Saturday, September 03, 2011

Mrs. Benjamin

I thought I'd try to do NaBloPoMo this month. I haven't written a lot this summer because it's been quiet, work has been busy and I've gotten out of the habit. Trying to write every single day might end up with a lot of "phoned in" posts according to one reader, but I'm going to give it a go and see what comes out. The writing prompts from NaBloPoMo are interesting and I like this month's theme, Return. Here's Friday's prompt:

"How did you feel about the start of the school year growing up?"

My birthday falls at the end of August and the excitement build up from both birthday, school supply and clothes shopping, plus going back to school was overwhelming. I remember the daunting task of trying to decide which special treat my mother was going to bake to bring in to school to share with my classmates on my birthday. The jitters filling my stomach before I fell asleep the night before school started kept me up way past my bedtime. Would I have friends in my class? Would my teachers be mean? Would my friends like the treats that my mom made? Would the homework be so hard that I wouldn't be able to do it right?

All the stress and nerves would build up until, walking hand in hand with my friend Megan or with my mom, we hiked up the hilly block to the huge red brick school building, and once I was in class I could breathe again. A desk with my name on it, my pencil box tucked inside and other small smiling faces, I finally felt settled in. Things aren't that much different today. I still want at least a few people to like me. I always feel better when I have a place that is all mine and I still hope the treats taste good. I'm just the one making them now.

I loved school as a kid. I can see myself sitting at my desk right in front of Tommy R., who always farted and then laughed about it, and even he was rapt with attention listening to Mrs. Benjamin read Island of the Blue Dolpins to our class. Her character voices were distinctive and so engaging that you could tell the characters all apart just by her tone and inflection. She always managed to end each reading session at the perfect cliff hanger, leaving us desperate to hear what happened next. I remember all of my elementary school teachers fondly but Mrs. Benjamin, my third grade teacher was my all time favorite. She had a smooth brunette page boy haircut that curled under elegantly at the ends.

In my memory, she wears a bright pink cardigan over a crisp plaid button down shirt and she gave the best hugs. She had the most beautiful cursive handwriting and she made sure that our classes were filled with contests and rewards that kept us all closely engaged. Return of the Jedi was popular that year and we each got our own Return of the Jedi trading card with our name written on it in big letters that hung on the front door of our classroom. My card was Princess Leia in her gold bikini choking Jabba the Hut and I was very proud of that card. It was close to the bottom of the door and I recall running my hand over that card and smiling walking into class everyday.

We had rutabaga costume contests where each student bought a raw rutabaga at the grocery store, took it home, created a costume for it, dressed it up and we paraded around the classroom and Mrs. Benjamin voted for the best ones. There were turnip cowboys, babies, princesses, pirates and several Star Wars characters. I don't know the educational value of this project was it was ridiculous silly fun and obviously memorable. Mrs. Benjamin was creative and silly, but her classroom was organized and efficient. She was my favorite not just because of the wacky projects or her ability to teach a perfect cursive K, but because she didn't talk to us like we were whiny 8 year olds. She asked challenging questions. She had high expectations but she didn't use little kid words or a baby talk voice. She was direct, she was clear and I know she loved us, but more importantly looking back as an adult, I think she respected children. I felt valued in that classroom. I felt capable and smart and encouraged to work through a math problem or a handwriting assignment until I got it right.

That third grade experience made sure that school was always a place I felt safe and strong, like my grandparents' house or the library. It was a place of success and fun. At least until middle school, because let's admit it, middle school is just another name for hell. The circle of hell populated by pre-pubescent bullies, ugly beige training bras with tiny bows, snotty cliques, awkward growth spurts and the sheer terror of trying to fit in. I kind of miss third grade. I sometimes wish the day could just consist of coloring contests and handwriting lessons and that the prize of a crayon sharpener could make my day.

2 comments:

Nae said...

Rutabagas. Do you per chance remember what costume yours wore? That is so interesting! Seriously - your remembrance of those details takes me back in time. There was a boy in my class named Bryce who would pee his pants all the time...reminds me of your farter...this is crazy but once in a while I used to imagine that once upon a time that we played together donning pigtails on the swingset. I would even have shared my scented erasers with you out of my pencil box :)

Kassie said...

I don't remember what my costume was, I think it was a baby but that could have been my friend Megan's. I bet little Neha with pigtails was adorable!