The topic for the KAXE Between You and Me show this week was "teachers." Who made a difference, who stepped up, who stood with you when you needed it? I chose to write about my high school principle, Red Benson. Below is my commentary piece--I'll link the audio when KAXE puts it online. But I'd love to invite you to add a comment about someone who has made a difference to you in your life. Write a few words (or a few hundred). This really is the time of year when we can share our gratitude and honor those who have touched us in some wonderful way. Take a moment to say thanks.
West Toward Berkely
Red Benson was a giant of a man and the principle of my high school. He was a white guy with a gray fuzzy tangle of hair on his head--and shoulders so broad they carried the whole school, teachers and students alike. Red didn't mess around. It wasn’t unusual to see him strolling the halls of the high school with a smirk on his face as if he wished a fight would start just so he could stop it. And when a fight did start he’d grab a squirming ninth or tenth grader in each hand and hold them inches above the floor against the cold metal lockers and demand, "Is there a problem here?" The boys would shake their heads wildly, their feet dangling like horse-thieves beneath a rope.
The truth was, none of us wanted to risk attracting Red’s attention.
The sixties had ended. It was the spring of 1970 and I was in high school. Idealism ran like strong medicine through my bloodstream. It didn’t seem fair that with the world marching on campuses, on the steps of the Whitehouse, in Georgia—I was trapped shuffling from typing to world history. When college students began donning black armbands and protesting the student shootings at Kent State, I decided it was time to take a stand.
I gathered two friends and we decided to protest. We bought rolls of black crepe paper and snuck into the paper staff room to mimeographed half-page notices that said, WE CANNOT LET THEM KILL US! The flyer urged students to rise from their desks on Tuesday, at 2:00, don the black arm band, and leave the school to sit on the front lawn in protest of the police action at Kent State.
I believed it was about speaking out and taking action. I was sure everyone was as outraged as I was. So, that Tuesday when 23 kids rose from their desks and left the school, I was proud to be their leader.
My great moment was short lived. Red Benson stepped out of the front door of the school and bellowed "Git to class" in that big voice of his. Within minutes I was alone on the lawn.
Red looked down at me and said, "When you are done, please come and see me in my office."
I felt foolish and very alone. Finally I went to Red’s office and sat in front of his desk. He stood towering over the room with its stacked desk, sagging bookshelves, and a window that looked west toward Berkeley. It seemed to me that his face was the center of a Mandela of high school talismans and I waited. I was prepared to pay a price for what I believed.
What I wasn’t prepared for was Red Benson’s response. He looked at me and the firm scowl melted. He shook his head at me and chuckled, looking me straight in the eyes. I saw respected there . . . and a bit of sadness and I didn’t understand. I would rather have had him pick me up and dangle me against a locker in a glossy hallway and not just stand there.
He sat down.
"Why didn't you come to me?" he said finally. "I didn't know you felt so strongly about the students of Kent State. I would have helped you." And what he said next was like driving little dry sticks and pebbles down my throat because I knew he spoke the truth. "Those others don't care. Don't you see that? They just wanted to skip out of school. Do you understand? I would have helped you had you asked."
I believed him. He was big and old--and I was young and silly and yet here we sat, on common ground.
We talked for a long, long time after school on Tuesday and when I left, something inside of me had changed.
Later when I was in college I heard that Red had had a stroke and things had gone quickly downhill in the school. The police now patrolled the halls and the little man who had taken his place mostly stayed in his office and tried to manage things from there.
One day I went to the nursing home and found Red in the physical therapy room doing rope exercises. He was still a big giant of a man in spite of the wheelchair and being speechless.
When he saw me his eyes twinkled and I’m sure he would have chuckled aloud had he been able, but instead he just raised a big trembling hand in my direction. I walked across the room and held the hand of a giant. I knew that he could still hear and understand, but that he wouldn't be able to speak, so I talked a long time in the safety of his silence.
There were things I wanted to tell him, things I wanted to tell myself—that I had figured out the ways of the world now, that I finally deserved his respect, but the words didn’t come. Instead I talked about college, the snow on Diamond Point, how I like to park my car on Lake Bemidji and walk to class and how many other campuses could boast a parking lot of ice? But all the unspoken things gathered in my throat and stuck there, and when I left him, there were tears running down my cheeks that I wiped on my sleeve like a little kid.