"If you just look in their eyes as a person and not as their physical being, then you have a relationship with them that's more than just a tense teacher, locked facility environment. … You make a connection with them."
Angie Briggs-Johnson isn't a teacher who worries about getting paint on her hands. By connecting with students who have strayed down the wrong path in life, she works to change lives in more ways than one every day.
As an Ottawa Area Intermediate School District art teacher assigned to the 20th Circuit Court Juvenile Detention Center in West Olive, Angie brings a ray of hope to the lives of young people who can often feel like life brings nothing but "shades of gray and black" outside of the detention center, as described by one student.
The Ottawa Area ISD assigned Angie to the detention center for many reasons, mainly after seeing the way she connects with students and helps to improve their lives, despite the center's non-traditional setting.
On the other hand, the veteran art teacher said she enjoys the position because the students make her feel integral, not just as part of the instructional day, but a lifeline to creativity never encouraged before.
"They come in from talking to a counselor, a probation officer, and they're tense and angry. And I watch their body language and their eyes just start to slow and calm and relax," she said.
"If you just look in their eyes as a person and not as their physical being, then you have a relationship with them that's more than just a tense teacher, locked facility environment," she added. "You make a connection with them."
Surrounded by walls decorated with paintings of angels, lighthouses and the saying, "Art is the only way to run away without leaving home," the students use computers to design art projects, then dig out the brushes and drawing pens and go to work.
"If I'm angry, I'll draw, like, flames. Or if I'm really happy, I always draw like brighter colors," said one girl.
Detention Superintendent Lily Marx sees the vast difference Angie makes to every student.
"They come here, and they're exposed to a woman who shows them something completely different, and that they can be completely different," Marx said. "That's why she works so well with the kids."
Another student pronounced, "I can feel good just to be able to go to her class and see her … she changed my life in a lot of different ways."