Alvin Johnson was among the first 60 students to start at TSCS in 2005 and was in the school’s first graduating class in 2012. We recently caught up with him at his post at U.S. Army base Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska to ask about the journey that has so far taken him from Soulsville around the world.
TSCS: What years/grades did you attend the charter school?
AJ: During my tenure at Soulsville, I began in the first 6th grade class of the school, under the direction of Dr. David Hill, when it was named The Stax Music Academy Charter School. I went on the be a part of the first graduating class and by that time it was named The Soulsville Charter School.
TSCS: Can you tell me basically what that experience was like. You were one of the earliest students. Did it change much before you graduated?
AJ: In the beginning years of the school, the experiences of the school were new and not like anything we had experienced before. There was no school in the city, in my opinion, which would have prepared us for Soulsville and its level of discipline, structure, and commitment. One aspect of the school that would surprise anyone is the intimacy of the school. Classes are not too big, teachers had more of an opportunity to have one-on-one moments with students, and it gave us students a real opportunity to really get to know one another. We didn’t really have the popular club or the jock club or the nerd club. We were all just “us.” Don’t get me wrong, we all had our particular group of friends but at the end of the day, we really were one big family of students and teachers alike.
Teachers had such personal bonds to the students to the point that teachers would cry and have very emotional moments and reach out to the individual families when a family member of a student died. In my own personal experience, I remember when Mr. D took my brother and me in and let us stay with him for a bit while our mother was dealing with medical issues. The point is that we were so close to each other that our personal lives were intertwined; hence I say we were extremely intimate.
Growing up in the school, if you asked any of us that made it from the original class, we always felt like the Guinea pigs. Everything that we had to adapt to from the changes, new rules, new uniforms, new teachers every year, new principals, the concerts that we performed, attending school 8:00am to 5:00pm daily, and let’s not forget the every other “Saturday school.” It was all tough on us. One idea that never changed was that every single rule that the school has now undeniably came from our class, and we took the brunt of all of the experimental stages of the school. As far as the school changing since I have left, I can’t really speak to that. Being in the military so long and being away for so long, I have not had much of a chance to see and experience the internal differences of the school. But what I have been surprised about is the school gym, the independence of the school aside from the [Stax Music] academy, the national recognition, and the museum, along with the future endeavors, that were only a dream when I was there.
TSCS: What were your teachers like?
AJ: The teachers were like family for the most part. In my opinion, some of the teachers came and did their job, but there were others that actually engaged with us and got to know us as humans and not just children. At the end of the day, we all came from different backgrounds.
TSCS: Do you think the school helped prepare you for what you would do after graduation?
AJ: In my tenure at the school, I would honestly have to say that the school did not prepare me for the real world in some ways but did in other ways. It definitely educated on a scholastic level but dealing with the world that we came from, our particular neighborhoods, there was no way the school could help us manage the ever-existing problems that we faced. But it did, in its own way, teach us that there are multiple experiences, viewpoints, and opportunities to live that we would not have been exposed to without the school. In turn, I would say they did prepare us for the outside world in some ways by teaching us that we did not have to settle for the stereotypes of our environment.
TSCS: You made the decision to join the military. Was that because it would pay for your college education or out of service to the country or both?
AJ: Initially, my decision to join the military was based out of service to country. But after serving some time, I realized that the military offered more opportunities than I could have imagined. Today the military is a lot different from when I joined, but I will concur that the benefits have become more of an incentive over time. So, after 10 years of service at the end of this contract, I can say that I have definitely given myself a stable foundation to move forward in life successfully.
TSCS: When did you enter the Marines and what was that like? Where all did you travel?
AJ: I arrived at boot camp for the Marine Corps on October 22, 2012. I have been to multiple countries: Cuba, Spain, Israel, Japan, Guam, Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Germany, and Djibouti. The American states that I have been to are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and of course Tennessee.
TSCS: You switched from Marines to the Army? What was the reason for that?
AJ: The reason I switched from The Marine Corps was because I had a job that really did not translate into a job on the civilian side that I felt would make me successful. So, because of that idea, I joined the Army to acquire a job that would make me successful after the military.
TSCS: Where are you stationed now and what are you doing?
AJ: Currently, I am still in the Army but I do plan to be home permanently around July of 2022. Currently I am stationed Fort Wainwright, which is located in Fairbanks, Alaska. And yes, it does get extremely cold here.
TSCS: After all these years after graduating from the charter school, what have been some of your greatest challenges and your greatest accomplishments?
AJ: Some of my greatest challenges have been perfecting the person I am. We all have flaws and we all have things about ourselves that can be rectified. I am always changing and adapting to make sure that I am better each day than I was the day before. Even once my military career ends, and I venture on to another walk of life, my biggest challenge will always be to be better than I was yesterday. Some of my greatest accomplishments have been the places I’ve traveled to, the things I have seen and experienced, and the relationships I’ve built. In the military we often say that the people you meet while in the service will inevitably become your family for the rest of your life. The people you serve with and the people you deploy with, the people you bleed and cry with, will forever be the closest things to your heart. They become the family outside of the family.
TSCS: What advice do you have for current charter school students thinking about joining the military?
AJ: My generation, compared to this current generation of Soulsville students, is definitely far apart in multiple areas, from experiences, knowledge, and opportunities. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the commitment and sincerity of the staff at Soulsville. I guarantee that Mr. Baker (we’ll miss you), Mr. Daniels, Ms. Cox, Mrs. Stakem, Mrs. Brown, Mr. Upchurch, Ms. Tate, Mrs. Shores, and Mr. White – not to exclude any other teacher from this list, but these were teachers that were important to my class and who I know still have a long-lasting importance to the current classes. They have continued to be as passionate with the current students as they were with us. My sincere advice would be to listen to the teachers placed in front of you. They led most of us to the careers we dreamed of, taught of lessons that we wouldn’t have had without their guidance, and gave us the maturity we needed. For the students that are thinking of the military, I would suggest that you reach out to alumni that have served in the military and who also came from the very neighborhoods and environments that you came from. I lived the life that you did and I am living the life that you currently want to live. So, talk to us so we can give you sound and just advice. Aka, don’t listen to recruiters. LOL.