Constance Joyce Johns, Helping the blind ‘see’
Constance Joyce Johns has dedicated the past 30 years of her life to helping the visually impaired “see”. What she could not have achived by way of medicine, she did by the power of the spoken word.
A retired teacher of the Salvation Army School for the Blind, Johns created history in 1983 when for the first time, a visually impaired student was entering the Spelling Bee Competition.
“Although she was not placed, her courage served to motivate others, and for successive years I tutored and entered students in the competition”, Johns shared.
Preparing the visually impaired to compete against their sighted peers was an awesome task that only a teacher like Johns could take on. She converted the entire Spelling Bee Book into Braille so her students could study it.
With limited coaching, Constance Johns taught herself how to read Braille. “Initially, it was a bit difficult, but it gradually got easier. Students would produce work in Braille which I could not read. At first, I got a student to read for me so I could do the corrections, but pretty soon I realised that I had to know braille,” she declared.
According to her, coaching these children required patience, love, care, determination, dedication and constant repitition. Johns was equal to the task, and stood proudly in 1992 when two of her favourite students excelled.
“Vivian Blake was placed third, and Symone eleventh from a field of 128 spellers. Both re-entered the competion a year later. Symone was placed second and Vivian fifth, she said, reliving those proud moments.
A quiet soft-spoken individual, Constance Johns was born in Alexandria, St Ann. The first of six children for parents Hilda and John Thompson, she grew up in the 1940s, when life was vastly different from what it is today.
“I enjoyed growing up in Alexandria with my grandmother. There was this sense of freedom, we had lots of parties, there were fruit trees all around, and Christmas was very special. Christmas mornings were special — breakfast was a special type of bread which we ate with fried pork, salt-fish fritters and chocolate tea,” Johns recalled.
She continued: “If a child misbehaved, anyone could discipline her, and if you go and complain to your parents, she will discipline you on top of it. Grandmother was strict too, she would not allow us as young girls to go out to parties at nights, but we would sometimes sneak out and prepared ourselves for the thrashing when we got home.”
An old girl of Chalky Hill All Age School, Constance Johns had no ambition to be a teacher. Career choices for those young women who did not wish to become housewives were limited, and Johns wanted to be a postmistress.
“I admired the work that the post mistress did and I was fascinated with the little telex machine. I told myself that I would love to be able to use this machine,” she quipped.
However, getting into the postal service was not easy. Johns, therefore, migrated to Kingston where she had more options, and decided to work on a probation as a teacher. She landed a job at Clifton All-Age in Peters Rock, St Andrew.
Communting from Kingston to Peters Rock was not easy back then, and the young teacher often had to wait long hours for a bus. She met and fell in love with Jeremiah on one of these journeys.
“He was a soldier working as a telephone operator at New Castle Hill Station, where I used to sit and wait for a bus. All the soldiers working at the station would talk to me, but he decided to get serious. We met in 1953, got married in 1954. I guess he was anxious,” Johns said, her eyes dancing with mischief.
The next ten years of her life were spent switching jobs and having babies. Between teaching jobs at Port Royal Primary, Whitfield Town Primary, and Roussseau Primary, Johns had six children.
“Just like my mother, I have three boys and three girls,” she pointed out.
In 1970, she took a full-time job at the Salvation Army School for the Blind, unmindful of the fact that she would be tutoring visually-impaired students. It was a challenge she accepted, and now she can look back on those years with pride.
“I am so very happy that I was able to make a difference in the lives of the students. The most difficult part of it was first having to learn Mathematical signs in Braille before teaching it to them. It was a double challenge because the students do not like maths (the visually impaired usually do not like Maths) so, I had to be constantly making teaching aids that they could use . It was very challenging and demanding especially at exam time,” Johns recalled.
Many of the students she has coached have excelled in various field of endeavour. Wendy Williams, one of her brighest students, recently acquired a Master of Science Degree in Development Studies, and is presently pursuing her Doctorate overseas.
Johns’spectacular achievements have not gone unnoticed. She has received several awards and honours, including a Golden Torch Awards Plaque from the Jamaica Teachers’ Association in 1997 for long and distinguished service. A special dinner was held in her honour at Devon House Friday by past students of the Salvation Army School.
An active member of the Trinity Moravian Church, just a step away from home, Johns spends her days sewing or catering to the needs of her grandchildren.
” I am always busy doing chores around the house. At other times I relax with my husband and play games. I love flowers so I try my hands at gardening although my dogs and the waether are doing me a discredit,” she said.