My ninth grade biology teacher, Benjamin Jenkins, received a Congressional Gold Medal last week for his service during the Second World War. I know this because several schoolmates posted about it on Facebook. Most, like me, were not people who loved their school experience or who would have shared positive news about other teachers. But Mr. Jenkins was special.
I didn't like science, or, really, any subject that relied on hard data. In addition, my chaotic family life made it hard to focus on homework assignments. I could lose myself in the novels we were assigned in English and advanced French, but math and the sciences required a steady focus on facts that I often just couldn't deliver. Mr. Jenkins took me aside several times to inquire whether anything was going on that I wanted to talk about, but I was too filled with shame to share what I thought were my uniquely humiliating problems. So, instead, he periodically outlined for me the assignments I had missed or screwed up, and suggested extra projects I could do to make up the deficits. I always did them, because I didn't want to let him down.
Other classmates have different stories, some dramatic and some, like mine, more distanced. The common thread is that he got exactly as involved in our lives as we would let him, and always made us feel valued and respected.
He was also, outside of the janitorial staff, the only African American staff member at our school. This was a big deal at my house because my parents did not want a black man teaching their daughter, and didn't like it when I stayed after school for extra help.
Near the end of the term, Mr. Jenkins announced that he would be leaving us to accept an administrative position with the Board of Education. When I shared this news at home, my parents agreed that he must have gotten into some sort of trouble and reassigned to a desk job to finish out the term, at which point he would be let go. A few days later, out local paper covered his promotion, a huge honor. My mother's lips set even deeper in the line that conveyed that she alone was smart enough to know there was more to the story than that, all of it ugly.
My two best friends, M and L, and I made him a batch of fudge and a handmade card filled with bad biology jokes and heartfelt gratitude. To thank us, he invited us to lunch at his house, with his wife and young son. My parents forbade me to go.
I wasn't an overtly rebellious kid. I argued a bit and then agreed not to contact him again. Then my friends and I arranged to go to his house on a Saturday afternoon. I told my parents I was spending the day with M, which was technically true. We had a lovely time playing with his little boy. But then he suggested we ride with him to a nearby shopping mall where he needed to pick up some yard supplies, after which he would drive us home.
I didn't know how to decline. I knew if any of my parents' friends saw us I was sunk, and I wasn't yet mature enough to say, "My parents are racist idiots who will kill me if they find out I'm here, and I need to stay alive a few more years until I can escape this madhouse, so I'm going to walk home now." Instead, I went, and at the same time pretended I wasn't there. L and M, who knew the score, leapt in front of me every time a neighbor walked by, which was more often than you might think. At the time I thought Mr. Jenkins must think we were all insane, but now I suspect he knew exactly what was happening. At the end of the afternoon I asked him to drop me at M's, and walked home from there.
My parents were waiting for me. I don't know who ratted me out, but the consequences were dire, and I never saw Mr. Jenkins again.
I didn't try to contact him, even after I moved out of that crazy house, partly from embarrassment but also because I am terrible about keeping in touch with people. Another dear friend, G, though, stayed friends with him, and he is a beloved uncle figure to her two grown children. A few years ago, she suggested I wrote to him. "He'd never remember me," I protested, but she retorted, "Of course he remembers you!"
So I did, and he did. He wrote fondly of the fudge and of my artistic posters, while tactfully eliding the ridiculous visit and the fact that the posters were extra credit projects to make up for flunked tests.
He deserves more medals than I can count.
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