Writer Katie Pierce and Lake Bluff Middle School teacher Mrs. Darci Johnson, who passed away unexpectedly this month.

Katie Pierce

I Wouldn’t Trade Her For Gold

November 20, 2018

I am 18 years old.  Until Monday, Nov. 12, I had never experienced grief.  I had never cried over a death because I had never known anyone close to me who had died.  

But that day the hearts of the community broke because an angel was taken from us.  Mrs. Darci Johnson, a beloved Language Arts teacher at Lake Bluff Middle School, passed unexpectedly without me, or anyone, having the chance to say goodbye.

It is an understatement to say that Mrs. Johnson lived a full live.  Her impact on her friends, her family, her students, her colleagues, and every person who ever met her was warmed by her presence and infused with her vibrant personality.

When people die, their eulogies rave about their smile, or their energy, or their spirit.  Mrs. Johnson had all of those things to the highest and most beautiful degree. I cannot for the life of me remember the specific daily tidbits that she would offer to me as a seventh grade language arts student, but I can only remember that they changed my day every day–they continue to change my life as a high school student today.

Mrs. Johnson adored everything about the world that surrounded her.  Everything around her brought her great joy, from colors to events, from people to music.  She would tell her students that purple was her favorite color because of its connection to royalty and majesty.  During my seventh grade year, she realized her love for the color green as well, because of its connection to nature and life.  Those two colors together dominated her room decor and her personality for the years after that.

The favorites did not stop there.  When asked about her favorite food, she would enthusiastically reply POPCORN!  She would recount to her students experiments with types of popcorn, types of cooking methods, and different recipes.  She would argue that popcorn was a food for all meals and all kinds of situations, savory or sweet.

If nothing else, Mrs. Johnson loved with her entire being.  She had immense love for her students, her family, and her fellow teachers.  It was seen with every enthusiastic and goofy hello, in her stories about her children, and her unwavering and copious amounts of praise for her colleagues.  

She always called herself more of a music lover than a musician, but Mrs. Johnson’s love for music was wide and far reaching.  I remember teaching her to play the guitar using the guitar she had gifted to me after my seventh grade year, helping her fingers find the frets on her own instrument while her face would light up with a sense of accomplishment and sheer joy.  Her curiosity was always like that of a child, constant and innocent, with nothing but kindness and excitement for whatever was ahead.

I don’t think there was an adult with as much of a sense of humor and goofiness that also balanced poise and maturity at the exact same time.  She came up with imaginary words and characters for us to write about, and speculated about phenomenons that didn’t exist and even ones that did in a fantastical sort of way.  

There was almost never a time that wasn’t okay to be silly.  

On a personal level, Mrs. Johnson turned my life around.  I struggled with anxiety during my sixth grade year, and during seventh grade her push for positive thinking and constant affirmation of my inner confidence and personality quite literally changed my view on my life, my aspirations for my career, and my passions for speaking my mind.  My longing to become a teacher has now become a vow, to live on with her spirit and give with at least a fraction of her grace.

My longing to become a teacher has now become a vow, to live on with her spirit and give with at least a fraction of her grace.”

I remember writing the following personal narrative about Mrs. Johnson during my freshman year.

“She taught us that we had to take control of our lives. She taught us to live.  To love. To try and fail, to try and succeed. She applauded the winners, comforted the losers.  She laughed at the jokes, and carried our burdens with us. With her, everything happened for a reason, every mistake had a bright side, for every fall, there was a Band-Aid for the scrape.”

As a rising eighth grader and aspiring musician, Mrs. Johnson gifted me with a brand new guitar.  I took a class at school, bought a case, a capo, a stand, picks and various other accessories, and taught myself to play through blistered fingers and broken strings.  I wrote songs on the guitar that she gave me, in tears on my bed, or with joy in my living room, all on the strings gifted to me, on an instrument I never would’ve come to love on my own.

I remember teaching her some guitar after school a few days after school in eighth grade, helping her until she was able to play a chord with me and “jam,” as she called it.  I played a song called Gold for her that day.  The song not only was bright, with the disposition of Mrs. Johnson herself, but with lyrics that captured her philosophy.

For sunlight is like gold (everything around us is beautiful and has a positive purpose)

You better be you, do what you can do (you can only be yourself, and you’re enough)

If a door be closed, then a row of homes start buildin’ (things happen for a reason, and there is an up for every down)

I wish I could remember her initial reaction to the song.  I do remember her liking it, however, and just being plain happy that we were spending time together exploring something unknown and beautiful at the exact same time.

If there was any doubt about how much love Mrs. Johnson brought to the world, her memorial on Sunday Nov. 18, was proof.  Packed into a small theater of 300 seats, with people standing on the sides, sitting in the aisles, crowding the back of the theater and the stairs outside and behind the doors were teachers, students, friends, family members and church members with tears streaming down their faces and broken hearts.  On the stage surrounding her picture were flowers and her favorite stuffed giraffe, known to her students as Genius.

I played Gold for her one last time on Sunday.  I tried my best to bring back her spirit one last time through an instrument she gave me, with a voice she empowered.  I won’t forget looking out at the people she loved, people who loved her, such strong individuals who took the time out of their lives to thank her.  I won’t ever stop questioning whether or not she heard me, but I have all the faith in the world that she did.

When I walked onstage, in my dress pocket I carried a silver acorn from Mrs. Johnson with a note that had been given to me with it.

Katie,

All shall be well.

Go get em!

Mrs. Johnson

It’s like she knew.

If I’m learning anything, it’s about how special people are, and sometimes we don’t have the chance to realize just how special they are until they are gone.  I am more than blessed that I had the opportunity to tell her through some of my writing how extraordinary she was.

If I’m learning anything, it’s about how special people are, and sometimes we don’t have the chance to realize just how special they are until they are gone.”

I will scroll through my Facebook and see the point where she stopped commenting on my posts, or liking my photos.  I’ll hear a song or see a guitar and wish I had gotten another chance to share the beauty of it with her. But eventually, I’ll begin to see the world the way she saw it.  That’s the only way I can do her proud–the only way to keep her legacy alive is to attempt to bring joy the way she did.

I hope you’re walking on moonbeams, Mrs. Johnson.  I hope you’re flying and laughing and watching us all grow the way you taught us to.  I love you. Thank you for loving me the way you did.

6 Comments

6 Responses to “I Wouldn’t Trade Her For Gold”

  1. Tanya H on November 20th, 2018 10:36 am

    Well done,Katie, well done. Your tribute is beautiful.

  2. Kate Buckardt on November 20th, 2018 11:14 am

    Katie,
    Thank you for these beautiful memories.

  3. Reily on November 20th, 2018 1:48 pm

    You captured her spirit so perfectly in that song, it was mesmerizing to watch at her memorial. Mrs. Johnson had also been helping me cope with my anxiety and she was always inspiring and uplifting like you described.

  4. Allison Fink on November 20th, 2018 7:35 pm

    Wow, just wow Katie! This is such a great tribute and recollection of who Darci was! She was amazing with a light that shown upon anyone! She will be missed everyday!

  5. Deb Schneider on November 21st, 2018 12:04 pm

    Katie,
    Your tribute perfectly captures the beauty of Darci! I’m so lucky to have been her friend but I’m a little jealous of those who got to be her students!
    Namaste

  6. Elena on November 23rd, 2018 7:50 pm

    Katie, this is an incredibly beautiful tribute. Such an amazing woman she was & so loving to all of us! Thank you for sharing these memories.

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