F A L L 1 9 9 8
Longtime educator joins Mrs. Locke on tour of China's schools
B Y L A U R E L W I L L O U G H B Y , A S S I S T A N T E D I T O R
|Their joy in each other's company is evident as Luella (Toso) Johnson '40, '67 happily accepts a painting from a 6-year-old she met at the Beijing Children's Palace.|
Look up the derivation of the word "verve," and you're likely to find a picture of former teacher Luella (Toso) Johnson '40, '67.
She's 80 years old, and her "typical" day - one that doesn't already include docent duties at the governor's mansion in Olympia or a last-minute flight to visit friends in Minnesota - involves having coffee before dawn, dropping by church, welcoming guests with ginger cookies and gardening at the spotless American Lake home she shares in Lakewood with her husband, Arthur, 92. But Johnson's recent travels have taken her a lot farther than the bicycle she often pedals around her neighborhood.
Try the People's Republic of China.
For 10 days in June, Johnson joined 50 other Washington teachers, administrators and child care professionals on a tour of various primary schools, kindergartens, orphanages and other children's facilities in Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai.
Invited and led by Washington State First Lady Mona Lee Locke, the delegation sought to increase local understanding of China's system of early childhood education and development, and provide an opportunity for the group to exchange ideas with Chinese counterparts. (Participants footed their own bills for the trip.)
The visit was timely for the guests and their hosts alike. In recent years, the Chinese have begun concentrating on education reform. Likewise, a major focus of Gov. Gary Locke's administration has been on education, and Mona Lee Locke has shown a special interest in early childhood education. Both Lockes are of Asian ancestry.
Tagged with such grand titles as Beijing Children's Palace and Su Zhou Experimental Primary School, many of the institutions on the tour offered highly organized and integrated programs with studies in the arts, sciences and technology for children of all ages.
But if you think the impressive schools, the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square were the most magnificent things Johnson saw on her trip, think again.
"The children we worked with were awe-inspiring. They were very happy and very disciplined. All that other stuff was secondary," Johnson said, dismissing the Great Wall of China with a wave of her hand.
Art time in a kindergarten might not be the place you'd expect to find 50 quiet and respectful 5- and 6-year-olds pointedly not spilling paints or throwing brushes. Yet this mannered behavior was typical of the students Johnson and the group saw throughout their trip.
"It's like we learned from Martin Luther," noted Johnson. "Children want to be good; they just need a nudge in that direction."
And the pictures they produced were no refrigerator art, either. Johnson is having a stunning floral painting, given to her by a 6-year-old, professionally matted and framed to hang in her home (see photo).
Many of the schools were boarding institutions, where even very young children saw their parents only on weekends. Yet far from the child warehouses one might imagine the schools to be, Johnson was struck by the equal degrees of caring and humanity she saw infused into the regimented academic programs. Wherever the tour went, children were taught as much to care for one another as they were to learn from books.
"At a school for the disabled," she said, "it was one student's job just to go around and touch the others." Another was charged with picking up pencils or paintbrushes some of the less able students frequently dropped. In fact, Johnson noted, visiting children with disabilities and those in orphanages "was worth the whole China trip."
Still, this Far East journey was in no way the final chapter in Johnson's 60-year relationship with education. It's just another gem to add to her collection of experiences that began in a country school in 1938 and hopscotched through the next six decades in a variety of professional placements: summer schools, evening classes, church groups, the International Family Academy (Norway), vocational instruction, early childhood education, experimental kids' TV programming and children's education posts at the World's Fairs in Seattle and New York City.
Part of that career brought her to PLU during the summers of the '60s and '70s, when she came here to "teach teachers what I learned from children."
So what is next for Johnson? This particular evening, she's having family and friends over for dinner to wish happy birthday to "Opa" (the grandkids' name for Arthur), and as soon as the 92-year-old comes in from cutting the lawn, Johnson's going to set him on peeling spuds so that a dozen people can eat mashed potatoes. She also has to hustle to get the homemade bread and cinnamon rolls into the oven.
But beyond tonight, what does Johnson plan to do with her life?
Not surprisingly, this octogenarian who speaks on the "Joy of Aging - It's an Attitude of Gratitude" said, with a twinkle in her eye, "You ask the Lord."
Johnson is the first of three generations of Lutes in her family. A daughter, Betty (Johnson) Clauson, graduated from PLU in 1966, and a grandson, Troy Toso Helseth, graduated in 1995.
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