Former Theatre Student and UNLV Grad finds Joy in Shaping Young LVA Minds
It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday in Stacey Johnston’s Advanced Placement English class and she wants to know in which circle of hell ‘The Stranger” belongs.
Johnston arches her brows and holds and illustrated book in front of her. She’s trying to explain the nine levels of hell in the “Divine Comedy” to a class of high school seniors.
To make the epic poem easier to relate to, Stacey Johnston, 39, asks her students to compare the characters to those in more contemporary reads, such as Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.”
The once theater major at Las Vegas Academy, Johnston, wears a black dress with white polka dots. Her forehead mostly covered by strands of her rosewood- tinted hair. She makes eye contact through her thick-framed glasses.
Though she says her theater days are behind her, Johnston confidently takes center stage in class, sometimes interjecting puns, never missing a line.
“I’m a horrible artist, therefore I’ll draw you a bunch of pictures,” she says to student laughter as she heads toward the whiteboard.
It’s with drawings, humor, newspaper clips, literature from the young-adult author John Green and the music of The Cure that Johnston has commanded her classroom—and won numerous awards— at Las Vegas Academy for 15 years. The same place where she took AP English.
Johnston wants her students to be confident writers and critical readers when they leave her class, she says.
But in an age of Internet and television-based distractions, she also would like to see her students becoming literature-loving adults. For them to love reading and not see it as “a burden or a chore, but as an amazing opportunity to learn, to analyze and to see beautiful language.”
“A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us,” the existential writer Kafka once wrote in 1904.
The existential movement—the philosophy of analyzing one’s self, according to the Merrian-Webster dictionary—made Johnston look at English “in a new way” after she first learned about it as a senior at LVA (her only year there). The foundation for her love of literature was seeded at the high school.
In that class, she also became infatuated with poetry by the likes of T.S Eliot. In her favorite poem of his, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot writes: There will be time, there will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
And it’s been about 200 new faces she’s met every year at LVA.
She gets excited about knowing that every year she will see a new group of people, Johnston says. “I get to see what their ideas are, what their thoughts are and no year is ever the same. Even if you keep the same curriculum.”
At 8:26 a.m., twenty something of those students stroll into K-17. Almost every inch of the brick wall is plastered by posters and drawings that make reference to literature but also pop culture—Poe, Kahlo, and Hemingway, lots of Ernest, and Coca-Cola.
When Johnston speaks, her students look back attentively, even when minutes before they looked as tired as you would imagine any high school student to look on a Monday morning.
It’s her personality and knowledge that has won her praise. Johnston has been a Kuwari Teacher of the Year finalist, a UNLV Teacher of the Game winner, as well as the Las Vegas Review-Journal Teacher of the Month.
Though she expresses gratitude toward administrators who have nominated her, it’s her students’ nods that mean the most to her, she says.
“When the kids go out of the way to nominate you or highlight you in some way—it really is an awesome feeling to know that what you’re doing is being noticed by them and that they want to say thank you.”
“Students talk about her all the time,” says Stacy Miller, LVA’s English department chair and colleague of 15 years. This could be because Johnston is thoroughly involved in the school. Her roles include everything in between being the annual talent show judge to senior advisor. Johnston is also a regular in her students’ art performances.
“I think it’s very important as teachers to see them in the classroom and doing what they’re here to do at LVA,” Johnston said.
LVA opened its doors in 1931 and has been a magnet school that specializes in the arts since 1992. Students have to audition for its programs that include theater, music and dance.
Brianna Wirth, 27, and once a theater major at LVA credits Johnston and the other teachers with providing their students with “survival skills” while also instructing acceptance and tolerance.
During an ambitious production of “Les Miserables,” Wirth says that some in her class with Johnston fell behind after opening night. She was understanding and allowed them to catch up.
But she was also stern when she needed to be, Wirth says.
“We were 15-year-old kids acting rowdy,” Wirth remembers. To which, Johnston told them, “Look you guys, I didn’t do four years of school and got two ulcers while getting through school for you guys not to learn what you need to learn.”
The rigors of AP English drew Johnston to pursue an English Undergraduate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A likely path to law school steered her toward teaching when her credits made it feasible.
It wasn’t long after that Johnston landed a job teaching at the school whose communion makes the “big city feel small town” standing center stage at the Black Box Theater, writing skits for the improv shows.
Supporting her students is good enough for her now.
“My acting days are behind me, but I definitely love being an audience member and seeing the kids on stage—because, they’re just amazing.”
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