On Martin Luther King Day of this year Louise Brannon passed away at the age of 83. In her passing she left behind as her legacy both her school, The Children's House, as well as a memorial scholarship in her name. Brannon, with the aid of other teachers and friends, founded the Montessori-based The Children's House in 1971. It has since graduated hundreds of students, including myself.
My first experiences with Mrs. Brannon were terrifying. I still remember her sitting behind her crescent moon-shaped table dishing out red "c"s and "x"s to her quivering math students. At the time, I was five and made the very mature decision to never voluntarily interact with her. I liked Children's House as a whole — the unlimited playtime, the candy store, the large and inviting art room — but I would never again enter Mrs. Brannon's math room.
She was an intimidating matriarch. Always shrouded in a comfy, old-lady fleece or sweater, she stood tall at about 5'3", with caramel-colored, biracial skin that had been worn from age and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. She carried herself like someone who had fought tooth and nail, faced adversity, lost two biological children and yet held little bitterness.
At The Children's House, even a five-year-old could get away with a teacher boycott for a short time. The students made contracts for the classes they wanted to attend that day and then followed through with their agreements. And being in kindergarten, I wasn't expected to jump right in and tackle every subject all at once.
Eventually, of course, I had to go to math class. Once, in first grade, I accidentally turned off the lights in the math room from a down-the-hall switch. Like a grizzly bear she swiveled her head and locked me in as her prey. Slamming the work of another student down onto the table in front of her, she charged. The room got smaller as she approached and I could barely keep from crying. She got down into my face, nose to nose.
"It was an accident," I pleaded.
"Well, next time you have a little accident you are going to get 1,000 line write-off," she snarled.
A write-off, one of Mrs. Brannon's signature punishments, consisted of writing a sentence, phrase or word a certain number of times. By middle school, I was caught passing a vulgar, paragraph-long note in class and was made to write it 10,000 times. I was only able to achieve this feat with the help of classmates and family members writing tirelessly on my behalf.
Mrs. Brannon, for much of my childhood, seemed like a renegade bully, someone I couldn't believe was allowed to be around children, let alone teach them. But as I grew under her care, I began to realize that she was, more often than not, the only adult who respected students enough to take them seriously. Her no-nonsense approach to us was a product of her love for us.
In my final year at The Children's House, my eight grade homeroom was called into the playroom to discuss a bullying problem. A friend of mine was accused, rightly to some extent, of bullying the other students and creating a hostile environment.
Mrs. Brannon led the meeting with a stern and severe voice, placing the suspected student at the front of the room and having other students talk about how he had affected them. Partly out of honest outrage and partly out of allegiance to my friend, I turned the tables on Mrs. Brannon and accused her of being a bully. Other students backed up the stories I told.
When I finished, she looked into my eyes and was obviously choking back tears. I had never seen Mrs. Brannon get emotional. I had seen her experience with poise the loss of a child, expel students she cared for and discuss her personal experiences with both sexism and racism. But here she was genuinely moved by something I had said. In this moment I realized how much love and respect Mrs. Brannon had for me, as both a student and individual. I felt I had moved a mountain, only to realize that the mountain was ever so much more beautiful where it had once rested.
I am among the last generations of Mrs. Brannon's kids. Not long after I left, her health took a turn for the worse and she was forced to quit teaching.
Both Mrs. Brannon and the Children's House have shaped me as a thinker and human. I was never allowed to be a stupid, cute kid. I was always required to respect others and expect respect in return.
The Children's House fostered creativity and acceptance without sheltering children from the harsh, real world. While still a place where kids could get mocked for eating their boogers, it was also a school where Muslim children felt safe after 9/11, where kids came out in fifth grade and where you were nurtured but not coddled.
Editor's note: Julian is the son of NUVO Managing Editor Jim Poyser, who taught language arts at The Children's House before coming to NUVO. For more on The Children's House and the Louise Brannon Memorial Fund, see: thechildrenshouseindianapolis.com