by David Safier

We need stories like this to remind us of what teachers are worth, and the gifts they give to their students which simply can't be tested or quantified. Jennifer Johnson, Communications Director for the Arizona Democratic Party wrote this for Organizing for America's community blog as a guest blogger.

Take the time to read it to the end. It's worth it.

In 1980, I entered 5th grade with a heavy sadness and shyness that caught the attention of my new teacher, Mrs. James. I had tragically lost my mother a couple years earlier and it had deeply affected my personality and social development.

But Mrs. James wouldn't accept this as my norm. This tiny woman with a big voice and even bigger hairdo was determined to draw me out. Her funny nicknames for me eventually made me crack a smile and laugh. Her chats with me after class to point out how well I was doing infused me with a new confidence. I was quietly beaming when she attended a special show that featured my art project. It meant a lot to me then — but even more as the years passed by — that Mrs. James was still there. When she showed up at my 8th-grade graduation with a gift (my first-ever faux pearl necklace), I kept it in a special place and still have it to this day. Another gift arrived after high school graduation. Mrs. James had not forgotten me. She believed in me.

I kept her phone number in a safe place so I could call her with occasional updates on life. I knew she'd be proud whenever I accomplished something new. "JJ, I TOLD you there were great things in store, didn't I?" she'd say in her boisterous, loving way.

During my senior year of college, I returned to Phoenix for spring break and decided to call Mrs. James with my latest news: I'd been offered a writing internship at the Library of Congress. But someone else answered her phone and said she'd be unavailable that week. The woman took my number. I felt odd as I hung up the phone. Something wasn't right. A few minutes later, my phone rang — it was Mrs. James. I asked her what was going on. "JJ, I'm in the hospital — I have leukemia." I didn't waste a moment; I got in the car and went to her bedside. We spoke this time as adults, sharing the updates on our lives. Of course she was excited about my D.C. internship: "JJ, I TOLD you there were great things in store, didn't I? As we spoke, my emotions grew, and I finally had to ask her: "Why me? Why did you reach out to me in 5th grade — and for all these years?"

I'll never forget her answer: Long before I was in her classroom, Mrs. James already knew about me. She had overheard teachers talking about a 4th grader who had lost her mother. In that instant, she told herself, "I'm going to help that child." She marched down to the principal's office and told him she wanted the little girl assigned to her classroom upon reaching 5th grade. Her compassion, as I learned that day in the hospital, came from a personal place. When Ozella James was a little girl, she had a tragedy of her own: Both of her parents died in a car accident. And as an orphaned African-American child in segregated Oklahoma, the decks were stacked against her. Or were they? After the tragedy, she was taken in by a loving aunt who raised Ozella as her own and looked after her over the years. Ozella grew up to become an accomplished educator, an engaged citizen and a beautiful all-around human being. Decades later, a shy, hurting 10-year-old would meet her new 5th-grade teacher – and would learn the transformational power of paying it forward.

The world lost Ozella James to leukemia later that year, but I can only imagine all the lives she touched while she was here. We can honor her by keeping watch for someone in need of compassion, someone struggling to find confidence, someone who needs to hear, after all, that "great things are in store."

Jennifer Johnson

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