Wait, Mrs. Johnson is a Rapper Now?

The completely logical story of how my career path shifted from high school principal to rapper.

 

I used to shudder at the question How’s the charter school going?, because my true answer would have been “Fucking miserably. The process is Goliath and I’m teeny-tiny, I’m exhausted and intimidated 90% of the time, my personal life is in shambles because of it, and to top it off- this thing takes years so there is no end to my torture in sight.” The sensible part of me knew that would not have been an appropriate response from the charismatic face of a new school, so I usually responded with some form of ‘It’s going’ or ‘Working hard every day!’, and then proceeded to cry on the inside like a winner. 

In the early stages of this journey, everything in my life seemed to be aligning perfectly. My husband, Alex was stationed in San Diego- also the city of a renowned educational network I wanted to be a part of, High Tech High. I submitted my resume to be a 9th grade humanities teacher, and when a position opened up just weeks before the start of the school year, they hired me. From the first day, my perspective on what’s possible in education was changed. 

Having been a public school student and a teacher for four years in the New York City school system, all I knew was the factory model. School was like an assembly line where teachers followed a prescribed curriculum to produce batches of people who fit neatly into a box that was made of standardized test scores and labeled Academic Excellence. Years of teaching fellowships and a Masters in Education validated this model and taught me to do the best I could from within it, but High Tech High taught me that I could abandon it completely. In San Diego, I saw school be a place where people go to blossom into their best selves. Teachers are trusted to be the experts on the subjects they have degrees and years of experience in, and students are trained to use their unique talents to show how their mind constructs knowledge. My class was called For The Gram. I taught the skill of social studies through mass media communication, and the art of English through branding. My kids developed story lines, scripts, wrote press releases, and pitched opinion pieces to local newspapers. They were learning for real, and there wasn’t one test in sight. 

I dreamt that this dope learning environment existed in my hometown Far Rockaway- Queens. In my dream, I went to this school- as did my big cousins before me and my little nieces after me. The dream school taught us how to be anything we wanted to be, and we all lived happily ever after. Then I woke up to the fact that half of my family dropped out of high school, like 30% of the kids in our district. For them, school was a place that snatched your hopes and replaced them with a ranking system of which you were at the bottom. 

Making my dream a reality meant that I would have to figure out how to create a whole new school, an extremely daunting task since I had never even been a principal. I applied to HTH GSE for a Masters in School Leadership which included a full time principal residency. I also applied to their New School Creation Fellowship. Both programs accepted me and soon, I immersed myself in the Research and Development wing of education. By day I was a wide-eyed first year school leader trying to find my voice, by night I was a full time student creating what would become the Legacy Academy model. My coursework got done in the wee hours of the morning. Saturdays were for coordinating my Board of Directors, and Sundays were for responding to a week’s worth of missed emails. Every month I flew from SAN to JFK, attending charter writing workshops and re-engaging myself with the community. Life was moving at lightning speed, and immersion was starting to feel more like drowning. In six months, I lost 40 pounds. I’d love to give myfitnesspal all the credit, but this lifestyle made it easy to forget about eating and sleeping. 

Finding support was essential to my survival, and my homegirl Kendra turned out to be the perfect candidate for co-founder. I remember that Kendra was easy to orient and made the journey less lonely, but memories of my own personal experience during those final few months of my program are gray. It felt as if I blinked, and opened my eyes to find myself at graduation with three weeks remaining until the charter proposal deadline. Shortly after the smiles and celebration, I flew to New York and slept on Kendra’s couch so she and I could work round the clock. In days, we were expected to turn a model for teaching, learning, and love, into 600+ pages of budgets, policies, and facilities plans. We burned the candle at both ends, cranking out documents that reflected our rush and exhaustion, but cranking them out nevertheless. The deadline leapt toward us, bringing with it a wave of emotions; the strongest emotion was relief that I could take a break. 

Alex was soon to be discharged from the Navy and join me in New York, so apartment hunting became top priority. The gap left by the end of the charter round was snugly filled with the drama of moving our lives across country. By the time we settled into our Brooklyn box, the state charter authorizer had reviewed the Legacy Academy proposal. Our teacher made curriculum and project based assessments was way too hippie for New York State, and would not be approved. I knew that round would be practice, but I couldn’t ward off the feelings of failure. Newspaper articles had been published and my mother told everyone with ears that her baby was opening a school. It took me weeks to plan our next moves and craft a message to our supporters. The Legacy Academy founding team is slowing things down so that we can spend more time collaborating with the community, researching, and designing. See you in the next round! But I wasn’t sure if I was up for a next round. 

Adderall crutched me for months of sleeping less than 4 hours a night, and the toll was written all over me. My shoulders were squeezed together by default, my voice cracked, and my hands shook. My husband, whom I had spent months being too busy for, was starting to show signs of resentment. He scoffed when I talked about things that excited me and struggled to care about my emotional needs. I became an anxious person, and once Legacy Academy Round Two started to crawl across my calendar, I was just depressed. 

Months went by like days, and again we were coming up on a deadline. We hired a writing assistant and a consultant who advised us that if we wanted to get approved, we would have to set a full curriculum for every course, expand our testing model, and have stronger accountability measures. This was turning out to be the opposite of my reasons for ever starting this journey. I remember a badass uninhibited Regi that was making bold moves in education and every other part of her life, and it scared me to realize how far removed I was from that person. With 48 hours remaining, I looked around at the small team hammering away at the unrecognizable documents and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I anticipated that Kendra would try to talk me down, but instead she asked “Then what do you want to do?” 

I thought about the way High Tech High impacted me. They helped me see education through their lens, and trained me to be an educator who could make the vision happen. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with educators who feel stuck in inequitably contrived systems, and show them the possibilities. I wanted to teach our methods on making real connections with diverse kids. I wanted to truly be in the service of education for Black and Brown people, and this founding process wasn’t it. That night, we went back to our original model and redefined our mission to support existing schools. We renamed the organization Legacy Lens. 

Declaring what I wanted was freeing and I was determined to keep that same energy. I needed to pull myself out of the sunken place and devote my mental, emotional, and physical strength to my own personal reckoning. I deleted all social media, away messaged my emails like it was Summer break, and asked my husband for an indefinite leave of absence. For the next two months my schedule was filled with good sleep, cultural events, and art shows. I started meeting with my mentors, having introspective conversations with my friends, and getting inspired. I’ve filled composition notebooks with short stories, and poems that are helping me synthesize my experience. All this creative energy has been wrapped up and now that I’m emerging from my chrysalis, my wings can be any color I say they are. 

Choosing my colors is a challenge to create a life that reflects me. 10 years ago I was campaigning for class president, killing routines with my modeling troupe, singing in pageants, and winning over the mean ass girls who would become my prophytes. 10 years before then, my grandmother was raising me in one of New York’s most marginalized communities, coaching me through life’s early lessons of poverty, Blackness, and womanhood. I am the sum of all of my experiences, and I’ve decided that my next pursuit will marry my cultural foundations with my flair for performance and the skills that education and career have blessed me with. 

“I’ma be a rapper” 

I couldn’t help but double over in laughter as soon as the words left my lips. My 10 year plan was jam packed with strategic degrees and associations; now in year 7, I’ve decided to add Rapper to my repertoire. That’s hilarious, and I love it. I had been telling myself that life is supposed to read like a triumphant docudrama, instead of valuing it for what it actually is- a situational comedy. My path to the art form is less ordinary, but it’s the perfect preparation to become the artist I want to be. 

Folks are buying and falling in love with a product that is sold to them as Black culture, yet very few of the biggest voices in rap create messages that reflect the truth and legitimacy of the Black experience. Rap is art; just as valuable as the delivery of any work of art is the content. My music will reflect a genuine lived experience and a passion for creative storytelling. Don’t misunderstand me: I know all the lyrics to Ten Crack Commandments, and Act Up will be my shit- all Summer. However, I was never a drug dealer or a stripper who pimped niggas, so telling those stories would be neither a genuine nor valuable way for me to contribute to the culture. My lyrics will paint pictures of the social, emotional, economic, and political experiences that I, and other young women with Black skin have difficulty naming in concise terms. I’m a proactivist, an educator, and a writer, and I will continue being all of those things with my music. I’m thinking less about how to explain who I am, and trying to just be. 

Two days ago, I visited a community center that had been so supportive throughout the chartering process. The staff hadn’t seen me since January so naturally they wanted updates. How’s opening the charter school going? This time, I didn’t experience the anxiety that I used to get when crafting a response to the question. As cool as a cucumber, I responded “It’s on pause, we’re evolving. Now I rap.”

_______________________________________

Update 4/21/ 2019 


Since publishing this article, I've actually written a song, gone to the studio to record it, and put a lyric video out into the world. Check it out below.  

Old Regi pulling through, one action step at a time.

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