Catching Ben

Author: Beth Haverkamp Powers ’88

When I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, I fantasized about being “the one” — the teacher kids adored, trusted and would reference in their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches. In the short term, I imagined them calling me when arrested for childish pranks like TP-ing houses or skateboarding illegally. Wearing a red-sequined, super-teacher cape, I would pick them up at the police station at midnight and drive them home to the embrace of grateful parents.

Really, this was my idea of what great teaching entailed when I was 22. I had no idea how ludicrous this fantasy was. I didn’t realize then that when kids got arrested it would be for raping a younger neighbor or shoplifting at a rest stop in Connecticut on the way back from the Ellis Island field trip. I just craved the connection, the adulation, the admiration this PG-rated fantasy provided. It was so different from the adversarial tasking that much of teaching middle and high school really is.

Illustration by Erin Maala

The silliness of this image must be seen in its greater genetic context. Both of my sisters — the older, a doctor, and the younger, a librarian — successfully save young people from distress and ruin. Saint Sue, the doc, gives free medical care to 800 Mexican orphans and opens her home to the worst cases as they undergo extensive surgeries in the United States. Laura, the librarian, adopts the strays in her school, making a safe haven in the library for the dispossessed. She keeps a drawer of granola bars and ramen for the hungry. One year she even saved an Uzbeki exchange student from an untenable host situation, and he lived with her family for his remaining nine months in the United States.

At Thanksgiving dinners, we rattle off our accomplishments with the underserved in a strange family rivalry for seats at the table of competitive social justice.

I was excited for Laura when the exchange student came to live with her, but Sue’s response was horrifying. “A huge percent of all child molestation occurs in the home by individuals known to the child,” she blurted. It seemed unfair that she would raise this possibility to Laura, who has two young sons. But we are competitive “savior siblings,” running, arms outstretched, to catch the children of the world before they fall. I felt that this statistic Sue rattled off was an affront. The world needs more generosity, not fear, I argued.

Once in a while, I participate in the save-the-children discussions, although my stories are smaller. I reached out to one student, Molly, whose parents had been killed in a drunk-driving accident. She had to move across the country in October of her eighth-grade year and showed up in my Spanish class with an add slip and an attitude. She demanded to be dismissed from class. I handed her a journal and invited her to spend lunch in my room. In a week, she began to attend only my class and lunch, by November, history and computers, too. By December she was fully integrated into the school and eating in the cafeteria with a gaggle of giggling girls. I took her Christmas shopping in Boston one Saturday to give her young aunt and uncle and their new baby some time without the traumatized teen who had appeared on their doorstep out of tragedy.

Another time, a college-bound recent graduate named Sarah called me at home in the summer. “I think I am depressed,” she said. “I need to talk to someone because I’d like to hurt myself, and I can’t handle it any more. I can’t tell my mother. And I am uninsured.” This call came when I was taking a graduate class an hour from home, juggling summer camp childcare for my own daughter, and preparing for a visit from my father and his fault-finding wife. My sequined cape was nowhere to be found, but I still managed to say, “Oh, Sarah, thank you for calling me. I am sorry you are feeling this way. I can help you get some help.” I skipped class, and some 20 phone calls later she had an appointment in a local counseling center and temporary health benefits. Making a difference for kids is not always convenient.

Not every interaction involved real or potential tragedy. A group of students once called me at 1 a.m. with a question about annotated citations for a National History Day project they were to present in the morning. My husband, who answered groggily, shoved the phone at me in the dark saying, “It’s kids. Maybe it’s a prank.” But I knew the competition was imminent and was all too happy to whisper to those boys about the punctilios of Chicago Style as my husband rolled over.

Mrs. Hamlin, the youngest teacher in the English department, takes a deep breath at my classroom door and pushes forward. She’s on a mission, her arms crossed over a leather portfolio she clutches across her chest like a shield. She is wary of my sharp tongue and brash opinions, which I intend to wield for sport, but there have been injuries.

“One of my 9A students will be in your 10 Honors. I moved him up a level, but he may need some . . . extra attention.” She pauses briefly. “He’s not all that sure of himself, but . . . he’s a good kid.” Again, a pause, she is expecting me to snipe something like, “If he needs extra attention, then he’s not ‘honors material.’” But I am not angry. I am pleased Mrs. Hamlin is here advocating for a student. She is coming in to her own as a teacher. I find my roster and say, “Okay, what’s his name and what’s his story?”

Ben Maxwell showed up at Milford High School for ninth grade with no paperwork, no records, no test scores and a stepfather of few words. Administrators assigned him to B-level classes for slower learners, but in the first week it was obvious he was a quick study. He was promoted to A-levels in mid-September. When he started to get comfortable, he revealed that he had been homeless and living in a tent in California for a couple years. He’d had little formal schooling. When Mrs. Hamlin pressed gently for more details, Ben shut down, his face impassive.

Ben comes to my 10th grade honors class a big kid with stooped shoulders. He sits in the front row in an oversized plaid shirt, baggy jeans and sneakers. If I hadn’t been looking for him, he might have disappeared into the crowd. But when I tell him he comes highly recommended from Mrs. Hamlin, he grins. We are off to a good start.

Ben stumbles on the first essay test. He has the right answers, but I am evaluating paragraph structure and his has no structure at all. I pull him aside, hand him an outline and say, “Next time, it should look like this.” The next day he comes in with a reworked essay, says he doesn’t want the credit but wants affirmation that he has mastered the style. His new try is superb. For each assignment the rest of the year, Ben’s writing shines.

In late October I chaperone the homecoming dance in the smelly cafeteria-turned-dance-club. A strobe light pulsates through the dark, sweaty mass of adolescent drama. Ben emerges from a throng of sophomore girls who are trying to teach him the line dance to “Cotton Eyed Joe.” He lumbers to the back cinderblock wall and slides to a seat on the floor. Later, when I am staffing the concession stand, Ben stops by. “I saw you dancing, Ben. Nice work,” I say. He rolls his eyes. “I am soooo clumsy. I can’t dance,” he laments.

“Oh, I get it. It feels awkward. But here’s what you do. Go in your bedroom, turn the music up loud and dance alone. You’ll get better,” I lie optimistically. I remember how hard it is to be a kid. I think I am being helpful.

Ben looks me straight in the eye. “I don’t have a bedroom door to shut. I sleep on the couch in the living room of my stepfather’s apartment.” Before I can respond, he slinks back into the musical darkness.

Junior year, Ben is in my honors American Literature class. The last book we read is my perennial favorite, The Catcher in the Rye. I tell his class how I missed the fact that Holden was crazy on my first read of the book — how I thought, at the age of 15, that he was one of the sanest characters I’d ever encountered. But Ben says he doesn’t like Holden: “He’s disrespectful and whiney.” I realize then that Ben has never whined, wheedled or wailed about workload. No wonder he can’t stand rich and privileged Caulfield.

“Once, I had a student who wrote an essay on Holden Caulfield,” I tell the class. “It was a mediocre bit of writing marred by terrible spelling, but he got an A.” I pause for effect.

“Why did a bad essay get an A?” someone finally asks.

“The kid misspelled Holden as ‘Holdon’ throughout. Get it? Hold-on? And that’s all the empathetic reader wants him to do — hold on. I love that mistake!” Everyone groans.

In a later lecture, I wonder aloud whether Holden’s teacher, the one who strokes his head while he is in a manic state, is really making a pass, as Holden perceives. “Or is Antolini being gentle and loving because he can see Holden is in pain?” I decide to answer my own question. “Isn’t it sad when a teacher cannot even touch a student? I had to check myself once when a kid burst into the room to announce he’d gotten in to the Naval Academy. All I wanted to do was give the kid a bear hug, but I thought ‘Oh, no, that’s a lawsuit and a career-ender!’”

A girl’s hand shoots up, and she has a fierce look in her eye. It is Jennifer, a towheaded crackerjack who usually agrees with me. “I totally disagree. If Holden felt threatened, he was threatened. Antolini was a creep.”

This answer is not literary analysis; it’s personal. I am still processing the ramifications of her comment as the bell rings, and I see Ben make a beeline to Jennifer’s desk. They walk out of class in frowning conversation together. I know both of them have known Antolinis, and I’ll never read that scene the same way.

Ben continues to excel and asks for recommendations for outside reading when the semester ends. I learn he is taking the most advanced computer programming in the school and is on the math team. He gets a job at a grocery store and works more than 30 hours a week. I recommend him for Advanced Placement English for his final year of high school.

Senior year Ben is not my student anymore, but he begins each morning in my classroom with a bunch of other groupies, including blonde bombshell Jennifer. It is clear to me that he is infatuated with her and also that she is oblivious, uninterested or both. Ben asks me about Advanced Placement literature topics, shows me some poems he’s written on unrequited love and invites me to be his Facebook friend. This is four years before our school will institute a policy forbidding social media contact with students, so I accept.

In November, when Ben shows up in my classroom in the mornings, he’s unshaven. He seems to be gaining weight and is uncomfortable in his own skin. Thanksgiving approaches. I am not paying attention to Ben or Facebook but grading term papers and planning menus. My sister Sue flies in and spends the long weekend regaling me with tales of her work on behalf of the orphans. As usual, I feel like an underachiever in our strange family rivalry.

It is the first week of December when I get the call from Jennifer’s mother. She tells me her girls think I will know what to do. “I have Ben here. Ben Maxwell. He’s spent the last two nights here and is refusing to go home. I told him he has to leave, but he’s just sitting there, staring. I don’t know what to do.” Her voice is squeaky and fast.

“Mrs. Reynolds,” I say, “put Ben on the phone.” Eventually, I convince Ben to go to work at the supermarket. “What time is your break, Ben? I’ll meet you then, and we’ll make a plan.” The next hours are a blur of telephone calls. Jennifer calls to give me the backstory: Ben’s stepfather became abusive and Ben had moved in with his manager at the supermarket for a few weeks. When Ben’s Facebook postings got dark, the man asked him to leave because his family felt threatened. When Ben left the Reynolds’ house, he’d said he would just live in his car because no one wanted him.

It’s 5 p.m., slate gray and snowing, the first storm of the year. I call his guidance counselor at home while simultaneously starting dinner and reading the November Facebook posts. The guidance counselor directs me to call the school principal and social worker. Neither answers. It’s 5:30 when I slide through accumulating slush into the Stop & Shop parking lot. I have no plan for the desperate kid who is going to sleep in his car during a blizzard, so naturally I insist he come to stay at my house at the end of his shift. He’ll be safe, and I’ll make a plan the next day at school with access to all the resources I assume we offer.

When I get home, my husband teasingly wonders why I would throw our kindergartener in the back of the car for a ride to the grocery store in a blizzard and then arrive home with no groceries. There is no right moment to announce our impending houseguest, so I just blurt, “One of my students has become homeless. I told him to come here for the night when he gets out of work.” I take a deep breath and wait, watching my husband’s back tense where he stands for two seconds, three, four. He rounds on me.

“Why you?” Mike demands. “This doesn’t seem right, a 17-year-old boy. Where are his parents? What does your principal think? This is not okay. Not okay!” He’s not even looking at me, simply ticking off this litany with the paring knife in his hand. I stumble, explaining the family dynamic, that I’ve notified school authorities, that this is temporary. Inside I am seething. My sisters’ spouses support their helping of kids in need but mine makes me feel reckless. For the first time in a nine-year marriage, I wonder whom I have married. How can this man not understand that a Haverkamp will not turn her back on a child in need?

“Ben had a temporary place to live, but he posted some emails that his manager’s family felt uncomfortable with, so they asked him to leave. He might be suicidal. I can’t leave a depressed, homeless kid to sleep in his car in a New Hampshire blizzard. I just can’t!” I am crying and spitting this last part, but Mike has stopped listening. I can see the pulse on his temples.

“He’s suicidal? Suicidal? You’re bringing a suicidal kid here so our 5-year-old daughter can see this, be hurt by this? What are you thinking?” Now Mike is shaking a little but his voice is dead even. “This is my house, and it is my job to keep it safe for my family, for my daughter.”

I storm off to prepare the guest room. I am nauseated. Here I have a real chance, indeed a moral imperative, to help a kid, and my husband is tripping me up with his “you care about other kids more than your own” logic. He’s right, and I hate him for it. But I can’t fix this now, there’s no time.

I hear the tentative knock at the door. Ben’s car couldn’t make it up our drive in the storm. He stands on my porch without a jacket, his feet in the snow. I lead Ben to the kitchen to introduce him to my stone-faced husband. Mike says nothing, only slowly extends a hand to this interloper. Then I hustle Ben upstairs. I show him how to start the shower, where to find towels and toiletries, smiling through a jaw clenched so tight my teeth could crumble.

“Feel free to throw in some laundry, Ben. I understand you’ve been on your own for a few days now, so you probably need clean clothes,” I say, backing out of the room.

“Yeah, um, I don’t know how to start it. Could you show me?” he whispers.

He’s so big, filling up my tiny spare bedroom. I have forgotten that he’s a child with no life skills yet. I am thankful to have the washing machine buttons to fiddle with and a false ease in my voice to hide the tears on the verge of leaking.

When I go to bed, my daughter tells me she has permission from her daddy to sleep in our bed. She falls asleep in minutes, her soft cheeks flushed, her breathing easy. Mike comes in after midnight and shows me his back. Neither Mike nor I is asleep for a long time.

In the morning, Mike wakes early to clear the driveway. He is further inconvenienced by Ben’s abandoned car halfway up the steep incline. Before he leaves for work, I assure him I will “take care” of the Ben situation today. “Today,” he reaffirms and slams the door.

It’s three years later. Ben and I sit in the Yankee Chef café. We have developed this pattern of lunches or dinners together during his college vacations. He’s come to the house a few times, but it feels better to meet out in the world. I ask Ben perfunctory questions about his computer classes at Northeastern. He wants to talk about his honors writing class. Eventually I am going to have to ask him, this quasi adoptee, about money, how much he has, how much he needs and how I can help him renew his scholarship awards.

Illustration by Erin Maala

I drag some bacon through a streak of yolk while Ben talks.

“So my prof has a memoir. Man, he had a real screwed up childhood. Some girl in my class actually said to him she didn’t know what to write about, and that she, like, wished some of his stuff had happened to her.” He’s shaking his head. I see the hair on his temples is thinning.

“Try not to be angry with privileged college girls, Ben. They know not what they say.” And then I consider the prof. “Wow, what did he say to the stupid girl?” Ben reports that the prof quipped, “Trade ya!”

“Ouch!” I say, and we both laugh. “But you have a lot to say, Ben,” I add.

“Oh yeah, I got an A. And the prof wants me to keep writing. He and I understand each other, you know.” We’ve finished eating. The waitress has cleared the plates, but I cradle my endless cup of coffee and Ben chews ice cubes from his water glass.

“So,” I finally say, “let’s talk about money. You said you didn’t get RA this year, so how are you going to . . . you know?”

“Well there’s a story. I actually wrote about it for class. See, they gave me the RA position, but in a different dorm. It had a communal bathroom, and I had to turn it down.” Ben is swirling the few remaining ice cubes in his glass.

“What is the problem with a communal bath? Are you shy?” I am preparing to say positive things about body image or to offer some other imaginary palliative cure. He needs the free room and board the RA status gives him.

“When I lived in California with my ‘mother,’” he uses air quotes about her and pauses, “she sold me to men in the showers at our campground to pay for her drugs.”

I don’t want to broadcast my revulsion, disgust, anger and, let’s face it, horror, so I hide for a moment behind my hands. “Oh, Ben, I don’t know what to say,” and I put one hand on his wrist. I meet his eyes briefly.

The waitress arrives with our check, and I fumble for my purse. I am going to pay for this breakfast, but I want to pay for more. Payment for pain? Restitution for rape? How much is room and board at Northeastern? How am I going to hide this expenditure from my husband? I feel like I am falling off a cliff.

Ben saves me. He snaps his credit card on top of the bill. I don’t expect this, and I start to protest. Ben explains his financial security as a result of a freelance computer programming gig.

“I’m okay. I got this,” he says. ”I’m okay.”

Today Ben is a computer security specialist with a master’s degree and a home of his own. I think he will struggle with his past until he confronts his demons in therapy. I am not a therapist. But I am a teacher, mentor and friend to this brilliant, damaged young man. Those tense days with Ben in the storm were years ago. They helped me step back from the precipice my savior complex romanticized. My husband’s protests are as understandable today as they were then. Mike is not a threatening ogre. He is a loving father and responsible husband. And one of the things he loves about me is the crazy need I have to save kids, to get them to “Hold-on” through the rye.

Beth Haverkamp Powers is a teacher and writer in New Hampshire. She has published in Social Education and English Journal and is co-writing a novel with her 12-year-old daughter. The names of students and the teacher in the essay have been changed.