WHEN THE PRINCIPAL OF T.R. SIMMONS ELEMENTARY in Jasper, Ala. handed Emily Byars her 2003-04 class roll, it came with a disclaimer. He had selected a student just for her, but he did not tell her which one; he just told her she would figure it out within the first couple of weeks of school.
It only took Emily Byars one day. Kendall Johnson ’17 was much bigger than the rest of her class and he was older; Johnson was a struggling 10-year-old in a third grade class full of eight-year-olds.
“He wasn’t a ‘bad’ kid and he wasn’t in trouble,” Byars said. “In fact, he was very kind and sweet, but he wouldn’t do his work. It didn’t take long to realize the problem was that Kendall couldn’t read.
He rode the last bus to leave the school, so he sat in a gym for 45 minutes every day after school. I started keeping him in my room with me after school and we would read together.”
Johnson began catching on and through it all, he and Byars developed a special bond. His behavior improved and he had more confidence.
A LOVE FOR AUBURN
Every Friday in the fall was Spirit Day, when teachers and students would wear the gear of their favorite college team. Johnson never missed an opportunity to comment on Byars’ attire every week.
“Though I’m not an Auburn graduate, I had two children at Auburn at the time, so I am a big Auburn fan. Every Friday, I would wear my Auburn apparel and every Friday, Kendall would say, “Mrs. Byars, I love Auburn; I want to go to Auburn some day for a game.”
That persistence paid off, when one fall day in 2003, Byars made a spontaneous promise to Johnson.
“I told him, if you graduate from high school and get accepted to Auburn University, Mr. Steve (my husband) will make sure you go,” Byars said. “I went home that night and told Steve and his response was exactly what you would have expected it to be: ‘You told him what?!’ He had heard a lot about Kendall, so I am sure he never thought it would happen, but without hesitation, he said, ‘Well then, that’s what we’ll do.’”
From that point on, Kendall was a different child. He worked hard and began to excel in school. He and Byars became more than a teacher and student; they became friends.
Then, the next year, the Johnsons moved to Tupelo, Miss. and Byars lost touch with Johnson.
But Johnson never forgot Byars — or the promise she made to him. Byars did not forget it, either.
“It kept me motivated,” Johnson said. “I didn’t go around telling people about it, but I kept working hard. When I came back to Jasper after my fourth grade year in Tupelo, I skipped fifth grade and started sixth grade at Maddox Middle School.”
Johnson continued to thrive. He played football for Cordova High School and after tenth grade, he convinced the school counselor to let him take summer classes so he could skip eleventh grade and graduate with his original class.
In January 2013, Emily Byars got a call from Johnson asking her to meet him at the Jasper McDonald’s® that afternoon.
“I really had no clue why we he wanted to meet,” Byars said. “Kendall sat down and didn’t say a word; he just carefully slid a folded letter across the table. I opened it and it began, ‘Dear Kendall, Congratulations, you have been accepted to Auburn University!’”
Byars went home and told her husband, and his reaction was just as he had promised years before.
“Well, you know what we’re gonna do,” Steve Byars said.
And they did.
In the fall of 2013, the Byars and the Johnsons moved their new college student into the dorm at Auburn University.
“I kept close tabs on Kendall while he was at Auburn,” Byars admitted. “I had his passwords so I could check his grades and his e-bill. We weren’t going to pay for parking tickets and we weren’t going to pay for Fs. We never had to.”
Steve Byars died while Kendall was still at Auburn, but he left provisions to complete the promise his wife made to a struggling third grader so many years ago.
“I worked really hard at Auburn,” Johnson said. “I knew I had a lot of people looking up to me and I didn’t want to let any of them down, especially Mrs. Byars. Things were tough sometimes and there were days I stayed in my dorm room studying for hours and hours. I also had a job with Auburn football, so I had to juggle that, too.”
Johnson graduated from Auburn in 2017 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. Following graduation, he worked with special education students at Ogletree Elementary School for a year before moving to Russell County Middle School, where he serves as an in-school suspension teacher and coaches. He would like to travel around the world telling his story to student-athletes and one day work in athletic administration. Kendall keeps close ties with the Byars family.
“I am so grateful to be where I am today and to be able to share my story,” Johnson said. “No matter how bad things are, if you surround yourself with people who believe in you and you never give up, you can make it.”