BY LOGAN MCCOURTNEY –
Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that counts. It’s the life in the years.” What Lincoln meant was that one could live a long life, but never really live life to the fullest. In other words, when someone gets to the end of their years, what will be the mark of their lives? Tommy Johnson, teacher at Mena Middle School, is living a life that boldly embodies this vision that Lincoln described.
Tommy has called Mena home for nearly all his life. Despite moving away from Mena for a period of time, his heart has always been in Mena, and his heart will continue to be here. Tommy was born in Southern California, but at the age of two, his dad was transferred to US Motors [Now Nidec] and his family moved to Mena. Though he wasn’t born in Arkansas, he considers Arkansas to be his home state, a fact made clear if you talk with Tommy very long about the Razorbacks. Growing up in Mena provided a lot of fun memories for Tommy, fishing and hunting in the beautiful Ouachita Mountains and playing sports made for a fun childhood. “I can still remember playing ball in the old gym during lunch and after school,” recalls Tommy with a smile. He thinks that Mena is the best place to be, the diamond in the rough so to speak. Grinning, Tommy says, “I thought every place must have been like Mena, it’s so great here, I just imagined that it would all be like here.”
For a period of time, Tommy lived in the Little Rock area fulfilling a couple of different roles. Before getting married, he worked as a youth director at a church, an opportunity that only grew his heart for students. Around this time, Tommy was thinking through the calling on his life and really felt compelled to teach. In accordance with this passion, he went back to school at the University of Central Arkansas and earned his teaching certification and coaching endorsement. “All the great teachers I had in Mena and their positive influence on my life was my inspiration to become a teacher,” says Tommy humbly.
After getting married to his wife Karen, he taught and coached at the Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock while Karen taught Special Education at Bryant. While enjoying what they were doing, Tommy and Karen wanted to be back in Mena with family. “We were having our son, Robert, and he was going to be the first grandson. I wanted my parents to be able to experience that and so we took a big leap of faith and came back to Mena without even having a job yet.” Upon arriving home in Mena, there weren’t any teaching opportunities available, so, Tommy started working at the Mena Star as a sports writer in 2004. When an opportunity opened up to teach at the school, he jumped on it and couldn’t be more excited about what he is doing. “I wake up everyday at 5 a.m. genuinely excited about the day. I have the best job, I like to say that I’m blessed and fortunate.”
Currently, Tommy is teaching 8th grade history and is the assistant senior high baseball coach. According to his son, Robert, a junior at Mena High School, this is the only sport his dad had not coached or helped coach since coming to Mena. In addition to coaching baseball for the first time at Mena, Tommy is helping coach Robert for the first time, an opportunity that he cherishes. “It’s been a blast to be around him and help coach. This is the first time I have ever coached a team he was apart of.” Teaching is more to Tommy than transferring information, it is about ‘shaping the whole student.’ “I tell players all the time, I don’t play or coach for winning or losing, it’s much bigger than that,” says Tommy. His goal is to shape students and players emotionally, socially, physically, and mentally. “We do an injustice to students when we just give them information. I want to help shape them for their future, for the lives they will live when they leave here.”
Tommy loves and believes in the community as much or more than anyone to be found. “I am so lucky that I have the students I have. They are such great kids and that speaks to our community,” says Tommy proudly. He believes that his job as an educator is important because he wants to have the impact on students that his teachers had on him. “I remembered thinking that my teachers and coaches loved what they did, that impressed me. I’m a lucky guy, I get to come to school each day and see these great students.”
The students that have the opportunity to pass through Tommy’s class are fortunate to have someone that cares so deeply. He doesn’t think that he is the only one teaching. “Everyday these students are teaching me. I learn just as much from them as they from me.” Students and faculty alike are fortunate to have the opportunity to be around Tommy, his care and joy are appreciated throughout the community.