that the term was a slur. I’d never particularly used the term before, but, it did make clear to me that in spite of the repeated use of the term by my peers, I wouldn’t use it in the future.

    I would learn even later that one of Mick’s co-workers, and higher-ups at the WWF/E, Pat Patterson, was gay – and had even come out in the 1970s, though that fact and his friendship with Vince K. McMahon Jr. certainly had no effect on the amount of homophobia in WWE programming (at least until the present)

  3. A remarkable tribute to a remarkable man. On behalf of all teachers, everywhere–thank you.

  4. Lovely Mr. Scalzi. I lost one of my own special teachers this past fall. This was a splendid reminder of the impact great teachers (those in, and out of, a classroom) have on our lives. Thank you.

  5. This was a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing it. I was fortunate enough to have a few teachers who saw me too, and I wish that for every child.

    And this reminded me, too, of volunteering in AIDS outreach in the early ’90s doing peer programs for other teenagers. The guy that ran the program was not my teacher in school but I learned a lot from him. He was gay, HIV positive, passionate about what he was doing, endlessly kind and encouraging to a bunch of kids, and sadly, also lost to AIDS far too soon. I count him as a wonderful role model of my youth. Thank you for giving me a reason to think of him today.

  6. My AP Government and History teacher, who happened to be gay, taught me how to take good notes, to focus on the important things in school and in life, and to care about involvement in my community. He also happened to be a libertarian, and we disagreed on that–among other things–in ways that helped me learn the value of thoughtful debate. He pushed me in the right way, at the right time, to fulfill my potential.

    I’m graduating from law school this May. It’s a pretty good school, I have a pretty cool job lined up, and I’m lucky to be here. He’s one of the many people I have to thank.

  7. Like everyone, I have had many mediocre-to-terrible teachers, but I was also lucky to have had three really good ones: one for history, one for English, one who taught both geometry and physics. One was gay, I found out later; of the others I have no clue. It doesn’t matter. They were good teachers: hard but fair, and, like your friend, they “saw” the students and they worked very hard to develop and deliver lesson plans that worked for their students. They were like water in the desert and, without them, I might never have gone to college and had the career that I had.

    I have to say that anyone who is more concerned about with whom a teacher likes to cuddle on a cold winter night than how effectively and fairly that teacher teaches needs a class in how to set priorities.

  8. Mr. Reilly for me. I found him on Facebook a few years back and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have his sarcastic and smart comments occasionally sprinkled throughout my day. For me — contact like this makes the whole Facebook phenomena worthwhile — well — that and all the cat photos and videos. BUT…Mr. Reilly, also gay, by the way, was the best damn teacher I ever had. He was the Willy Wonka of Theatre and made me want to soar. He loved literature and so did I — and his influence is always in the back of my head. It’s funny you bring this up — I had a dream a week or so ago that has stayed with me. Mr. Reilly wanted me to call him by his first name and I just could not do it. In the dream I called him every permutation of his last name — and I just couldn’t call him by his given name. Woke up laughing. It just wouldn’t be right. He lives in a state that is unlikely I will visit any time soon but if I do — I will make seeing him a part of the visit.

    See — all these idiot republicans, in my opinion, just never had the luck of getting Mr. Reilly. Or Mr. Johnson. Poor bastards.

  9. Damn it, now I’m crying. May everyone have a teacher who teaches each child the way they need to be taught, who sees each child for who they are and the potential they have, who lifts and nudges and points in the right direction.

  10. Wonderful. The only thing that should matter for a teacher is how good of a teacher they are.

  11. BEAUTIFULLY written (I know, D’uh, right? But still…). Thank you for sharing! For the very few for whom teaching is who they ARE, rather than what they DO, I am just happy that they can find someone to Love. Who THAT is, is – to me – irrelevant!

  12. Thank you for writing this. A thoughtful and considered answer to a pointless question. Mr. Johnson reminds me of some of the teachers I had and a teacher like him is worth their weight in platinum.

  13. Two days ago, I happened to go to the memorial service for Warner Freeman. I’d never met him but attended in support his wife whom I know through a social club. He was the science teacher at King Middle School in Berkeley for 40 years, and apparently everyone’s favorite teacher. It’s refreshing to encounter back-to-back memorials for men who have made such an important contribution to their community.

  14. Thank you for this thoughtful and wonderful post.

    I can think of two teachers in high school who made ME feel seen and… it was something I really needed at that age. Even now, twenty years later, I think about that and try to reach out to my own kid when he seems like he’s feeling down. It’s different when it’s your parent, I think, but I always try to encourage him in the same way.

  15. Well, John, you’ve done it again. I’m crying as I write this.

    And when I’m done I’m going to call Mrs. Zepp, my 9th grade English teacher, who literally took me into her home when my parents were going through a violent divorce.

  16. That scheme for raising money for the play sounds an awful lot like Junior Achievement, meaning you got a lesson in business along with the fundraising. JA is usually pushed for high-schoolers, though (which is when I did it), meaning you got a big head start.

    I work with a lot of gay people on a regular basis, many of them drag queens. At least one of them works for a school. They’re all perfectly nice people.

  17. In third grade, i came in from recess singing a song loudly (and quite badly since i have no actual talent) and my teacher, in front of the class, asked me why I had to be such a retard.

    In eighth grade, a few of us were manning a concession stand table for some small school event, a teacher asked for a soda, i made some joke, and he grabbed my hair and pushed my head into the table.

    My high school algebra teacher was one of the few good ones. She always had time for a question, and she always had some interesting math things to do when I got bored. I always felt like she was pulling for me. I needed that.

    I try to visit her every once in a blue moon, just to say thanks.

    All three of these teachers were straight. Who you love has nothing to do with whether you’re a good teacher or not.

  18. This is a wonderful and moving post.

    I can think of a number of teachers from my elementary and junior high school years who stick out in my memory this way (I think high school is different — you spend less time with each teacher, no matter how awesome they end up being). One of those teachers, who challenged us, read to us (when we were definitely “too cool” to enjoy that, but nevertheless did) and got us to do projects that forced us to learn new skills, like writing business letters, running a company, or producing a magazine from start to finish, and who took us to attend question period at the provincial legislature, was a man who many years later, after he retired, came out officially. I think a number of people knew, but I had him as a teacher for two years in the mid-1980s, and I never heard a whisper of it while I was his student.

    I often think fondly of his classes, the books he introduced us to (one of them, In Search of April Raintree, was one he read to us because one of his younger students in another class recommended it, and was a book I returned to as an adult and was amazed he’d shared it with us), and his great sense of humour.

    No question, I’d be thrilled to have my kids taught by a teacher as fantastic as Mr. Lampert. Thanks for sharing your memories of Mr. Johnson — I feel like I know him a little, now, too.

  19. Thank you for writing this. I learned this past weekend of the sudden loss of a long-time friend and I’m struggling with what to say at the memorial.

  20. Growing up, I had a hate-hate relationship with math. I was testing out at college level reading in third grade, but barely struggling to do arithmetic. It happened until I was placed in the class of one of my favorite teachers ever. By that time I could do math, but in a brute force way. I knew if I did certain things with numbers, other things happened. This teacher was the first to explain to me in a way I understood why the numbers did that, and suddenly math became far more interesting for me. I still struggle with certain aspects of math, but I also love number games and formal logic. I just found out this morning from a friend who lived in my hometown, and who knows that teacher’s family, that she died in the past few days. Reading your account of Keith makes me both especially grateful to her and sad that I didn’t keep in touch or tell her what she meant to me.

  21. Unlike you, I barely remember my best teacher, Mrs. (Emma) Barber, of both my first and second grade classes at PS 57 in New York City, in East Harlem. I remember her mostly because she slapped me. Not an unusual event and not the least out of malice in 1947-49 from a teacher two generations older than me. A totally different time quite alien to most nowadays. Mrs. Barber (never Mrs. Emma Barber — I know that only from report cards) had standards derived from her respect for each of her five, six, and seven year old charges,

    I don’t recall why I got slapped, but I do recall reading in a corner of my second grade classroom while she conducted class for the others. She sensed my desire to learn, sensed that I would not fit in with the other students, sensed that I needed the confidence I lacked from my home life. She provided the appropriate books in the days before standardized testing. No teacher I had since then, in twenty-five years from 1st grade to doctorate, made me want to learn as surely as she did.

  22. A beautiful memory. I also grew up poor but managed to land some amazing teachers along the way who looked beyond my circumstances and saw me. One even paid for me to take the AP English exam when I couldn’t afford it otherwise. I haven’t stayed in touch with him or any of the others, but I still treasure what I learned (academically and about life) from each of them.

  23. Mr. Neumann, who smiled and let me read him all my stupid kid stories in 5th grade, saying he could see these stories live in my mind, and sternly demanded I learn grammar, which I hated. Turns out he was gay, and it didn’t matter.

    Mrs. Preston, who taught “Mystery and Science Fiction Literature” in my high school (cool class, eh?), who made a solitary exception for me and gave her study period to one student just to sit and write and she would grade and edit. Because of her, I won third prize in a University of Tampa writing contest. She was not gay, and her husband wrote for the local newspaper. She even got me a job there fresh out of high school.

    Lovely teachers are lovely people, and their private life has nothing to do with their devotion to their professions and vocations.

    Your tweeter seems to be afraid of someone at school “converting” children. Funny for a group of marginalized folks who are afraid to come out to anyone, primarily kids. Too, my teachers taught me stuff that my parents reasoned with me on. To this day, I still believe in God, though not due to the curriculum. Parents have a much bigger influence. Your tweeter should remember that.

  24. I know people who work in a prison with people who are are not gay and there’s not a chance I’d let a kid or women anywhere near the residents without armed guards. As far as I know there are some who were teachers at one time.

    It seems to me that your great teacher was a great teacher; not necessarily because they were or weren’t gay but because they were a caring, compassionate, inspiring and challenging teacher who knew how to get students to do their best.

    Oh and as a footnote he was gay.

  25. Thank you for telling Keith’s story. I had several gay teachers although they were in the closet and has roommates, not partners. I remember Mr. Sneed would ask any student chewing gum if their mother had been a bovine while pregnant. I answered “No but she was in a mental hospital.”. He didn’t know what to do with that one.

  26. I met my best friend when we were 12. When we were 18, he told me he was gay. I said “I know.” When we were 33, he died of AIDS. I’d give ANYTHING for my daughter to be able to meet him and spend time with him.

  27. Dear John,

    Add me to the parade of cryers. Teachers who see children clearly are a gift to all of us. I’ve worked around the fringes of education, and I always feel despair when someone says “that’s the families’ responsibility” and well maybe in an ideal world it is. But isn’t the magic of public education and really great teachers and schools that they catch kids when they fall? That they are there for the kids who’s families can’t or won’t help them, or just are going through hard times? We should aspire to do better for the kids who need us, not ready to dismiss them because they do.

    Also on gay teachers, my children got to go to a school that made a big deal out of gay pride. So my children in early elementary school knew they had gay teachers, and lesbian teachers, and people on the staff who were gay. One was an exceptional teacher of the youngest children and so-so teacher when he moved up a few grades. Another was a great teacher who got promoted out of the classroom, and was a great resource when school stopped fitting for my youngest child. But the amazing thing was they got to be who they were. No hiding, no whispers. They were other people, to be respected, loved, annoyed by, frustrated with. I am grateful that they had that experience so early. I’m grateful to people who were able to give me age appropriate language to explain, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, and bisexual to my kids.

    I’m grateful they were part of my children’s lives.

  28. Thank you, John. I recently lost a dear teacher, Ken Stebbing. I don’t know if he was gay, but he was an amazing, impassioned teacher. I was a nerd, fond of reading, fond of history, and tended to read books that were much older than my age. I remember sitting with him, talking about Allen Drury’s God against the Gods and Return to Thebes. He was passionate about Alexander the Great. And was an amazing, inspired teacher. I so much wish I had tried to get back in touch with him. A lot of my teachers at BISC at the time were gay but in the closet, so to speak. Egypt was actually a safer place for them than Britain, at that point (mid-eighties). I was never sure about Mr Stebbing. RIP Mr Stebbing.

  29. Thank you for this lovely tribute. As a teacher, I only hope that I can do and be as much to my students.

  30. Oh my. This is so beautiful, so heartfelt, so right. Anyone who had a teacher who really truly saw them will want to read this.

    Mine was Mr Daniel Graybill, my 5th grade teacher. He was not gay, that I know of; he was married but thinking back on things, he might have been. Anyway… I was a punky little kid in grade school; I was picked on for being short, for being an only child, for being the only kid whose name changed in 3rd grade after my stepfather adopted me, and the kid who made up astonishingly wacko stories about myself because back then it was my life mission to be more like all the other kids, but in doing so, I likely presented as even more of a weirdo. Mr Graybill nurtured the quirky stuff and shut down a lot of my nonsense in a really sweet way. Like the time I arbitrarily decided to change my name and I turned in a big report assignment under the name of Ellie. He wrote on that report that ‘Ellie’ did an excellent job and was awarded an A+, however, did ‘Ellie’ have any idea what had happened to Scout’s report? Because she had an incomplete on the assignment. He also cast me as the princess in The Golden Goose instead of my best friend, who looked much more like a princess than I did with her long blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes. He saw me. He liked me. At a time when I didn’t much like myself. You don’t ever forget a teacher like Mr Graybill.

  31. And once again, you rock it.

    It’s a two-way street, you know. You had Keith, but Keith also had you, and others like you. The students he reached, the ones who realized how special he was. You developed a relationship, and I bet it sustained him as his friendship sustained you.

    Everyone should have the privilege of learning from a teacher like Keith. And I don’t give a flying fart what their sexual orientation is. What has that got to do with teaching, anyway?

  32. Mrs Provosty
    Mrs Hobson
    Mrs Hall
    Mrs Maxey
    Taught me to use my gifts and believe I was somebody. I’ll never forget you.

  33. Darn it, you made me cry! I had a teacher who made a difference in how I felt about myself, my future and life in general. I wish all children could have at least one teacher like that in their life.

  34. Awesome and beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it. Stray thought: I love that in the background above Mr. Johnson’s head it says “The Spirit of America.”

  35. Thank you, John, for telling us this.

    I have a somewhat similar story to tell, but it doesn’t really have a happy ending.

    My first real job was actually two part-time jobs. I taught history part-time in a high school, and this school also had a boarding school department. I supervised the oldest group of boarding schoolers in my other part-time job.

    My first colleague became my mentor, as he had fifteen years more experience, was universally respected and great at his job, a truly iconic figure in that school. He helped me avoid all the stupid mistakes, made sure I could cope with my students and my boarding schoolers. I had that job for a year; thanks to him I got the job back for the next year. My working career later sent me in other directions, but he was the one who got me on my way.

    He also became my best friend. I didn’t know until years later that he was gay. It just never came up, and it didn’t make any difference to our friendship when it finally did, somewhere around 1990.

    He didn’t die of AIDS. He didn’t die of old age. He didn’t die in a car crash or some other stupid accident. He committed suicide. Because he was gay, didn’t want to be but was, and couldn’t live any longer with the idea that he somehow was a misfit, a freak, someone to make dirty jokes about.

    It’s been 22 years since he took his own life. His family lost a truly lovely person. I lost my best friend. His students lost a magnificent father figure. The school lost one of its best and brightest staff members.

    Thank you, Michel Lagey. RIP.

    Thanks a lot, homophobic pieces of you-know-what.

  36. John, a wonderful tribute. One thing I wonder about someone like the question asker: Why is he concerned about a gay guy and girls? The teacher would have no sexual interest in girls. Yet the question is presented as if this is an issue.

  37. Mr. White, Ms. McGrath and the only one of my teachers who encouraged us to call him by his first name, Mr. Kent Overbey. I have no idea if any of them were gay but I couldn’t respect them much more either way.

    One of my favorite bits from the West Wing is where Donna thanks her favorite teacher:

  38. A bit off topic here, but which of the kids above is young Mr. Scalzi? I’m guessing possibly either front row, left end, or front row, second from right.
    And on the topic at hand; I had several great maths teachers (or math, in your dialect), but their job was easier as it was my favourite subject. My English teacher for the last three years of high school had a much harder task as I didn’t like English. He still managed to get a good mark out of me in the final exam. Those who had actually done some work in class generally achieved excellent marks. That man knew his stuff. Rumour was he was gay, but 30+ years down the track I have no idea if it was true.

  39. As is so stupidly often the case, the dimwit OP is making the assumption that homosexual means paedophile. Funnily enough that turns out to be untrue.
    But ignorant stupid bigots seem to be prone to confabulated moronification.

    I don’t have a clue if any of my teachers were gay. They taught me – almost all of them rather well – and that was it. I’d be much more concerned about kids being surrounded by morons. They’re so much more common than gay people.

  40. What a great tribute and you make your point well. As a teacher, I want to work with people like this, who put their students first and are focused on helping them be their best. Sexual orientation is irrelevant.

  41. After growing up in a Lutheran school, then moving to a public high school, I was wary of homosexuals. Luckily, I had very patient and generous friends, who showed me that they were people first and sexualities second, just like me. I think it’s important to learn that teachers – while having their own personal lives, political views, and hobbies – are fundamentally at school to teach a lesson. Even if you don’t agree with their “lifestyle choice” as some call it, it’s difficult to use that as an argument for incompetence.

  42. As a teacher myself, your post was very moving. Thank you for speaking up for this wonderful man. I hope I can see my students as clearly as Mr. Johnson saw you!

  43. Okay, you sumbitch: you made me cry.

    I am gay. I never came out … I was just too stupid and too oblivious to understand why I was so depressed until I was in my forties. That was over twenty years ago. But many, many of my friends over the years, as it turned out, were gay. And many of them died of that disease during the 1980s. I was saved because I was too stupid to realize who and what I am until later, and when I finally did, I just told my friends what was what and everything became better. I know these are true friends because I didn’t lose a single one of them when I told them. But I still feel a pang of guilt from the chance that I didn’t suffer like the ones who died simply because I was too oblivious, or too scared, or too just plain stupid to understand—and I didn’t get to enjoy the life that I might have had when I was young and could suffer the torture of that first romance, first love, in my teens or early twenties; it didn’t happen until twenty years later and that’s just not the same. I missed out on that, and it’s the one regret of my life that I didn’t know sooner, that I wasn’t brave sooner, that can never be righted.

    Your description of Keith Johnson is very much like the description of several of my teachers when I was in high school. I had no idea then if any of them were gay and several of them I’ve stayed in touch with all these years I know now actually are. They are good people, and were good, important teachers to me when I needed them. They taught me about literature, mathematics, science, and Latin. They paid attention to me as a student and as a person, through all the crap that happened in my teenage years. I owe so much to them for their compassion, their hard work and dedication: It makes me do my darndest to help children and be there for them whenever the need or opportunity arises. It also makes me so sad that, even without the knowledge that I’m gay, I have to be so careful today: the suspicious prejudice and fear that sees an old man having a friendly chat with a young boy or a young girl about a book, a movie, a game, a cool song as … ugh. It is so obvious on so many people’s faces.

    The world of prejudice and hate can be a very cruel place. Let us all try not to let that world happen. Let us remember with joy and love the Keith Johnsons who gave so much of themselves for our benefit, whether we knew their sexual orientation or not, and not let fear rule.

    Damn, you hit a nerve there.

  44. Just for the record, the oft-repeated claim that homophobes are closet cases is not fully supported by repeated studies on the subject. The one cited above lacks proof of repetition across other cultural groups as well, so it cannot be used for generalizing in the least. Repeating that claim is also, to be blunt, blaming queers for our own oppression, so I am most annoyed someone went there here. Greg, you need to rethink why you found that so vital to repeat in a thread about quality teachers, some of whom happened to be gay.

  45. Thanks for this, John. All my best friends were in the last class Mr. Johnson taught. I, of course, was disappointed not to study with him after five years of anticipation at Ben Lomond. “Leonine” is a perfect descriptor among the many others you share. I’ll be sending this link to friends who still miss him.

  46. Thank you, John, this was wonderful. You were lucky to be found by Mr. Johnson. For me it was Mr. Paul who taught an “experimental” HS class called “American Studies” which combined history, English, writing, geography, and whatever else they could sneak in. We read and listened to “1776.” I can still sing the John Adams part (badly). I still flash back on a regular basis to Mr. Paul slapping the desk in front of me whenever he would catch me propping up my head, chin cupped in my hand, elbows on the desk. (It was an 8 AM class.) He was one of the best for me.

  47. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute. Mr. Johnson was my 6th grade teacher in 1976. He was one of the best teachers around.

  48. Exquisite. My best teacher was Miss Robinson. First grade. I have no idea of her orientation but I know exactly why she was my best teacher: She taught me to read.

  49. He sounds like a wonderful man (and a great teacher.)


    (That specific ‘Are you comfortable with…?’ question has always struck me as weird. So a man who likes men can’t be trusted to teach boys? Does that mean we can’t have heterosexual men/women teaching girls/boys? Homophobia is obviously a disease that makes rational thought quite hard.)

  50. Jantar – agreed. When I was 12, there was a kerfluffle about a gay male teacher at the boys’ school, but no one said anything about the straight male teachers at the girls’ school. Even then I wondered why the difference. No one provided an answer, back then or now.

  51. Confusing ‘gay’ with ‘child molester’ seems to be very common within certain circles. Wonder where that even comes from. But it is widespread. E.g. in Estonian, ‘pede’ (short for ‘pederast’) is a common slur against gay men.

  52. “His memory is a blessing.”

    Profoundly true. And for far, far more of us than just the owner of this blog.

  53. Good teachers are who they are and where we find them. John was truly lucky that the right person showed up at the right time.

  54. I’ve never been able to understand the homophobic attitude that gay people in positions of authority or responsibility over our children is something to fear. That they might, either consciously or just by their mere proximity, somehow affect the sexuality of our children. That they might somehow “turn them gay”. In my experience there is no group of people on the planet who are more likely to respect a child’s sexuality than the LGBT community and no group who would respect it less than homophobes. There’s irony there. Mr Johnson sounds like an awesome teacher. I need no more evidence of this than the fact that he introduced you to Bradbury. “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm” – still my favourite opening line of any novel, ever.

  55. Wow…STILL CRYING. Thank you! -from a gay Music teacher/LVN,nurse,Florist, Singer and writer.

  56. So moved by this. I’m a high school English teacher. I hope in the past that I have “seen” those students who needed to be seen. Your tribute has inspired me to work harder to do so.

  57. My most formative teacher ever was my high school English teacher, who would come out years later. I asked him to do a reading at my wedding. I hope my son some day has a teacher as meaningful to me as he was.

    In retirement, he once confided in me that he looked back at his career and wondered what he’d accomplished. Had he made a difference? This is a teacher, mind, who had a Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction among his alumni. I responded with a butchering of the Thomas More line from A Man for All Seasons: “But if I am a great teacher, who will know?” “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad audience, that!”

    Great teachers are great teachers. We should care about whether they love their students, not whom they love at home.

  58. Looks like the original Tweeter should have spent more time listening to his teachers instead of worrying about their sexual orientation.

  59. That was a moving and beautiful tribute. One of my best friends is in a similar situation, teaching language arts with aplomb and creativity and impacting the lives of many children.Thank you for posting this.

  60. Are those Sears Tuffskins you’re wearing in that picture?

    At any rate, there are people who stand in classrooms spouting and there are Teachers. I have been graced to know a few of the latter. Clearly Mr. Johnson was one as well. We are lucky there are such dedicated people in our schools.

  61. I don’t know if you’re looking at this thread still, John, but your post brought out something in my history I hadn’t thought of in years – that my first teacher in my own gifted kids program (called PACE in Arizona) was a gay man who died of AIDS in the 90’s. His name was Joseph Hasenstab and he was not only an excellent teacher, but he wrote several books on education theory. I was in that PACE program for many more years and had many more wonderful teachers there, but Mr. Hasenstab was the first. I remember him no longer being in our classroom after that first year and the rumor was because he was sick. It wasn’t until much later that I connected the dots.

    Additionally, I had a 2nd grade teacher, Larry Hunter, who was a closeted gay man, give me a copy of The Hobbit a year after I was out of his class. And while I didn’t go nuts over it (and to this day fantasy isn’t my thing), your story of The Martian Chronicles reminded me of it.

    My high school drama teacher, Jim Fountain, one of the finest teachers in Arizona who has started several drama programs all over the Phoenix area, was also a closeted gay man, but is now out and having wonderful adventures in retirement, and he officiated my brother’s wedding last year.

    So I say more gays, more out and proud gay people who can be part of school communities that love and accept them and give them the tools they need to succeed so their students can succeed. Thank you for your remembrance.

  62. Amazing post, John.

    One of my favorite teachers in high school, the always-enthusiastic Mr. Potter, was gay. And closeted. Married. To a woman. He had children with her…

    The idea that he might be gay was often joked about/speculated about by the students, because the man had *style*. While it was still the era of “that’s so gay” and suchlike (early 1990s) there was little malice in it (not to defend, just to describe). Everybody loved Mr. Potter.

    Tragically, he killed himself ~10 years ago now. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that he felt he had lived a lie and couldn’t take it anymore.

    I hope that someone like him, born now, won’t be forced down a path they ultimately cannot reconcile themselves to, causing terrible pain for themselves and others.

  63. Have you ever thought how lucky he was to have a little person just at the right time, and just the right attentiveness, so that he could use all of his talents? If he ‘saw’ you, then he probably saw the challenges, too.
    You helped him grow, too. As a transgender woman, thank you for your retort to that man. Every little bit of understanding helps, I think. We can all be wonderful people, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, if we just treat others how we would want to be treated.

  64. No idea whether these teachers were gay or not (except the last two), don’t care, forever grateful to all of them:
    5th grade Ms McElroy – taught us about Women’s Lib! (that’s what it was called then!)
    Junior high school Mr. McKenzie – showed us how math could be awesome! Didn’t dance at school dances because they never played minuets.
    Junior high school Ms Walkup – modeled decent behavior to all, including nerds like me who did not exactly shine in her gym class.
    Mom – music teacher, patient enough to teach her own kids to play piano, a fun-loving Italian American who taught us how to keep it real, Italian-style.
    Dad – not a teacher by profession, although I know he did teach as part of his work, and shared his love of words & wit.
    Yeah, come to think of it, everyone teaches, in one way or another.

  65. Dear John,

    Two teachers stand out in my mind. About their sexual preferences, I know nothing.

    First would be Chuck Pelton who was my senior English teacher at Homestead High School. He started Advanced Placement English there, and discovering how much I enjoyed English when it was being taught at a really high level was one of the things that encouraged me to become an English (dual) major when I was at Caltech. He died, unfortunately about two years ago. I should’ve looked him up — he still lived in the area and he would’ve enjoyed what I wound up doing with my life.

    Second would be Richard Castronovo, my eighth grade science teacher, who was just such a wonderful teacher and a wonderful man that I kept visiting him even after I went to Caltech. He’s probably the best science teacher I ever had, which was a welcome follow-on to my seventh grade science teacher who was the worst science teacher I ever had. (Imagine someone who didn’t keep hydrogen and helium straight — I am not making that up. Oh, the humanity.)

    I have no idea what happened to him. A Google search is not much help — I don’t know anything else about him beyond him having taught at Cupertino Middle (then Junior High) School in the 1960s.

    Anyone reading this have an idea how I might locate him?


    Dear Pinky,

    It has always seemed to me that a good answer to the religious bigots is to point out that their religion is a “lifestyle choice.” Assuming, anyway, they believe in the Doctrine of Free Will. So, why should their lifestyle choice get protection against discrimination and be given basic civil rights? It’s not divine will.

    It’s because some folks decided to put it on a legal piece of paper. Nothing more than that, and a lot of societies don’t have that — It’s not a given. This country decided, okay, we’re going to make that a personal right that we don’t discriminate on the basis of. Didn’t have to.

    That’s no more or less arbitrary nor unreasonable than deciding that sexual orientation is a personal right that we will not discriminate on the basis of. Whether it is a “lifestyle choice” or not.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  66. I had a high school English teacher who was quite camp in his presentation. Consequently there was endless twittering (the voicebox-driven kind) amongst the students as to his preferences, though this mystery was never resolved, to my knowledge.

    Whatever his orientation, about which I didn’t give a rat’s arse anyway, he was one of the finest English teachers I ever encountered. Everyone in our class could read. This man taught us to *write* — to construct a coherent, believable, literate account of anything, and set it down on paper.

    I remember having an argument with him about spelling reform. I’d used the word “honour,” with the “-our” ending, in an essay. He explained at length and in detail why the retention of needless letters in English words is a hindrance to the language. To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with him.

    I’ve been fortunate to have many informative and entertaining teachers during my schooling, but of them all, he’s the one that my pigheaded young self was lucky indeed to encounter. Thanking you, Mr Scalzi, for your words that brought that back for me.

  67. Thanks for sharing that. teared up twice this week, and this is one of the two.

    A few years ago, I called my favorite teacher, and told him how much he had inspired me, and how I hoped to do as well as he had. Mr Mahaney thanked me, and gave me some useful advice (something I badly needed as a young teacher). Some of it was practical, but one thing that stuck with me was that it is easy to be a good teacher when you have great students. This has proven to be true. With my best classes, I am always awesome, because any reasonably competent teacher would be. They are wonderful. It also means that it is not easy when you deal with some students, because they aren’t great. They lack ability or motivation, or have more pressing concerns from outside school, or someone damaged them in some way. The trick is finding how to give them what they need, and then you might find them to be great students after all. Not always, but sometimes.

    A few days ago, an old student emailed me to say she had passed her exams and qualified as a teacher, and she hoped “to mean to my students what you meant to us, and to make the hard things fun.” So I gave her some advice, and told her that great students make good teachers. She was the former, and I bet she’ll be the latter

  68. Being seen by a teacher saved a lot of us. Wonderful that you were able to literally sing his praises.