It didn’t take long for Florida School for the Deaf and Blind student Andrae Henderson to figure out the identity of the Cobra mascot at the pep rally.
From the way the mascot behaved humorously, he knew it was longtime assistant principal and athletic director Donna Johnson.
Henderson has grown to know Johnson well over the last three years. He learned about her before he went to Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. His cousin, who attended the school before him, would tell him about Johnson’s kindness, her comedic personality and what signs she used the most often.
The one sign, though, that could quickly unveil her in a large snake suit — one both she and her mother wear on a gold necklace — is, “I love you.”
“She signs that one the most,” said Henderson. “I call her the 'I love you' mama.”
On Wednesday, after almost 36 years, Johnson will officially retire from Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. For nearly four decades, Johnson committed her life to the school, serving as a physical education teacher, coach, assistant principal and athletic director.
She impacted thousands of lives and watched Florida School for the Deaf and Blind grow into one of the premier such institutions in the United States.
Johnson leaves behind an athletic program and school strengthened by her positivity, unrelenting support and steadfast presence.
“I’m going to miss her,” Henderson said.
Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but her aunt’s divorce would change her life forever.
When Johnson was six years old, her aunt moved back to Alabama from Pennsylvania after her split and brought her deaf son, Rocky, with her.
“I didn’t even know anything about a Deaf person and here he was, this two-year old, just teaching me all kinds of things I would’ve never thought about.”
Rocky introduced Johnson to the Deaf community and helped her pinpoint from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Shortly after meeting Rocky, she told her mother that she was going to work with deaf children, and that she would do it in Florida.
She visited Florida School for the Deaf and Blind’s campus for the first time in 1987, two months after she graduated from college.
“I looked at my mom and said ‘This is it,'” she said. “This is where I want to be.”
“I could feel it. I could feel that this is where I was right.”
Johnson started as a physical education teacher and coached a number of sports including basketball and volleyball. She became the assistant principal in 2004 and athletic director – her dream job – in 2018.
Since she took over the athletic department, athletes have traveled further than before, competing in events as far away as Oregon, California, Texas and Indiana for athletic events.
She has also significantly impacted the culture and overall support of the school's athletic programs.
“A lot of the sports got a lot more support and improvement in equipment,” said Keith Young, goalball coach and physical education teacher. “She really revitalized the athletic department as far as the spirit of it."
The cheerleading department has always received just as much support as other sports at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, head coach Lia Ferrante said. Johnson continued that support as athletic director, which deeply resonated with Ferrante. The cheerleading program has always been treated like an equal, she said.
Johnson’s earmark on the program, though, is the way she treated everyone.
“There’s a humanity that Donna brings to the program,” Ferrante said. “That old-school, Southern, 'everybody's-family-we're-all-here-together-and-we’re-going-to-figure-this-out mentality is going to be irreplaceable.”
“She is truly irreplaceable.”
A teenage Johnson had, had about enough of one of her bandmates bullying a fellow trumpet player.
Johnson told the girl to stop bothering her younger, smaller friend, but she didn’t stop.
Finally fed up with her classmate’s hassle, Johnson slapped her across the face.
“I willingly took three licks from the principal that day,” Johnson said. “Don’t pick on other people. We’re all humans. No matter what your preference is. We’re all humans. Just don’t. It’s not the thing to do.”
For the duration of her life and career, that’s who she has been — the fearless, decisive leader who aims to fight for the little person and make sure everyone she encounters feels loved and supported.
Senior volleyball player, Paisley Crook, hasn’t forgotten when Johnson was by her side when she had a seizure on the way home from a sporting event. Johnson educated herself about Crook’s disorder so that she could be prepared for when it happened again.
Henderson hasn’t forgotten about how Johnson helped him improve his overall behavior so that he could focus on being a better cheerleader.
Others haven’t forgotten how she showed up at every sporting event she could attend and did whatever she could to make sure they felt loved and supported — even down to dressing up in a Cobra suit.
“Everyone at FSDB comes from various backgrounds and home life,” Crook said. “Donna, however, took everyone under her wings from the moment they stepped into those doors. She cared for everyone, and everyone quickly connected to her.”
After almost 36 years, Johnson can’t go anywhere on the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind campus without being stopped by a student, a groundskeeper or faculty member to chat with her, to hug her, or to tell her that they love her.
Crook calls her “the school grandma”. Johnson is at the point in her life where she is working with former students’ grandchildren.
Although she never had any children of her own, her students at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind made up for that.
“Those are my kids,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel a void. I never had that void.”
Johnson looked out the window of her office, which was dotted with University of Auburn and Florida School for the Deaf and Blind memorabilia, and professed a hidden truth.
“I’ve only ever been to two graduation ceremonies,” she said.
After the staff were no longer required to go, she stopped. She couldn’t bear seeing her students move on to the next stage of their lives, which meant they would be leaving Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
At the two graduation ceremonies she attended, she stood in the back of the room and handed out programs to avoid seeing the students walk across the stage or their pictures up on the projector. She can’t even watch the graduation ceremonies virtually, and, in 36 years, never said goodbye to the students as they got on the bus on Fridays to return home on the weekends. She just couldn’t stand seeing them leave.
But now, she has to say goodbye to them. It has come time for her to leave. It’s the time for hugs, some tears and, most importantly, “I love yous”.
“I don’t know where my journey is going to take me now,” she said, mulling retirement. “This is my life.”
For over 35 years, she spent countless hours on campus attending sporting events, helping students and staff with their problems, and throwing up the “I love you” sign, trying to reciprocate the incredible love the school gave her for so many years. She gave all she could to give it back.
“It’s been a long journey, but I’ve been so blessed to have that journey,” Johnson said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is a tuition-free state public school and outreach center available to eligible pre-K and K-12 students who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired or deafblind. At FSDB, students learn how to do more, be more, and achieve more, fulfilling our vision of preparing them for a lifetime of success. FSDB gratefully accepts private donations to support vital programs that directly benefit students and are not paid by state general revenue funds. To inquire about enrollment eligibility or schedule a campus tour, contact Parent Services at 904-827-2212 voice or 904-201-4527 videophone. For more information about FSDB, visit www.fsdbk12.org.