By Katie Roth
Ever heard the story about a family of owls with a son named Hootie who grows up to weigh 900 pounds and sit atop Shades Cahaba Elementary School? No? That’s because it’s not a story from your typical storybook. It’s from a homemade book with endless stories that come straight from the mind of School Resource Officer (SRO) Kelly Johnson.
When Johnson is not patrolling Shades Cahaba, manning his station by the front doors or checking out potential threatening situations, he appears in classrooms as a mystery reader. But he is no ordinary mystery reader with no ordinary book. After years of reading stories to his own children, grandchildren and classrooms full of students, he decided to put down the published books and create his own entitled The Book.
With a handmade cover and colorful pages created with the help of Hall-Kent Elementary School librarians, Johnson makes sure as he reads to students that no one can see the pages until the very end. He’s animated as he tells each word of the story and hopes students are visualizing pictures in their heads along the way, but his favorite moment comes at the end. Little do the children know, The Book is full of blank pages. No pictures. No words. Just imagination.
In that moment, Johnson asks one student to come up and show his or her classmates the pages he’s been flipping through. Johnson looks out to find wide eyes and shocked expressions. “Oh, they can’t believe it!” he says. “That’s kind of fun to watch them… like ‘Where are all the pictures?’” And with that, Johnson’s goal is accomplished: kids are learning to use their imaginations and be more creative with fun stories.
Inspired by everything from the history of the school’s beloved statue to an adaptation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Johnson’s stories are completely different every time thanks to his own wild imagination and quick, on-the-spot thinking. He has read The Book about 20 times so far, and each time he reads it as a completely different story. He says he just sits down and the words start flowing. Many of them have a common theme though: protection. After all, Johnson has been with the Homewood Police Department for 23 years.
About three years ago, he decided to try his hand at a new side of police work and has been an SRO for the three Homewood elementary schools ever since. Johnson is now permanently stationed at Shades Cahaba.
“It was just a chance to do something different,” Johnson says of his most recent position. “I don’t know that everybody’s cut out for it. That doesn’t mean anything special about me, but you either like kids like this or you don’t. I like doing it, and I thought it would be fun.”
Day to day, Johnson interacts with 550 kids ranging from 5 to 11 years old all day long. From the fields to the playground to the lunchroom, it’s obvious that the students love Johnson, and it’s obvious that Johnson’s priority is protecting the school and “his” kids. “I’m not gonna let my kids get in trouble,” he says.
Thanks to recently installed secure locking technology on the front doors of the school, he can now take time away from his station, making room for his 15 to 20 minutes of story time more easily and the day more enjoyable and relaxing for him, faculty and parents.
But the joy he brings to kids isn’t just reserved for story time. He greets everyone with a smile, knowing that he represents something bigger than himself when he shows up to work in his police uniform.
With stories starring fictional characters like Freddy the Fireman or Polly the Police Officer, Johnson wants to make sure that the kids are not afraid of people in uniform. One of his personal goals is to help educate young students about police officers and what they do—proving that they are not scary, but they are here to help.
“I want these kids to see me in a uniform. I want these kids to see me as a police officer because I’m not just here representing Kelly Johnson, SRO, Shades Cahaba. In a manner of speaking, I’m sort of representing the Homewood Police Department and police officers everywhere. I want them to get across that police aren’t the bad guys,” Johnson explains. “I’m here to protect them. I’m here to tell them about what I do.”
And Johnson’s efforts do not go unnoticed. He is frequently thanked by students, parents and teachers with hugs, kind words and even cards. To him, those are the best tokens of appreciation he could possibly receive.
“I’ve got a plethora of letters that kids write me every once in a while (that say), ‘Thank you for protecting us,’” Johnson says. “I mean, that’s better than a Picasso to me.”