7th grade: Mr. Benson
I suddenly felt older that year, no longer one of the little tots who came in to middle school. Although we’d act like small children or fearful pupils in other classes, I found myself in command of a kind of adult respect around Mr. Benson.
He was the first stereotypical English teacher I had: Bearded and balding, wore a lot of sweaters and sport coats, drank a lot of coffee, was very quiet when not talking about language arts. In fact, I don’t have many specific memories of him, but I intensely remember spending a lot of time in his class reading and writing. He was a teacher who challenged us to read longer novels, and write longer writing. For a kid with such a hard time focusing, I felt challenged to meet those goals.
Mr. Benson was tall and had a deep voice. He could get snappy but often urged us to use reason to behave and do our assignments. I remember it actually working. There was an atmosphere of respect in which I felt like considering what it would be like to act more like an adult. You would have thought the man taught college on the side. He may have been the first teacher to see us not just as children, but as adolescents.
Benson was the perfect teacher to introduce adolescents to more mature themes. We read books like The Outsiders (where I didn’t quite grasp the theme of isolation but grasped difference), The Devil’s Arithmetic (which I actually found thrilling), and Where the Red Fern Grows (which I found boring because there was no action and I thought squirrel hunting was stupid, until he buried the dog—and everybody gets torn up about that one). Being into fantasy, science fiction and horror at the time, I struggled to tolerate these pieces of realistic fiction, but I remember wanting to finish them in order to impress Mr. Benson. He was a big tall hairy English man who valued our ability to ponder.
I also wanted to impress him with my writing. I slaved over my story about the dwarf and the magician storming the dragon’s castle, and then carefully constructed my piece about what the future would look like: rhino-hippo hybrids, helipads on every roof, school and rec league laser tag, voice-changing machines surgically implanted into our larynx. I timidly turned in my overwrought work and eagerly waited for his feedback. No matter how lame it was, he told me it was good.
Mr. Benson may have been the first teacher I looked at and said, “it might be cool to teach English one day.” He was very real about literature. He didn’t make it out to be awesome if some of us wouldn’t find it awesome. I felt safe saying I didn’t like a book and he expected that. He presented us with themes like death using stories about realistic kids who face trauma. I understood it enough to feel compelled to—and this is embarrassing—write a story about a modern day kid who travels through a time warp and has to relive, then escape, the Holocaust (with help from a guy named Bob who wore a top hat and used a shovel to solve pretty much every problem). I chose to read a biography on Sean Connery because I thought 007 was cool and wanted to grow up to be a competent man like James Bond, like Mr. Benson.
Mr. Benson had such a dry sense of humor, he had a certain mature charm to him. He was cynical, but not at all bitter, not at all condescending (not in the mean way). He was a man comfortable with being himself and didn’t put on a show as a teacher. I felt like he respected us as children on their way to adulthood just enough to not talk down to us. Maybe it was because almost all of my teachers before him were females, but he was the first one I felt was treating us as more than children, treated boys as creatures that would grow into actual men.
Aside from his dry sense of humor in general, Mr. Benson taught me how English teachers have fun not just with stories, but with language. I distinctly remember the time he said, “You’re technically supposed to say ‘I feel unwell.’ You’re really not supposed to say ‘I feel bad,‘” and then proceeded to literally feel the desk like his hands were numb, being bad at feeling things. He chuckled to himself. I bellowed.
I still laugh at that one. I’m sure he does too, every year.