Lala Johnson is at Langley High School working hard almost every day. She started out at Springhill Elementary School, graduated to Cooper Middle School and is now, hopefully, finishing her botanical-academia at Langley High School. Johnson, along with a handful of other ladies who enjoy gardening, have left a path of blooms and petals throughout the Langley pyramid.
Unlike most parents who contribute to their children’s schools, Johnson is a grandmother who refuses to divulge her age for fear that people will treat her differently. When her granddaughter, whom she cares for full time, was at Springhill Elementary School, Johnson decided she would upgrade the landscaping to make the exterior of the school as wonderful as what she felt was going on inside.
She never expected to be doing it for years but has left a legacy that students and administrators appreciate.
“She’s the reason it happens. She’s the reason Springhill is the most beautiful school in the nation. She’s pretty much done it all herself,” said Leslie Regan, who has worked at all the schools with Johnson. The two are usually joined by Debbie O’Brien as they landscape their way around the school.
The latest project for the group was to create a path beside the school in the area that leads to the auditorium. After several weeks the path is almost complete and gives students another access to the school.
Johnson, who spent summer days gardening at Langley, said she realized the need for a path after watching several people stumble over the exposed roots of one of the trees. “The kids had created a natural path that was just mud when it rained or snowed. We’ve just taken that natural path and made it functional and pretty,” said Johnson.
VOLUNTEERS AND students all pitched in to make the new walkway a reality. According to Principal William Clendaniel, students often spontaneously help Johnson and the other parents working on the grounds. “The kids are as protective of the area as she is. There’s no trash ever in there, and the flowers are never trampled. I see the ninth-grade boys, and no offense to ninth-grade boys, but they tend not to watch what they are doing. But I see them out there saying, ‘Hey, watch out for the flowers,’” said Clendaniel.
The principal said he was initially skeptical but quickly won over by Johnson. “After a week I just said, Lala do what ever you want to do and just give me a bill,” said Clendaniel.
There is plenty more Johnson and her crew want to change at Langley in the next few years. Her upcoming project is the courtyard, where students eat lunch. They are replacing trees, taking down some trees that are blocking the sunlight from entering the classrooms and trying to get umbrellas for the picnic tables. A student’s father who owns a landscaping company has donated several trees and labor to help in the effort.
Then Johnson would like to tackle the scoreboard on the football field. They have already pulled vines and poison ivy away from the face and are now working on creating a tiered planter at the base where Johnson envisions green and gold flowers.
Always one to think about the impact on the students, Johnson sees her work as helping the students to learn. The scoreboard project, she says, “will have students working on it - young engineers, architects and artists all working together.”
Similarly, the Eco Club and biology students have all had a hand in planting and maintaining the flowers and plants that now decorate the campus.
“I did it to say thank-you. These are three tremendous schools. If you lived somewhere else, you’d have to go to a private school to get this level of education,” said Johnson. “Schools start children off really loving education. I thought this was something I could do to say thank-you.”
Johnson’s accomplishments are living, breathing works of art that are appreciated by the students and parents at Langley. Clendaniel said the improvements have been remarkable. “I had the SGA president last year say to me, Is it true this used to be a children’s prison, and he was serious,” said Clendaniel. Regan points out that what is truly remarkable is that Johnson outpaces them all and motivates the younger women to do more because she is tireless. “This is her exercise, her fun. She’s amazing really. We watch her and just have to keep going,” said Regan.
JOHNSON SAID she is “modeling a behavior that is in a sense an inspiration for young people.”
Johnson has three grown children and eight grandchildren but she’s anything but grandmotherly. She walks at a brisk pace and can be seen any day of the week hauling heavy wheelbarrows of mulch around the school. “I don’t know anyone my age. I really don’t socialize with anyone my age,” said Johnson.
When her granddaughter graduates from Langley in a few years, Johnson is thinking about re-energizing her career the way she has done the schools. “If my health, physically and mentally, keeps up, I’ll probably go back to work,” said Johnson. Returning to her profession as a social worker is an open door for her, whereas her granddaughter has made her promise not to show up at her college to landscape there.