DIXON – Name a school operated by Dixon Public Schools in the past 4 decades, and Ruth Johnson has taught in each of them.
Name any size of classroom within each of those schools, and Johnson has taught in each of them.
For 33 years, Johnson taught various kinds of music to various grades at various buildings and in various rooms. The final note comes June 6, when she retires.
“My husband [Dave] is older than I am, and he’s ready to be done,” Johnson said. “My kids are at the point to where they’re on their own. Life’s too short to work all of the time.”
Johnson, 57, concludes her teaching career having been in the same Madison Elementary classroom for 4 years, teaching rhythm, melody and recorders to fourth-graders, and band and keyboards to fifth-graders.
Her current classroom of about 30 desks and several large instruments was once the Madison Junior High lunchroom. It’s a far cry from cramped quarters such as the electrical room at Washington Elementary.
One of the first arts teachers hired by the district after massive budget cuts in the early 1980s, Johnson worked just 6 weeks at Washington before she became the full-time band director at Madison Junior High – the predecessor to the current Reagan Middle School – in fall 1986.
Teaching band to students that age was among her favorite times.
“I love beginning band,” Johnson said. “For a long time, Reagan was a fifth- through eighth-grade building, and I had all four grade levels. That was my favorite time.”
Middle school music now is taught by high school teachers, and they perform in Dixon High School purple and white uniforms. The Reagan Patriot red, white and blue gear currently sits in storage, and Johnson hopes that about $30,000 worth of uniforms can be brought out of the dark, with proceeds going back to the band.
With music programs shrinking at schools across the nation, Johnson has become a survivor of sorts. Her full-time middle school band position was cut a few years ago, and she was shuffled into a regular second-grade teaching position for a year. It served as a reminder from her first teaching gig, a long-term substitute position in Belvidere right out of college in January 1986.
“I reinforced that I didn’t want to do a classroom, I wanted to do music,” Johnson said.
Johnson begins each class with her students singing a song. This month, it’s “Keep the Music Going,” which she had her choir students perform at a Dixon school board meeting in March. The whole Madison student body sang it at its year-end assembly on May 21.
“I enjoy finally getting to see the kids when they first succeed,” Johnson said. “At the beginning, they don’t know which end of the horn to put in their mouth, and when they get that first song down, their eyes light up.”
Although her teaching days are winding down, it doesn’t mean she’s done learning new things. The fifth-graders are performing in a class bucket band, with as many as 26 kids banging on 5-gallon buckets to songs from Bill Haley’s 1950s dance hit “Rock Around the Clock,” to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” from 2014.
“It’s getting them to realize that everything is important,” Johnson said. “Even things they don’t like, it’s still important to know them. You don’t have to like everything you do, but there are certain things that you should know a little bit about. You may not be a horn player, but you need to know what a horn is. It’s that kind of thing.
“You have to take every kid individually and you do what you can with everyone. You hope that they get something out of everything.”
The Johnsons bought a house in Florida a year ago; Dave lives there now and works as a parking attendant at Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Ruth said she plans to alternate back and forth between Dixon and Florida to help her son get through college, and she’ll continue to perform in the Dixon Municipal Band.
“I’m going to miss just doing it, but I’m looking forward to not doing it,” she said. “I’m looking forward to spending cold winters not having to worry about snow days, being in Florida where it’s nice and warm and not having to shovel.”
Music education in Dixon schools will have a different look and feel in the coming years, not just at Madison. High school music teachers Steve Boll and Denise Ewers will retire after next year, along with Nadie Wirchnianski at Jefferson.
Johnson has high hopes that the music program will continue to evolve and grow.
“In 4 years, I’m hoping it’s bigger and better.”