In the following excerpts from a 1965 interview, President Lyndon B. Johnson reminisces about his experiences as a classroom teacher. While doing so, he also emphasizes the importance of universal education and the rewards of the teaching profession. The complete transcript of the interview, which was conducted by Robert E. McKay, chairman of the National Education Association, is available at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin.
After my senior year [at Southwest Texas State Teachers College] when I started looking for a job… naturally I looked to [my uncle, George Desha Johnson] because he had been in the teaching profession all of his life. He had taken a degree at the University of Texas and later one at Ann Arbor, Michigan. He came back and taught at Port Arthur and moved in to Houston and became head of the history department at Sam Houston High School. I wrote him and asked him to see if he could help me to get in Houston. Teachers were backed up for several blocks then trying to get in Houston. It was the best system in the state and paid more, had tenure and all of that stuff—you didn't have to change every year. So he went and talked to his friends and tried to help me, and we were unsuccessful. They couldn't tell me for sure that they would need me until they could see if they had a run-over in students. Houston was growing very fast.
So a fellow offered me a job as the principal of a high school at Pearsall, Texas. And he said, "Now, I don't want to give you this job and have you go down there and stay a month or two months and give up the job and go to Houston when the classes run over and they have to get someone and leave me without a principal." I said, "No, I won't do that. If I go with you, I will stay with you."
Uncle George kept working on it. When the classes started running over—school started about the same time in Pearsall and Houston—he talked to the principal and the superintendent, Superintendent Oberholtzer, and a fellow named Moyes—it was W. J. Moyes that was the principal. After I had been at Pearsall about a month, the superintendent sent me a wire and said, "I offer you this job of teaching at two hundred and sixty dollars a month as public-speaking teacher." [This was] in the largest high school in the city and at that time the best, at least one of the best—one of the two best. There was another one very competitive. I wired him back promptly that I'd already accepted this job and I was very interested in Houston and would like to come the next year but I was obligated that year.
That night, I guess it must have been about a Friday, I had a date with one of the teachers and in the course of the conversation she asked me what had happened in Houston and I told her. Saturday night she had a date with the coach. The coach lived with the superintendent. I swore her to secrecy but it didn't matter, she told the coach, and the coach Sunday morning told the superintendent. So Monday morning the superintendent called me in. I thought he was going to lecture me about it. He said that he understood I had an offer and I said, "Yes." He said, "Do you remember our conversation when you told me that you would stay?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "What have you done about it?" I pulled out a copy of the wire I had sent to the superintendent. And he said, "Well, I thank you and I appreciate it." [He said] he thought that that was what I would do, that the coach had told him that he had heard from this lady teacher that I had told her that I had been offered a job, and it had troubled him over the weekend. [He said] that he had a young boy and that if some man in subsequent years happened to be superintendent and refused to release his boy when he had a chance to go into Houston and have the chance to move up, why, he would never forgive him. And [he said] he had thought about it so much that he thought that I ought to go take it. I told him that I couldn't do it, I had turned it down and I was going to stay with him. He said, "I just feel like a criminal tying you here. I will be both superintendent and principal if I have to. But this is such a wonderful opportunity that I want to urge you to take it."
So I got to the telephone in his office and called the superintendent [in Houston]. It was Monday morning and he hadn't acted on my wire yet. I put the superintendent on—my superintendent in Pearsall, a fellow named W. T. Donaho. He now lives at Floresville, Texas; he is retired. Superintendent Oberholtzer told me to come on down so I went down Monday afternoon and began teaching.
I roomed with my uncle George. He let me stay there for what the extra food cost. He had a house but he had his widowed sister and her daughter and had another aunt and uncle who lived there and two daughters, so there were seven or eight of us. As I recall it, the food was about sixteen or eighteen dollars a month extra because I ate there. I slept in the room with him. We would go to work together and come home together and save transportation. I saved a good deal of money, maybe two hundred dollars out of my two hundred and sixty dollars during that period. Then I got to teaching night school and I got a dollar and a half a class for the regular public night school that the system operated and I got five dollars a class for the American Institute of Bankers that I taught. So I got four and a half dollars every night extra, five nights a week, which is about twenty-five dollars extra per week, and I got five dollars for teaching the bankers' class once a week and the two hundred and sixty dollars a month. That was in the depression of 1930–1931, and that was a very good salary and about 20 or 30 percent more than I made down at Pearsall. I taught there from that September 1930 to June 1931 and then taught summer school. Then I came back to register the following September 1931 and taught until November 1931 and I had this job offer as secretary [to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg].
My uncle George thought that I ought to take it and encouraged me to take it, and I did take it. I stayed until 1935 and came back to Texas to be NYA administrator. I had a lot of dealings with the Houston public schools in the NYA program and the University of Houston in the college program. We had jobs for the boys and girls in high school where they could stay in school and not be dropouts and boys and girls in college where they could stay in school.
I was frequently in Houston and I was staying with him the night Mr. [James Paul] Buchanan, the congressman, died—February 22, 1937. He [Uncle George] said he had four or five hundred dollars in the bank at Johnson City and that he would give it to me if I would run for Congress. That put the idea pretty firmly in my mind. I went back and thought about it all day and talked to my wife Sunday—that was Saturday—and announced Sunday evening for the Monday morning papers. That was probably the latter part of February, and I was elected April 10 and came to Congress.
He was a decided influence. He was a very judicious, reserved man, was a bachelor, spent all of his life working with children and loved them and loved his teaching work. He would go to the University of Colorado and various universities in the summertime. And he took all he saved and took care of his widowed sisters or some other members of his family he needed to. He was a wonderful person. I think he was loved by every human being; I never heard of anyone saying a word against Uncle George. His name was George Desha Johnson and he was named after the Deshas of Kentucky. One of them, his mother's people, had been governor of the state; two of his brothers, one had been congressman, Kentucky, one [had been] congressman, Tennessee, and [another] one had been major general of the War of 1812. They are very proud of that French name Desha. So everyone called him George Desha Johnson.
… He, like Dr. [Cecil E.] Evans, was a great influence in my life, and one of the pioneer educators in Texas. [Evans] was president of the school I attended [Southwest Texas State Teachers College]. He was president for some thirty years, I guess. He died working for us after he was retired. Misfortune befell him and Mrs. Johnson gave him a job working for the television station, reviewing the programs and criticizing them and so forth. He died working for us, but I worked for him as student secretary for several years.
He and Uncle George both had the same idea and the same viewpoint and frequently expressed it, that teaching was a very wonderful profession. It gave a man satisfaction that he could never get out of making money, but it did have one drawback—the teacher was the law unto himself in the classroom and it wasn't a competitive operation. They felt that either law or politics would bring out [more of what was in you than] teaching because if you are in a courtroom talking to a jury, or if you are on the stump debating with a man, or if you are in a legislative hall trying to present a pro and somebody's there to present a con, you have to prepare and develop and react and be alert to an extent that it is not required if you are in a classroom with thirty young boys and you know it all and they don't. So as a result, over the years the teachers are really not as competitive; it is not as competitive a profession. They both frequently expressed to me that they hoped that I would get out of the teaching profession for which I had trained myself and I had been to school.
I really liked the college teaching and I think I would have gone into that in government. I think I would have gone back to my alma mater and taught government. I taught it for two or three years. I taught freshman government in the college that I attended. I liked that because it was more competitive and the students had more curiosity and you had more debating and more give-and-take and more differences of opinion, more challenges. It was not unlike the sit-ins that we have now. The youngsters that were in my class were constantly raising questions about the constitutional government and the necessity for revolutions here and there and the requirement that we have social changes and so forth. And I like that. In grade school it was more administrative in dealing with younger students and I didn't like that too much. I just stayed with it for a year. In high school it was reasonably good because we were debating all the time. I was a college debater. I said yesterday to a group I was talking to, I won the state championship in the college group with the freshman, the only freshman on their team in the history of the college, on the subject: "Resolved, that the Marines should intervene in Nicaragua in 1928."
So I think if I had stayed another year, I would have gone back with Dr. Evans and taught government as I had done. I would have had a regular schedule of about five courses. I taught two. They paid the student teacher fifty-five dollars a month. They wouldn't let anyone teach except when they got in their senior year. They let seniors teach freshmen because you were old enough and they would respect your being a senior and so forth. When I was a sophomore I had taken all the government they had and all the history they offered and I had A's in it, and I demanded that they allow me to be a student instructor because academically I was entitled to it, but by my age and by my year I wasn't entitled to it. Dr. Evans wouldn't allow it and the head of the department was anxious to let me do it. So the head of the department was testifying before the Senate on the annual appropriations bills, and they had asked him about how many student assistants he had. He told them and said that he would like to have some more, but they wouldn't let him have them because one of them was a sophomore. And one of the senators from the district said, "What difference would it make if he was a sophomore or a junior or a senior if he has finished everything you've got and he is competent to teach it and you can get him for fifty-five dollars a month? Why do we have to put on a four-hundred-dollar-a-month man here for this?" So they asked the old college president that and that gave him an excuse to break the rule. So he broke the rule and as a sophomore I started teaching freshman government. Then I got another class, I got two classes of it. I made fifty-five dollars a month, and I taught them the rest of the time. That's the work I really liked best—was on the college campus. I taught one or two other subjects, maybe history I believe I took on one time.
I felt about my students very much like I feel about my staff. I associated with them a lot socially. I would go into their homes and I would be with their family and would take them into my home, particularly the leading debaters and the ones that were on the teams. If they would take one side of a question I would take the other. I would just try to run them underground, just almost stomp them, but always made it clear that I loved them where they never ran completely off. But I’d humiliate them and embarrass them and I would make fun of them and everything until they got to where they could take care of themselves, which they did. I developed several better speakers—much better—than I was.
When I came to Washington, I had a room down here with five of us, and I slept with four of my former students in a little basement room in the Dodge Hotel, L. E. Jones and Gene Latimer and some other boys. I brought them up here and they worked for my congressional office and later went into government service. L. E. was the secretary to a Supreme Court justice. [He was a] brilliant young lawyer and was the best debater that we had. And Cesar Ortiz is now at the United Nations. He's down into the Dominican Republic as a matter of fact on a United Nations team now. He was a little fellow, small, about the size of Jack Valenti, and he could stand up and really bark out the answers to questions.
I tried to do more than just to have them read the textbooks before them. I thought that was basic that they do that, but I made them put it into practice. We had sixty-seven debates and we lost one the year I was there and we lost that, the state championship of Texas, 3 to 2. It was on: "Resolved, that the jury system should be abolished." We had no trouble on the side that it shouldn't be abolished. But when we had the affirmative we always had trouble but we would always win. This time when they pulled the ballot out we drew the affirmative, and I just almost cried when they drew the affirmative. Then we debated and we won it, I thought, just on points. But they drew it out and they said affirmative and that brought smiles, and then negative and then affirmative and then negative and then they waited a long time and it was negative and we lost it by one vote 3-2 and it was the state championship or else we would have been undefeated.
… Every debate, every time they brought in the judges' decision, I would just look at them and smile like I stuck in my thumb and pulled out a big plum and say, "My, how proud am I!" I remember after we lost the state championship 3 to 2, we took the state champion. I took what we called an all-city team, I took Johnny Crooker of Houston who is a great businessman now and a fine lawyer. He was a youngster that was on a team that we had defeated within the city. I took one of my boys that was defeated with the state and a boy we had defeated and I put those two and they debated the state champions and got a unanimous decision. That is why I always thought we ought to have the state championship. But to see them stand up there and defeat the state champions without a note in their hands on a subject with such basic and fundamental importance as maintaining a jury system. Children just in high school with no constitutional history backgrounds, with no governmental backgrounds but the best of their feeling that the jury was essential, that part of the Bill of Rights was absolutely. I remember the lead on the story—they said that the jury system was still standing Friday night after waddling for an hour period in Sam Houston High School. The boy that wrote the story, that was his lead. But we had won it and we drew the negative—that the jury system should be abolished. So it was a great satisfaction as a teacher to see those boys putting in the tricks and the understandings and judiciousness and all these approaches and techniques we had in the debate.
I used to have pep rallies before debating contests. I'd have people get up and sing songs and I'd have people hurrah for Jones and Latimer just like you would for the football team. And at Sidney Lanier High School in Houston, we had them running out of their seats. The night of the debate you couldn't get in. Every place was taken in the balcony, every one on the floor, and they were sitting in the windows to hear the debate. And we had prizes—five hundred dollars a child. The editor there, a fellow named "Mefo," M. E. Foster—he was editor of the Houston Press—took a couple of thousand dollars and gave them to me for prizes and called them the Mefo Awards. He'd write a column about once a month about this debating team. And we got the interest in the high school so excited in debate just as much as the football game. He started off by saying how pathetic it was that here we couldn't get the student group [interested], that five thousand of them showed up at a football game, but at the first debate contest we had for the city championship we had seven people present. Other than the members of the faculty, the coach on each side, and maybe a substitute that was to go in, we only had seven. He said that not even the parents would go to listen to their own children debate.
But we cured that. Before the end of the year, you couldn't get a seat in Sidney Lanier. And when we debated the state champions, we had them standing out in the halls and trying to hear it. So you can create interest. We had pep rallies and things like that to create interest, pretty girls to come, you know, with their uniforms on. We gave them sweaters, when they made the team, won the city championship; they had a circle one year and two years they were likely to get a football. And it had the insignia of the high school on it. We gave them a nice sweater and called them lettermen, the women the same way. They also had a charm that we gave them and that they wore, kind of like the National Honor Society, that they had made the debate team.
We had them competing with the football team. As a matter of fact, my top debater ran against the [captain] of the football team as the most representative student of the school and won it in the school. He was more popular than the captain of the football team, which was never heard of before. We put an emphasis on that, and we put some of the showmanship and some of the carnival spirit into it as you do in a football game. The more discussion you have like that, and the more expressions and difference of opinion you have like that, the better off it is.
If every child born could acquire all the education that their intelligence quotient permitted them to take, God only knows what our gross national product would be. The strength that we would add to our nation militarily, diplomatically, economically is too large even to imagine. There is no investment that we could make that would return such high dividends. If we could just assume when a child is born that that child was going to be trained until it reached the point that it could no longer profit from that training and that if the economic situation in the individual family did not exist, that the government would provide the scholarship or the loan or grant or whatever you wanted. To see that brought about, you would eliminate your slums and largely your crime and certainly your poverty programs and things of that nature. Because all of these things that we frown upon and that give us problems in this country ultimately are traceable to the dropout or to the lack of education or to environment or to health problems or something else which could be cured by giving to every person the right to acquire all the education that he or she could take.
I would tell [young people] that the satisfaction that one gets out of life is really what you live for. Some people get satisfaction out of making money. Some people get satisfaction out of being heroes. But the satisfaction that is most satisfying and gives you the biggest kick and thrill and the greatest enjoyment is doing something for humanity and helping lead and develop and watch it grow. Just like the farmer likes to plant a seed and see it grow into a plant and blossom out and turn into a boll and be harvested, just like the father likes to see his boy come along in rompers and then grow into short pants and then change into long pants, a teacher likes to take the child and see him develop. If I had to start life over again I would feel now as I did almost fifty years ago that I would want to be either a teacher or a preacher or a politician. Because as a teacher or a preacher or a public servant, you are dealing with human beings, you are dealing with humanity, you are concerned with people.
I saw a sign on a big air force base someplace, I believe at Bergstrom near my home, and it said, "Peace Is Our Mission," and they had the big B-52s out there and the bombers and they've protected us from World War III now for the thirty years, or, well, let's see, we ended in 1945—twenty years. For twenty years they said, "Peace Is Our Mission." Well, I would say that I would like for the children that I bring into the world or children that I could influence to feel that people are their mission—doing something for people. We've got a big job to do in this country. We got 20 percent of our people living off less than three thousand dollars a year and no one can do that in the way and manner that we want him to. But most of the world lives off of one hundred dollars per person per year.
A preacher dealing with the spiritual side of life, a political leader dealing with the economic or political side of life, or a teacher dealing with the human and educational side of life, that is where I would want to be. I wouldn’t like to be building great towers or big dams as an engineer or big banks as a banker or a big insurance company as a businessman. All those things are essential, but the thing that would give me the greatest satisfaction is dealing with human beings and watching the development of those human beings. And if I were a teacher, I think that they can get a satisfaction from the end product, the thirty children in their classroom and see how they grow and develop, that never can be represented in a paycheck.
I think they have got to be concerned about their paychecks because they have been mistreated. The first job I had really in politics was [as] a lobbyist for the Houston Teachers Association. I went to Austin before the state legislature and stayed several weeks trying to get a tax on cigarettes to go into teachers' salaries, as a young teacher my first year. And we have been very derelict in that the teachers, usually, and the preacher are the most underpaid people in the community. They had the best training and get less reward for it financially. And we must constantly be moving them up so that they can live in dignity and adequately and I am not going to underestimate it. But that is not the reward they get.
When I leave this job, I want to go back to right where I started in some college classroom and walk in at five minutes of eight and wait for the students to march in and sit down, and then start challenging them and provoking them and stimulating them and getting the best out of them for an hour. And then I am going to be sorry when the bell rings.