Just a few blocks from the State Fair of Texas sits James Madison High School, a place that Marcus Johnson knows all too well. As Assistant Principal, Marcus walks the halls daily, greeting students and facilitating the inner workings of a normal day at Madison. But normality in his job isn’t what Marcus seeks; instead he uses each new day as an opportunity to remember how he felt walking the same halls of James Madison High School as a teenage student – unaware that one day he would return as an administrator, helping students receive the same Big Tex Scholarship he received to go to college.
“Every day I come into these doors, it’s a new day to reflect on my years of high school and what I wanted and expected from James Madison High School,” says Marcus. “So that’s what I try to deliver every day as an assistant principal.”
In the late 1990s, Marcus was a student at Madison, a “neighborhood kid” as he describes it, and he would walk the same streets his current students traverse to get to school. During these formative years, Marcus found himself sidestepping the distractions that surrounded him by focusing on his interest in engineering. Marcus enrolled in Madison’s telecommunication program which required him to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). When his grades slipped his senior year, Marcus credits the school administrators for being his saving grace.
“Coming to school, you see the different things that are going on in the neighborhood that can get you down and sometimes discourage you,” said Marcus, “but then I had those teachers in the telecommunication program and in the JROTC program who redirected me to get back on track.”
Back on track meant pursuing higher education and Marcus credits his school counselor at Madison for pushing him to apply for scholarships, one of which was the State Fair’s Big Tex Scholarship. “I was a kid who always wanted to go to college but didn’t really know the ins and outs of the cost,” said Marcus.
Marcus really wanted to receive the Big Tex Scholarship because, “everyone goes to the State Fair,” which gave the scholarship unique name recognition, making it a special honor. When he learned that he was indeed being awarded the scholarship, Marcus said he was shocked – not because he hadn’t earned it, but because the reality of a college opportunity was finally setting in.
“It’s like writing down a list of the goals you want to accomplish in life,” Marcus said. “Imagine that one of those becomes a reality. Then everything starts to become possible.”
Marcus seized the inspiration that the Big Tex Scholarship sparked in him and utilized the funds to major in electrical engineering technology at Prairie View A&M University in the early 2000s. After graduation and a successful internship at Dell, Marcus had various job offerings from well-known companies like Lockheed Martin. But when it came down to making a decision, he turned down those offers to follow his heart down an unconventional path for his engineering degree.
“During the course of my last year at Prairie View, I found that I really loved helping kids and students. That’s when I had to make a decision.”
This decision wouldn’t necessarily change the course of Marcus’s career but rather offer him a different avenue to utilize his talents and love of mathematics. He joined a teacher certification program at the young age of 23 years old and immediately began his first teaching gig as a seventh-grade math teacher at Alex W. Spence Middle School in northeast Dallas. The following year, Marcus moved to Atwell Middle School Law Academy where he continued to teach math for six more years. In 2012, he took his first step into school administration by accepting an assistant principal position.
Marcus says he enjoys motivating the students at James Madison High School by sharing his own story with them – complete with the failings he once overcame. As an assistant principal who these students interact with on a daily basis, Marcus explains that his words of encouragement and guidance are given more weight. He’s literally walked in their shoes before, navigating both South Dallas and the same high school halls that the students he impresses upon navigate today.
“I try to motivate the students to not make the mistakes I made and if they do make the mistake, I tell them, hey, if I can change, they can change. And they see me every day. I’m here every day with them. It’s not like they meet this guy who came to give a motivational speech or something like that but instead they get me for the entire year.”
Marcus has indeed come full circle in his career and he still credits scholarships like the Big Tex Scholarship for giving him the ability to start on that full circle journey. It’s what he thinks about when he brings his family to the Fair to enjoy the yearly Prairie View A&M versus Grambling football game. As he gazes out at the diversified crowds that walk the fairgrounds and pack the seats of the Cotton Bowl, the connection between the Fair and his educational journey is not lost on him.
“The State Fair of Texas is a unifier, it brings different communities together for this big, yearly event. This scholarship is a form of that unity,” said Marcus. “The scholarship is a great assistance in providing a financial resource to bridge whatever length of gap there is in getting students to that next level after high school.”
“Bottom line is that the Big Tex Scholarship Program supports education. And to have the State Fair of Texas support students of financial need is a beautiful thing.”