Johanna Lanner-Cusin, History Teacher (Second Row) – Interview Conducted by Phoebe Shin and Anna Chard
Tuesday October 6, 2020: It is 4:00 pm – The end of the school day! The sun is actually shining, and the birds are chirping (we think- we were actually inside so, upon reflection, we have realized that we can’t really attest to that). The mood is light, the backgrounds are top-notch (we chose our favorite Disney – Pixar movies appropriate for today’s Spirit Week theme), as is the Rosie the Riveter zoom filter accessory, and the Human of CPS makes small talk as we anticipate the year’s seventh interview. I click record. “Welcome, Johanna.” The interview has begun…
Phoebe: What was your time at CPS like? Do you have any favorite memories from your high school years?
Johanna: I mean, I loved going to CPS— I think that’s something I have to say. It feels sometimes a bit cheesy to say that, but I think it’s true. When I think back on it, I just felt really good here, and for me, a huge part of that was sports. My fondest memories were definitely volleyball-related; we won some really incredible games, which is you know, again, cheesy memories! But we really did, and it was really special. It was special because it’s fun to win things, and it’s fun to really try hard and succeed, and it was special because it really made me feel like I was part of a community, and I built these really deep bonds with the people that I played with. And the school part of it— you know, I liked, but you know,— I can’t say it was my favorite part. And I definitely teach kids now that I know like school more than I liked it— I can tell! I think they work a little harder than I did, and I think they genuinely love it. And I did love it, but that’s just the best way I can put it. For me, English was, ironically, my real bread and butter because my recollection of history classes back then was that they weren’t as conversational, and we had a lot of lectures. I mean, we sometimes had discussions about readings, but I think that the history classes that I do are more engaging, and more conversational in that regard, whereas in English, it was just always conversational, always. And I loved that, I really liked it.
The other thing that really stands out to me is that I took photography my junior and senior year, and I also took Drawing and Design and 2D art— I took art every year, and I would encourage anybody to do that. But I think photography was the really special one for me because, well, I’m not good at drawing, or painting, or sculpting. I’m not really good at doing things with my hands that are not athletic; my hands just don’t have that kind of precision. So, photography was the first time where I felt like I could express myself artistically because it turns out that I could see things. I think everybody has some sort of vision, and if you embrace that vision a little bit and follow what they tell you about composition and shadow and light, you can actually make something that’s nice. And I think that was really eye-opening for me, and I think that this school… made me really well rounded, you know? It gave me the possibility of truly exploring different parts of myself. Obviously I think the athletic part of me was most represented, but I think I also just got to do all these other things— like going to plays. I basically went to every single play, and probably every music concert, and I loved going to those. I just really enjoyed watching people do it, and I had like, crushes on people who did plays and played music, because I was just like wow, how are you doing this?
Anna: So, continuing the conversation about volleyball, did you play volleyball in college as well?
Johanna: I did not play volleyball in college. It’s funny, because I always feel like I need to explain that, because I probably should’ve? Well, no, I don’t think I should’ve, but I think I could’ve, is the truth of it. And to be honest, I thought that I honestly wanted to, for my whole life. And— I burned out, really. And I can tell you the honest truth, but I’m not really sure what the lesson on it is, but maybe I’ll come to it. So I went to try out for club volleyball, when I was in my senior year, which would’ve been my last club season. And I think this was after I got in early at Harvard, and it was like, now I never have to do anything again.
Turns out that wasn’t true, but when I got the letter that’s literally what I thought— I was like, okay, “My life is over!” in the best way, of course, like, “Now I’m at the top of the mountain, what is there to do?” And I was told by one of my coaches, who was going to take me on their team, “You can definitely play at Harvard, and you will be the second string setter for this team, but you will never actually play.” So it was this weird situation where I could definitely be on this team, which was a very good team, and I would continue to practice, and I would be on this team in college as well, and who knew if I would be a setter or not then? But for the next five months, I would go to every practice, but I would never play. And I was like….“No!” Weirdly, at that moment, I was like, “I think I’m done! I don’t think I need to do this anymore.” And I do regret it sometimes, because I think it would’ve been fun, and I would’ve gotten better, you know? I would’ve met a lot of people, and maybe things would’ve been really different, but I think— your life has to change sometimes. And I needed to figure out who I was, if I wasn’t a volleyball player. So it was sort of a reality check for me, and again, I don’t totally know what the lesson here is, but I didn’t expect what happened before it did.
Anna: Switching gears here: Is there a moment or event in history that you find fascinating or that you particularly love to teach?
Johanna: You would think I’d have an immediate answer to this question, but oh gosh— I love the French Revolution, actually. I just think it’s so exciting, and it plays out in such an exciting way; it’s always just constant drama, and it’s like, real drama. People getting locked out of places, getting killed, changing their minds, and, I imagine it would feel a bit like the way it feels right now. Literally, where everyday is just more news, and you see things, and it’s like, “how is this all happening right now?” And I think when you read what people who were involved wrote, they’re just so earnest in what they’re saying— there’s no cynicism, and it’s like these people really believe this, and this is what’s happening— I think that’s just so fascinating to me.
The other thing that I love teaching about is in Gender History, so spoiler alert: There’s this book that really opened my eyes and changed my perspective on how I think about the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s specifically about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It basically really emphasizes the role of Black women during the Civil Rights Movement, and how this can really be read as basically a movement to protect Black women, and to protect their bodies. And there’s this one chapter that’s just about all of the work that Black women did during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it’s a lot of stuff that I had literally just never heard about. There’s this woman who’s cooking for all of these boycotters, there’s this woman with an old Buick, and she’s picking up these women to take them to their jobs, so they don’t have to take the bus. There’s someone who’s literally organizing all of these carpools, and working like a taxi service for all the Black women in town. And I guess I just never realized that so many Black women rode the bus, and they had to ride the bus, and they just stopped. They were like, “No, I’ll walk to work, even if it takes me three times as long, and my friend will drive me to work, even if we have to coordinate it, and we’re going to make this work.” And you really realize the amount of sheer effort and strength it required, and I guess I also like it because it’s so inspiring. I think a lot of Black history in particular is hard to teach, even though it’s so critical, because it’s sad, and difficult, and still real. It’s something that still relates to this contemporary moment, and to me, this feels like it is those things, but it’s also a moment of real triumph and strength, which is why it’s so inspiring.
Phoebe: Where did you grow up? Do you have a favorite place in your hometown?
Johanna: Well, obviously I grew up here! But I grew up in the Berkeley Hills, and I think in the end, one of my favorite spots would probably be one of those lookouts in Grizzly Peak. They’re so crowded these days; I feel like they’ve gotten more crowded, but maybe that’s just me. They were always crowded. I think when I went to college, or when my college friends would visit, that’s probably one of the first places I would take them because it’s so beautiful. And it reminds me of how lucky and privileged I am to be able to live here, how lucky I am to have grown up here, and how I kind of take that all for granted? Because in my mind, I haven’t been to that many places that I find just as beautiful. I’m sure that there are lots of beautiful places, but for me, this is such a beautiful place, and a lot of people have confirmed that for me as well. You know when you sometimes look towards Marin, and the hills are different shades of blue? It’s just really remarkable, like the majesty of nature, but also of humans— because they chose to create this weird combination of natural landscape and human-ness.
Anna: Last question, and probably the most important one out of them all: What is your favorite sauce? *Make sure to watch Johanna’s phenomenal sauce video, if you haven’t already. Alternatively, watch it again: https://youtu.be/QXz1LyHpWeI
Johanna: Fair enough! You know, I think there are two sauces that have really survived and remain as staples. One of them is Bitchin’ Sauce, which I eat every week. I buy one jar of it every week, and I always finish all of it, and then I get another one. The other one is one I make, which is like a cilantro-based yogurt sauce, with garlic, that I also have all the time. So those are the two that have really survived, and, if I absolutely had to choose between those two, I would probably go for the cilantro because it’s more useful for a variety of things.