Who is Sara Johnson?
Sara Johnson has lived in Michigan her whole life, growing up in Bay City before settling in Battle Creek. She is an educator by trade, and recently left teaching so that she can work full time for an institution that does racial justice work. Sara has been married for sixteen years and has three kids.
Excerpt from interview with Sara Johnson by Whitney Dow, 2017
My mother was a divorced woman working nights as a waitress, and she taught me to read. From the time I was two years old, she’d sit me on her lap and read to me, with her finger going across the lines. By the time I was four, I was reading books that I’d never seen, to her. That’s how I went to college.
My first day in kindergarten, the teacher caught me in the library corner reading a book to the other kids. So, she took me down to the library and got me a library card. And after that, because my mother was working nights and was alone, she did what was called boarding out. It was informal foster care. She’d pay people to keep me and she’d come home and take me with her on the weekends.
I got a head start in school and by the end, I was determined to go to college. I had two stepsisters, a stepbrother, and a half-brother. None of them finished high school. They dropped out between the age of fourteen and seventeen. But because my mother read to me, I was always determined to go to college.
In my family it was like I said I wanted to run away with the circus. So, I just started traveling to big cities looking for a job, and some way to go to college. I was in Detroit for a while. Then I went to San Francisco because I heard that in California, if you were a resident for six months, you got free college tuition. I got there right after [Timothy] Leary and [Richard] Alpert. So, everybody my age was stoned all the time. I didn’t last six months. I couldn’t handle it. So, a friend gave me a plane ticket to New York.
I moved to New York, got a job as a secretary in a small publishing company, and after about a year, found out that if I got a job at a university, I could get free tuition. I got a job at Columbia. Started taking night classes. Married a graduate student, and wound up with a scholarship to general studies. We took time out, because he was doing his dissertation in Chile, so I lived in Chile for a year and three months. We came back, I started school full-time. He discovered the sexual revolution and we got divorced. And I’d lied. I had taken college classes every place I’d gone —Detroit, and I took one in San Francisco, although I didn’t finish it, and I kept doing this while I was in New York. And Columbia didn’t allow any of them for transfer credit because they didn’t match exactly the courses they had except for one, on revolutions in the twentieth century.
Well, I took a Junior/Senior seminar when I was still technically a second-semester freshman in terms of credits. So a professor walked up to me, I was an editor on the newspaper, and he walked up to me at an editorial meeting. We’re sitting on the lawn, it was early fall. He said, “Dale, I want to let you know I nominated you for a Wilson.” I said, “What’s a Wilson?” He says, “It’s a graduate fellowship, and you’re going to get it.” And I said, “Don’t you have to be a senior?” He said, “Well, you took my Junior/Senior seminar.” I said, “I wasn’t a Junior when I took it.” He said, “Were you a sophomore?” I said, “No.” He said, “You took my course as a freshman?” I said, “Yes,” and started crying. And he took me by the arm and dragged me up to the Dean, I’m blubbering and sobbing. And, he said, “I want to see the Dean, now.” Everybody was very confused in the office, but they let me in. So, he said, “Sit down” and he pointed to the chair in front of the Dean. And I’m sitting there, waiting to have my scholarship pulled. And he said, “I’ve nominated her for a Wilson, she’s going to get it. You figure out how she’s going to graduate.”
So, in that semester, in that summer, I finished college. [laughs] I graduated Phi Bet [Phi Beta Kappa], cum laude, and I got a fellowship to Yale. [coughs] It’s hard to say, because I hated Yale. [laughs] And the minute I got there, I knew I’d made a mistake. But I stuck it out for a couple of years.