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Portrait of a future president

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The new speech teacher blew into Sam Houston High School like a force of nature.

On the first day, he told students in front of the room to make animal noises. The second day they made more noises, longer and louder, to loosen themselves up.

Next came speeches, short at first. Students learned to deal with hecklers, then their own appearance, down to the smallest gestures and articles of clothing.

This tyrant of a teacher was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“Boy, he wanted you perfect,” said a student.

Some secrets from the early life of the future president:
  • He was extremely demanding. Years later, former students remembered an enormous workload: more assignments than all their other classes combined. “He made you feel important just because he’s nagging at you so much,” said William Goode, who went on to become a noted sociologist. “He’s throwing his whole self into improving you.”

  • He picked smart, rebellious students and turned them into superloyal superstars. Because Johnson cared so deeply about them, they grew willing to drill for hours after school every day. “He worked the life out of them,” Goode said, “but they would do anything for him.”
  • He worked harder than anyone. And he didn’t grouse about it. A roommate remembers Johnson grading papers late at night, and sometimes still grading them as the roommate woke the next morning. Even with these all-nighters, Johnson delivered electrifying classes, striding around the room haranguing students.
  • He put his team first. During the debut year of “Mr. Johnson’s speech class,” as enrollment jumped from 60 to 110, it might have been easy to get a big head. But Johnson kept his students’ interests uppermost. They became a phenomenon. After 67 consecutive victories, they lost the state championship on a 3-2 decision. Johnson’s initial reaction was disbelief but he quickly accepted the news, comforted his team and praised their work. What they didn’t know was that he went backstage and vomited.
  • He stayed more than a step ahead. A reporter remembers talking with a math teacher one day when Johnson rushed down the hall. “That man is going to be a big success someday,” the teacher told the reporter. “He’ll be ahead of everybody. Nobody can keep up with him.”
—Adapted from The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert A. Caro, Alfred A. Knopf.

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