The Road to Hopkins: An Interview with Johnnie Johnson

By Pava Lepere

In the wake of the Hopkins administration revoking the decades-old covered grades policy, one of the biggest arguments against the decision has been that the semester of academic immunity helps students, especially those from adverse backgrounds, transition from high school into college life. But for some students, the difference between pre-Hopkins life and Hopkins can be so profound that it’s hard to see how any policy could ease the changing tides. Such is the case for Johnnie Johnson, a JHU freshman who is known not only for her big smile and bright attitude, but also for the story of the road that led her to Hopkins.  

Q: I hear that you have a very inspiring story concerning your life before Hopkins. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about that. 


A: Prior to coming to Hopkins, I lived out of a car with my father. I think that might be what people are referring to when they talk about my story. I usually don’t talk about it; I don’t tell anyone unless they ask me directly. But sometimes people go “Why don’t you just go back home?” and I’m like “I can’t, and this is why” and they are all “Oh, I’m so sorry I just asked you that.” (Laughs)


Q: So how did you get from your home to living in the car, and then from the car to going to Hopkins? You could say it’s a pretty big transition moving between those three places. 


A: (Laughs) I lived in a car during high school and middle school. When I was a kid I didn’t realize what was going on. To me, it felt like I had a happy family: my dad, my sisters, and of course my mom. We weren’t rich, we weren’t poor, but in my mind I was like “We have everything we need, we have each other!” My dad put my mom through school, where I was born and grew up in Parkville, Tennessee. It’s not the most racially accepting town. There were always some troubles there. (Laughs) But I said, “Hey, I got the family. I’m good”

When my mom finally got out of school, a lot of things changed. My dad got ousted out of his jobs a couple times because he was taking care of me. If I had a half day of school, he would be like “I’ll come get you. I’m not going to leave you there for half the day” and then people were like “We can’t keep you Mr. Johnson.” With my dad, it’s always a matter of “my children come first.” That’s always been his philosophy. So I thought everything was fine at first, but then that’s when things went downhill.

I remember my mom would talk about the things that we didn’t have. We didn’t have a big screen TV, we didn’t have a nice car. It was always something we just didn’t have. At some point, it was her tired of being poor. When I was younger I felt really bad. I was like “Can I clean more? Can I cook more? Is there something I could do to make you want to stay?” because in my mind, I was the foundation of all her poorness.

Now I laugh about it, but I was really hurt back then. My dad, he would sit down and say to my mom “You don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to. I’m not going to stop you from living your life, I don’t mind taking the girls.” My mom was never really upfront about anything. She would say nothing is wrong, and my dad always trusted her.

But then we got a notice on our house and my mom disappeared. She had already gotten her stuff, so when we came back, all there was was the notice on the door. That very night, we packed everything we could into a Lincoln town car with a wagon attached to it, and we left the city. We went to Tulsa, Oklahoma because he had some family he thought maybe could help us get back on our feet, but they had their own issues, and they kicked us out.

At one point, when I got strep throat my dad couldn’t give me the medicine I needed and he wanted to send me back to my mom. At this point, I’m like “I’d rather sit here and choke and not eat than go back with my mom,” so I ended up staying. My mom would call and I didn’t feel like talking to her, but my dad encouraged me to call her. He tried to keep the relationship between me and her going. That’s how my mom ended up living in Tulsa.

(Laughs) It’s not funny, but my dad actually lost his job again because I asked him to come get me from school. He had coordinated his hours so that he worked while I was in school. But when I asked “Can you come get me?” he was on his way. He got fired for doing that. Seriously, that’s like the main reason why he got fired. (Laughs)

While all of this was going on, I did have some good times with my mom. We watched shows together, we went to the movies together, we hung out, relaxed, chilled. Then a small problem became a very large problem. I have two elder sisters, and it’s sad to say, but compared to me they went off the deep end. Neither one graduated from high school. 


Q: Where are they now?


A: I haven’t talked to them in some years. I believe my eldest sister is in Oklahoma and the other one is in California. My sisters had their thing where they didn’t want to be controlled, where they felt like they had found the guy of their dreams, and they ran off. My dad told my sister “You don’t need to be around these guys who have done 5 years and are proud of it” and so I ended up going to Massachusetts for several months, because basically, my sister tried to get my dad thrown in jail. 


Q: Well you came from extremely hard circumstances, but still made it to Hopkins. Tell me about that.


A: The most consistent person in my life is my dad. When it came to education, he would sit down and do my studies with me, read with me, make sure I was spending the hours to go get help with my work. He would let me stay after school, and come get me when I was ready to go.  He always believed in me. In a way he became like a personal trainer for me. He would keep me healthy, he would talk to me all the time about life lessons. He has been my number one hype man, trainer, coach, everything for me, my entire life. 

When me and my mom were talking about going to school at Johns Hopkins, she laughed it off. My mom never gave me that feeling that she believed in me. She would say things to me like “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” but I’m here working my butt off in school right now, doing everything I possibly can to get to a place where I have these opportunities.

My high school didn’t know anything about my home situation until that senior year, because I needed my applications paid for to send to the schools. Everyone was like “Just pay for this” and I’m like “I can’t.” Everyone wondered why, and I was like “I go home each day, and there’s not always food.” 

When I got accepted to Hopkins, it was a grand, grand moment indeed. I didn’t believe it, I saw the giant ‘YES’, my dad was almost moved to tears. I remember sitting there, like “Wow, it actually panned out.” But that was a really difficult year dealing with my mom. She didn’t want to give up total custody of me, but she wasn’t trying to be around. When I was able to come to school, things fell apart in the house. My dad decided to move to Baltimore. I swear for a minute my mom went crazy. One day my dad was packing up my stuff into the car and my mom called the police on us. She did that several times as I was trying to come to Hopkins. 


That it’s really easy to sink into that darkness, to think about everything you have lost and to forget what you have.

Q: What was her goal?


A: (Laughs) I don’t know what her goal was. I haven’t talked to my mom in over a year. In that final year of school, it felt like we didn’t have a real relationship anymore. It seemed like no matter what, she didn’t have an answer for me. She was always “I don’t know what I was thinking.” So when the next situation came up, it was like “Okay, why are you doing this?” and there was never an answer. 


Q: So what are you planning to do after Hopkins? What are you studying?


A: Currently I am double majoring in French Language and Culture and Material Science, and I’m pre-med. I would like to become a cardiologist, so I want to go to medical school. On the occasion I don’t make it in, my majors are really great, so who cares! Other than getting into the medical field, who knows, maybe have a small business. But I always imagine being able to hang out with my dad and be like “Hey Dad, I’m a doctor now!” (Laughs)


Q: Without your dad around, did you seek out mentors when you came to Hopkins?


A: I didn’t actively look for anything. When I first came to Hopkins, I stayed for a month in the Hop-In program. I didn’t hate it. But I internalize a lot of things, so in the program, no one knew I was feeling like crap half the time. I would look around and everyone would be so carefree. Everyone would ask why I had so much stuff with me, well that was all the stuff I owned. They would ask why I didn’t go home, and I’m like “That’s our home, right there. It’s rolling away.”


Q: What’s your main reason for not really telling people about your past?


A: It’s basically that idea of everyone has a story. Everyone has things that they’ve been through. You don’t really know who you are talking to, who you are meeting, until they open up and go “this is the pain I’ve felt in my life.” There are plenty of people out there who have been through things, who may feel a lot more terrible than they ever let on. They may seem like any other student sitting with their friends, hanging out and laughing, so the least I can do is try and be considerate by not complaining all the time. For every person who can look outside of their own troubles and try to see someone else’s, they just made the world a whole lot better of a place.


Q: If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone who is going through what you went through, what would you say to them?


A: That it’s really easy to sink into that darkness, to think about everything you have lost and to forget what you have. It’s easy to complain about having no shoes until you see the man who has no feet. It’s easy just to sit there and brood and think you are alone in this corner of darkness. But it truly is a matter of staying positive. That’s way easier said than done, but it’s something to keep in mind. Also, consider other people, even when you don’t feel like it. Try to keep that overall kindness in mind. As much as I want other people to consider what I’m going through, I can’t expect them to do it if I’m not willing to. It’s truly amazing what you can do when you are considerate. I’m not gonna lie, there are going to be some buttheads, and you’ll want to drop kick them on the spot. But no matter what you do, don’t drop kick them, you’re better than that.

For every person who can look outside of their own troubles and try to see someone else’s, they just made the world a whole lot better of a place.