NO SOONER HAD LOUANNE JOHNSON turned her back to write her name on the blackboard than a hardcover dictionary came flying at her, hit the slate inches from her head and thudded to the floor. Silence. Welcome to Carlmont High School.
Johnson calmly finished writing her name, then turned around. A hulking teenage boy stood grinning at her, muscular arms crossed defiantly. The 5’7″ teacher—and ex-Marine—stepped into the hall and took several deep breaths to tame her anger. Then she marched back into the classroom and advanced toward the student, who retreated until his back was to the wall. “I just stood there and stared up at him,” Johnson recalls. “All the while I was praying, ‘God, don’t let him hit me.’ ” Beads of sweat began to pop on the boy’s brow. “I knew I had him then,” she says. “I told him, ‘Go back to your desk and sit down.’ Then I turned to the class and said, ‘I’m too young to retire and too mean to quit. You’re stuck with me.’ ”
Lucky for them. For five years beginning that day in 1989, Johnson combined boot-camp tactics and unabashed rewards to transform a group of sullen, often violent adolescents in Belmont, Calif., into a platoon of achievers. It’s the kind of feat that inspires movies: Michelle Pfeiffer currently plays Johnson in Dangerous Minds, based on the book Johnson wrote about her experiences.
Johnson served as a technical consultant on the film. “When I met [Pfeiffer], I felt comfortable with her,” she says. “We’re both soft on the outside but strong on the inside. We can’t be pushed.”
In Johnson’s classroom, racist and sexist slurs were grounds for dismissal. As recompense for achievement, Johnson took her kids to restaurants and tossed out candy bars in class for correct answers. Pfeiffer admits the candy tossing worried her. “I told LouAnne some people said this was bribery. She said, ‘So I bribed the kids. So what?’ ” Pfeiffer laughs. “That was good enough for me.”
One student, Oscar Guerra, once told Johnson he wouldn’t do homework because “my posse [friends] don’t do homework.” That remark became the title of Johnson’s 1992 book. As for Guerra, she let him hand in his assignments secretly to preserve his street rep. Now 20 and a technician in a scientific lab, Guerra says, “She showed me you shouldn’t be afraid to try.”
It was a lesson Johnson herself had struggled to learn. Reared in Youngsville, Pa., by Bob Johnson, a foreman at a custom-parts manufacturing plant, and Shirley, a homemaker, LouAnne, the second of five children, dreamed of becoming an actress. But her authoritarian father disapproved of female entertainers and forbade it. After graduating from high school, Johnson enrolled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; but, unable to adapt, she dropped out after 45 days. At her mother’s suggestion, she enlisted in the Navy. The only woman assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, she was the object of relentless baiting. “I must have cried every day for months,” she recalls, “until I realized it was the same teasing I got from my father and brother.” Her battle for equality, which she turned into the 1986 book Making Waves: A Woman in This Man’s Navy, later gave her insights into her students’ frustrations. “They all act so tough,” she says. “That’s how I acted. It was hard for me to get a chance, and it’s hard for them to get a chance.”
Searching for new challenges, Johnson transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps, graduating from officer-candidate school as a second lieutenant in 1981. She left the Corps later that year to earn a master’s degree in teaching English. Hired at Carlmont High in Belmont, Johnson connected immediately with her impoverished students, whom she dubbed “the rejects from hell.” “The kids thought that no one liked them,” she says. “I told them I liked them.” Still, the job took an emotional toll. In 1993, Johnson, who is twice divorced, decided to move to Las Cruces, N.Mex., where she taught for a short time at the local high school. In May, The Girls in the Back of the Class, her sequel to Posse, was published, and currently she’s giving workshops to educators about motivating problem kids. “People forget what it feels like to be a teenager,” says Johnson with a shrug. “I guess I just never grew up.”
BOB STEWART in Las Cruces