Anae Johnson appears nervous in the spotlight, as some of our interview subjects often do. We ask about tuna casserole, grilled cheese on the skillet, and baking, and she glances around, messes with her hair, and sometimes falls quiet. “In the future?” She muses in response to a question about her career. She smiles, “I’d like to be a cook.”
a Bright Future
She’s a senior this year at Meridian, but it’s a miracle she’s here at all. Anae was an early birth with complications that placed her in the NICU in a highly unstable condition. “One in 1,000 babies born as early as Anae survive,” Rebecca Ward, Anae’s mother, tells us. Rebecca, a Cairo letter carrier, firmly believes her frequent trips to St. Louis and physical presence in the intensive care ward made the difference in Anae’s remarkable recovery. She describes rooms of babies otherwise unvisited. “A nurse told me, ‘You’re doing more than most,’ by being here,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca marvels that Anae has recovered far more than those around her expected. At one point, Anae was told she’d have to use a wheelchair and lose other accessibility. “All I know is that for all the things they said she wasn’t going to do,” Rebecca says, “We are ecstatic with what she can do.” Today Rebecca is responsible for Anae’s love of cooking, especially tuna casserole. “She’s like a big breakfast eater,” Rebecca explains while Anae fights a smirk, “She’ll get out of school and cook her some eggs and sausage and pancakes.”
The youngest of eight children and with a hard knowledge inherited from a coal miner mother, Rebecca understands the importance of quality time with family. The learning opportunities they develop together usually happen on road trips. “I take them to the places that they see on TV,” Rebecca says, “I always ask them what they want to see…[Anae] liked ‘Full House,’ so we went to that house…the Golden Gate Bridge.” For Rebecca, giving Anae and her brothers a reference in the real world for what’s on screen is a rare lesson in how nothing is “ideal,” it always has a real, hands-on counterpart. Even the illusions of television have seams.
“It ain’t a rainbow bright world,” Rebecca explains, stopping in her tracks to steady her mailbag. She points at nobody in particular. “People are cruel…I try to teach my children that nobody’s going to take care of you unless you try to take care of yourself.” Right now, she’s working closely with Anae, so Anae knows she can do anything without using her disorder as a crutch. One plan on the table is culinary school, and while she wants her daughter to embrace all accommodations made for her, she doesn’t want the lack of those accommodations to discourage her. “There’s help,” she says in summary. In other words, there’s no excuse: you take advantage of the services and live your life, no matter your circumstances. How she feels about Anae’s future is similar to the attitude she wishes more young people would embrace: “Get out and do what you want. Get out and do what you want and not wait for it to be handed to them.” Rebecca knows futures won’t be stuck in every mailbox as a promotional mailer anytime soon. That’s why she takes the initiative herself.
Rebecca does much like she preaches. On top of being Cairo’s mail carrier supreme, she rents photo booths, provides drinks, caters, and rents entertainment like bouncy houses to clubs and private venues. She tries to lead her children by the example of what it means to go out of our way to work for your kids, to support them throughout unexpected needs, and, as Rebecca says, “to lead them.”
She corrects herself, and the correction says it all about her approach as a parent and a human being: “Not lead them but see what they want.” Rebecca has a pretty good idea she sees what children like her daughter want, and that’s what motivated her to serve on the school board. If there’s one route to help future students chase down positive outcomes, then it’s through examining how, where, and through which mechanisms our kids are receiving “education.” Rebecca wants to be behind the curtain and observe the machinery spinning, so she can keep a close eye on resource allocation for the sake of the student, the public, and for the sake of transparency in general.
Rebecca brings a dedication born of love to her work, her community, and her family. She is the one who drove those cold, dark miles to and from that Saint Louis ICU; she is the one who delivers the mail no matter what is falling from the sky, and she is the one who leads her family through example and personal accountability. Anae is lucky to have her. The Meridian school community is lucky to have her. And we’re lucky to have had the opportunity to meet them both.
I try to teach my children that nobody’s going to take care of you unless you try to take care of yourself.
Rebecca Ward, Anae's mother, is a postal carrier in Cairo.
- Rebecca Ward