Joseph Johnson’s Sixth-Grade Year

A mighty change wrought in his heart (Alma 5:12).

My friend Pete Harris and I figured that since we were finally going to be sixth graders this year, we ought to do something really memorable. We’d been walking those halls since kindergarten. We knew all the janitors and secretaries, and we even knew a secret way to get into the basement. It felt wonderful to be the oldest, “the kings of the school,” as Pete said.

We weren’t sure what memorable thing we wanted to do—maybe get a hundred percent on the yearly basic-skills test, or create a science project that would go on to win the national contest. In any event, we both dreamed that someday people would drive past Roosevelt Elementary School in a kind of hush as they were told, “That’s where Joseph Johnson and Pete Harris got their starts!”

Unfortunately the year didn’t start out very well. There are only two sixth grade teachers at Roosevelt, so you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting Mrs. Wagner. She is really, really old, and she’s known as the meanest teacher in the school. I didn’t know anyone who wanted to be in her class.

As soon as Mom and Dad heard that I was worried about having her for a teacher, they started lecturing me. They told me to stop taking everyone else’s word for it and to give her a chance—as if I already had her! I didn’t care to know that a lot of people (mostly adults) thought Mrs. Wagner was an excellent teacher. I didn’t even care that Sister Miller, a lady in our ward, had had Mrs. Wagner when she was a girl and had been so inspired that she’d become a teacher herself. This only proved to me how very old Mrs. Wagner was, because Sister Miller wasn’t young, either!

I really knew my number was up when my parents started saying, “How do you think Joseph Smith would act if he thought that he was going to get Mrs. Wagner?” I told them I thought that Joseph would have called out the Nauvoo Legion to save him, but it was no use. So it was with no real surprise last August that I received the letter from the school telling me to report to Mrs. Wagner’s class. The worst news, though, was that Pete was in Mr. Harford’s class, and that meant that I’d have to survive the ordeal alone.

On the first day of school Mrs. Wagner asked each of us to stand up, tell our name, and then tell something interesting that nobody else might know about ourselves. That’s OK for new kids, but most of us had been together for six years, and I couldn’t think of a thing. Suddenly I got this idea that made my stomach feel like the inside of a dishwasher: I could tell where I got my name. I tried to forget it and concentrate on some of my interests in sports, but the name idea kept popping into my head. Most of the kids in the class knew that I was a Mormon, but it seemed strange to talk about anything churchy during school. Right before it was my turn, I started hoping like crazy that the recess bell would ring. It didn’t. I wasn’t sure what a guardian angel was, but I was sure that mine had already left for the soccer field.

“Next?” called Mrs. Wagner, and I stood up shakily. Several of the girls started to giggle, which they did every time a boy stood up.

“Well,” I started in a squeaky voice, “my name is Joseph Johnson, and I was named after a prophet.”

I felt every eye in the room on me. As I started to sit down, Mrs. Wagner’s voice lifted me back up.

“Oh? That’s very interesting. Is that the Joseph in the Old Testament, the one with the coat of many colors?”

“No, ma’am. It’s Joseph Smith, a latter-day prophet.” The girls started giggling again, and about three years later the recess bell finally did ring.

I tried to forget all about that first day in the weeks that followed. And as it turned out, Mrs. Wagner wasn’t really as terrible as I had feared. In fact, she made social studies really interesting. She liked to get us thinking about other countries and to see those who lived there as real people with feelings. One of her favorite phrases was “Have the courage to change your opinion when you learn the truth.” Pretty heavy stuff for sixth graders! I was learning a lot, and I forgot all about doing something memorable.

Right before parent conferences, Mrs. Wagner met with each of us privately to go over our scores and to discuss what she would be telling our parents when they came to visit. In my meeting with her, it looked like I was doing well in everything but spelling, and I promised I’d work harder on it the rest of the year. After that, she put all my papers back in a pile and folded her hands on the desk in front of her.

“Joseph,” she said, “I have been noticing things about you this year besides your grades. After reading your essays on the special things you do with your family, I can tell you love them all very much. I’ve also watched you on the playground and in the lunchroom and many other places. You try to be a peacemaker when others are having a fight. You have been sensitive when someone is left out and have gone out of your way to include them. And you show a great deal of respect for the teachers and principal, even when the other kids make fun of them. Frankly, I’m quite impressed with you, and I’m looking forward to meeting the parents who have the privilege of having you in their family.”

Well, I was pretty much in shock all day after that. That night Mom and Dad reported that Mrs. Wagner had commented on my courage to talk about my religion on the first day of class and to live up to my principles. Feeling pretty sheepish for having dreaded her so much, I took to heart Mrs. Wagner’s words to have the courage to change your opinion when you learn the truth, and I admitted that she was a very good teacher.

By spring even the other kids had started saying that it was pretty nice to be in Mrs. Wagner’s class. But I still wasn’t prepared for what happened last Sunday: Just as we started singing the opening song in sacrament meeting, my little sister, Amy, leaned over and whispered, “What’d you do to make Mrs. Wagner follow you here?”

I was about to elbow her in the ribs, when I heard Sister Miller whisper to Mom, “There’s Mrs. Wagner. Isn’t it exciting! I understand that the elders are teaching her the discussions!”

I couldn’t believe my ears! All through the song and prayer, I kept thinking, “Pete will never believe this in a thousand years!”

During the sacrament, however, I started to get a very warm feeling, the same feeling I’d had on the first day of school when I knew I needed to tell everyone that I was named after Joseph Smith. I knew that this feeling was the Holy Ghost and that something very special was happening. I started to remember that I had wanted to do something really memorable in the sixth grade, and now I knew that this was it. My throat tightened up, and tears filled my eyes. I bowed my head and said a little prayer thanking Heavenly Father for letting me have a teacher who had the courage to change her opinion when she learned the truth.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki