Poet Ellen Johnston Pops Corks For Budding Writers at P.H.S.

You never know who might inspire others to write. My success with the following article certainly helped my writing bug grow. Originially published October 13, 1982 in my high school newspaper, The Viking Page, this article one 1st place in Individual Feature writing at the North Carolina Scholastic Press Association convention held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983. I also took away first place in Individual News writing, and our newspaper captured 2nd Overall in our division. The convention was my first trip to Chapel Hill, and the experience cemented my desicion to pursue writing at UNC-CH rather than engineering at NC State. Ironically, I've ended up in a technical career in telecommunications, but I've never stopped writing.

Poet Ellen Johnston has been called a cork popper.

And if the effervescence released through her short stay at Plymouth High School a few weeks ago is any indication, then she has been aptly named.

"I'm trying to pop corks and show teachers and students that they are poets, too, that they can make magic with words and language," Johnston said.

Nicknamed "Mrs. J" by her former students, Johnston resigned from her teaching job at North Mecklenburg Senior High in 1976 to "be free to spread the word that poetry is alive and well and to show teachers how they can use it as a total learning experience," she said.

In 1974, after she published her first book, So What Happened to You?, she had an opportunity to visit schools in the Charlotte area and talk about how and why she wrote. She enjoyed it.


She soon found out about the poetry in the schools program, so she took her spring vacation, went to Pembroke Senior High and tried out for the job. "When I moved, I didn't have any guaranteed job, and all of my friends thought I was going down the drain," the tall poet chuckled, "but I figured I could always wait on tables if the poetry didn't work out."

The most exciting thing "Mrs. J" is doing now is getting kids to write. "Some magic has happened in Plymouth. This is my biggest excitement--popping corks, letting others see that they are poets," the animated poet declared.

Other than poetry, Johnston's biggest interest is people and helping them be creative. "I'm trying to use artificial respiration, I guess, to wake up the poet in everybody," she explained.

Poetry is fun, "Mrs. J" states. "I need to write. I write humorously sometimes. Sometimes I rhyme and sometimes I don't, but I love it. I know I can always keep getting better," she said.

Johnston's interest in poetry began at an early age. Her parents, she recalls, would leave little poems on her pillow when they went out. Her daddy even taught the multiplication tables by rhyming. "I always thought poems had to rhyme," she said, but that is one belief she does not necessarily adhere to today.

"I'm always telling everybody, 'Don't rhyme! Don't rhyme! Rhyme can get in the way of what you really want to say," the pipe smoking poet insists. I'm just gradually beginning to realize that some rhyme and some don't," she added, her ink-stained hands moving constantly to emphasize her point.

Besides working with students as a poet in the schools, Johnston also holds workshops, writes books, and tapes television programs to help teachers.

"I want teachers to learn about the writing process, getting words down after focusing on an image, finding dynamite verbs and strong nouns instead of a lot of weak modifiers, and rewriting and developing poetry into a strong experience," she said.

Teachers, she maintains, are afraid of teaching poetry because their college professors had them constantly analyzing it. "It's discouraging and they don't have confidence in themselves," she said.

Perhaps Ellen Johnston can best be summed up by her own poetry. In "They Worry About Me", she describes the way her students perceive her:

I thought for a long while

they were kidding.

They'd say

"You're crazy, Mrs. J."

I'd just smile,

I didn't take it as a slap.

only a small love-pat.


And crazy she is in a dynamic, creative, and champagne kind of way. But what else can one expect of a popper of corks?

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 1982, 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url: http://hubpages.com/_ndwcopyright/hub/Poet-Ellen-Johnston-Pops-Corks-For-Budding-Writers-at-PHS

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DonnaCSmith 8 years ago from Central North Carolina

Have you done an internet search to see what she is doing now?

dineane profile image

dineane 7 years ago from North Carolina Author

I could have sworn I answered this a long time ago! yes, I did try to find her, but didn't have much success.

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