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Missouri woman overcomes obstacles to earn doctoral degree

Monday, May 31, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — She was from a poor family, was stuck in special education and could barely read a lick.

Add to that: She stuttered badly.

So what chance did Cynthia Johnson have, growing up four decades ago and being black in a small, mostly white Missouri town?

Pretty good, as things turned out. Soon, people will be able to call her "doctor."

Johnson, 44, received a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Baker University. The graduation ceremony culminated a journey that began in the "low and slow" class and ended at a stage she only imagined.

"People said I wouldn't amount to anything, but they only saw the outside of that little girl," Johnson said recently at Grandview Middle School, where she is principal.

"They couldn't see what was cooking in me."

Maybe people at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Warrensburg saw — they certainly heard. On a Sunday when she was 7, Cynthia went up and sang with the adult choir. Heads turned that day. The little girl opened her mouth, and words to the hymn flew out like birds cooped up too long.

That was a long time ago. But still today, students at Grandview Middle often hear "Mama J" — that's what they call her — break into song.

She let loose in her office one recent day when talking about words of wisdom from her mother.

"Baby, sing the words and they'll come out all right."

While in school, Cynthia struggled all week long trying to keep up with the other kids. A learning disability hampered her reading. Some schoolmates laughed when she tried to speak.

So she longed for the weekend. Back then, Saturday was supposed to be her day of peace. But then came that one Saturday.

It fell on the first of the month, the day her parents went to pick up commodity food items handed out to needy families. Her mother and father both worked, but neither made much money. The family had three other kids and kept chickens, despite living in town. It was not unusual for the gas or water to be shut off at their house.

Cynthia went with her parents that day. While waiting in line, she noticed something ahead: Some of the kids who laughed at her at school were helping to dole out the food. Cynthia stood next to her parents as they extended their hands.

"That memory has always been with me as maybe my lowest day," Johnson said. "But like the utilities being shut off, none of that stuff killed me."

"Even the stuttering. I mean, I cried — but they never saw me cry."

Things began to change for Cynthia as a high school freshman when she got a speech teacher named Ken Bell.

"He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed white man, and he changed my life forever," Johnson said.

Bell knew she was in special education, but he saw beneath the label. He also knew she didn't stutter when she sang. So he got her to try another performing art. He gave her a scene from the play "In White America" and told her wanted her to perform it in a speech contest.

She was scared. He pushed. She entered.

"She acted it beautifully and walked away with first place," Bell remembered.

Johnson attributes debate, forensics and singing in the church choir for fixing her stuttering. Her reading improved. In her senior year, she made the honor roll at Warrensburg High School.

From there it was on to college. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1987 and a master's in 1995. For the past three years while employed at Grandview Middle, she worked on the doctoral program at Baker's Overland Park campus.

"It would have been so easy for her to give up a long time ago," said Susan Rogers, an associate professor and Johnson's adviser. "But she doesn't know how to quit. She doesn't shy away. From anything. What she did is truly remarkable. Things like this don't happen very often."

Johnson recently called Bell to tell him of her doctorate. Retired now and living in Maryville, he said the same thing he did when she won that speech contest years ago.

"I knew you could do it, kiddo."

No grudges, Johnson said.

The teasing was a long time ago. She's Facebook friends with a lot of classmates now and attends reunions.

Besides, it probably pushed her to where she is today. And that is a pretty good place.

In addition to teaching for 10 years before becoming an administrator, she is also a sought-after motivator and public speaker. Through her website, mamaj.org, she schedules and conducts educational seminars all over the country.

She and her husband live in Lee's Summit.

"God didn't give me the ability to have children, but he gave me the ability to love all children," she said.

One recent day, Johnson had several students standing outside the school, trying to teach them how to cast a fishing rod. They were getting ready for a field trip. Most had never held a rod and reel. Some fell forward when they cast.

"They do that at the water's edge, they're going to fall in," Johnson said.

Students like her. In crowded hallways, she gets a smile from even the most sullen-looking youngster.

Grandview Middle is a suburban school, but has its share of low-income and at-risk students, those frustrated and overwhelmed by school and life.

"She meets them where they are, no matter how high or how low," said Tynisha Andrews-Watson, a teacher at the school. "I've seen faces change talking to her."

Johnson's message is that if she can make it, they can, too. With tough cases, she breaks out an old photo of herself as a young girl, her lips pursed as if to hide her stuttering.

Does that little girl look like she would ever be a school principal?

"She's made us all feel like we can become anything we want to be," said eighth-grader Danielle Collier.

And of all those people who thought little Cynthia wouldn't amount to much, Jonesha Gould, another eighth-grader, says, "I wonder what they think now."


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