Early teacher-student bond led to lifelong friendship

Members of the 1973-74 first-grade class at Old Bonhomme School gather to celebrate teacher Christine Williams’ retirement in 2005. John Green is second from left; Williams is in the middle.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

If there ever was any doubt about the lasting impact a teacher can have on a student’s life, meet John R. Green. Today, the 53-year-old native St. Louisan is a 25-year veteran of ABC News in New York, where he currently serves as executive producer of special programming as well as executive vice president of Rock’n Robin Productions, the production company founded by “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts. Green also is a children’s book author, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

In 1973, Johnny Green, as he was known, was a first-grader at Old Bonhomme Elementary School in Olivette. It was there that this white Jewish boy who attended Temple Israel met Christine Williams, a brand new first-grade teacher at the school who was 22 at the time and African American. 

She was one of only two Black teachers at the school (the other was Barbara Jaworski). Williams and young Johnny quickly formed a bond, which blossomed into a lasting relationship. They are in regular contact today, nearly five decades later.

“She has remained a constant in my life. Last night, myself and a couple of other Jewish friends from Old Bonhomme were on a Zoom call with her until after midnight,” Green said when we spoke last week. “I just adore this woman. She has a really special way of singling each kid out and making them feel special.”

Green’s parents divorced when he was 4. Divorce then was not nearly as common as it is today. Nor was diversity. Green estimates that 80% of his classmates at Old Bonhomme were white and Jewish. That seemed to make no difference to Williams.

“She was one of those uncanny teachers who had the ability to go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic and sense what kids needed socially and emotionally,” said Green. “She saw a kid like me who came from a home where there was stress because my dad had left, and she made sure that I knew my value and helped give me self-esteem. 

“She was the first person of authority to tell me I was smart, and I could do well in school if I applied myself. I worked at it, but it all goes back to those early years when your personality is being shaped. While every hand that touches you isn’t necessarily a nurturing hand, hers was and for that I am forever grateful.”

So grateful, in fact, that Green made sure to dedicate his two new children’s books in part to Williams, crediting her for nurturing his passion for reading and writing. The books tell of the bedtime rituals he created to help his now 8-year-old twins face their bedtime fears.

Earlier this month, Green paid a virtual visit to Old Bonhomme’s classrooms to read his books, “Dream Jumper” and “Dream Grabber,” to more than 80 first-graders. Williams, 70, who retired from full-time teaching in 2005, joined the call as she and Green shared stories and memories with the students; many of them know Williams because she still serves as a volunteer reading specialist at the school. 

Green also spent time answering students’ questions about being an author and what their school was like when he attended. He gifted all first-grade girls a copy of “Dream Jumper,” which was inspired by his daughter Francesca, who had fears about falling asleep alone in her bedroom, and he gifted all first-grade boys a copy of “Dream Grabber,” inspired by his son AJ, who worried about having bad dreams. Green also donated additional copies to Ladue’s other three elementary schools and early childhood center libraries.

“What was most special to me about the Zoom call was that I was able to honor Christine Williams and to show the children proof of how enduring the positive touch of a teacher can be,” said Green, who graduated from John Burroughs School and Washington University before attending Boston University, where he received a master’s degree in communications and media. He and his husband, Anthony, along with their twins, now live in Holmdel, N.J. Green’s father and stepmother, Dr. Kenneth and Arlene Green, still live in St. Louis while Green’s mother, Barbara, lives in Phoenix.

Williams said she cried through some of the Zoom, especially the part when Green read the dedication to her. She speaks equally highly of her former student, whom she describes as kind, generous, warm and extremely bright. 

“I can honestly say, I think because it was my first year, first class and I had no children of my own then, that I was able to spend a lot more time” with Green and his classmates, said 

Williams, who lives in Chesterfield. “Plus, Old Bonhomme was a lot smaller then. The kids came to my house. I went to their house. I went to their ball games and birthday parties. We were allowed to put kids in our cars. I could even send my husband to pick up kids and bring them to school for a program. It was quite different in that way.

“I also always believed that your relationship with your students was the greatest joy you have as a teacher,” Williams continued. “And that was true throughout my career. It was them believing you really cared about them because you really did care about them. And showing them that in many different ways.”

When Williams retired 15 years ago, Green and most of his first-grade classmates gathered in St. Louis to celebrate their beloved teacher. They even have a special Old Bonhomme Facebook group, with 35 of the 40 first-graders from their 1973-74 class participating. Williams added that she and Jaworski, who is also retired and taught the other first-grade class in 1973-74, typically have dinner once a month with three of Green’s former classmates who live in the St. Louis area. 

As we chatted, Williams related an indelible memory, which took place after Green graduated from high school and came to visit Williams at Old Bonhomme.

“It was the end of the day and I was walking the kids down the hall and Johnny was talking to me,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You know, every time I thought about my education, I kept coming back to you. I just had to come to you and say, thank you.’ 

“He gave me a hug and of course, my kids were wondering what was wrong because by then I was sobbing. Teaching was not just a career for me, it was a passion. And the truth is, there was no money that anyone could have given me that would have meant more than him saying what he did.”