A dedicated teacher can open up a whole new world. For me, that teacher was Mrs. Ellen Bensley.
Twenty years ago (?!) next month I started seventh grade at Carmel Middle School in Charlotte. My first class of seventh grade — and my first-period class throughout the year — was French with Mrs. Bensley. I had never been interested in learning a foreign language. But that all changed the year before, in 1993, when I started sixth grade at Carmel. As part of our introduction to intermediate and secondary education and the new world of elective classes, all sixth-grade students’ schedules had an “exploratory” course. Exploratory was divided into six six-week periods which rotated through the various electives.
I had exploratory during fourth period, and the first elective I got to experience was French. I didn’t think I was going to like it. In elementary school, a Spanish teacher came to my class once or twice a week, just like the art and music teachers. I hadn’t experienced that in first grade in Arizona, or in second or the first part of third grade in Oklahoma, and it was a strange new experience when my family moved back to North Carolina and I continued third grade there. I was surrounded by classmates who had had Spanish classes for over two years already — a long time when you’re eight years old. They already knew to stand up when the Spanish teacher came into the room (as is customary in many Spanish-speaking countries), and I always had the impression that they could understand much more of what was going on than I could and that I could never catch up. I dreaded these weekly Spanish sessions, and I decided that I didn’t like learning foreign languages.
But my temporary sixth-grade French teacher, Mrs. Bensley, was amazing. She was engaging and her class was fun. It probably also helped that none of my classmates had ever taken French before, so we were all at least starting from the same point. Before we even got into French, we learned about languages in general: what a language is and how many languages are spoken around the world. We then learned a little about the ancient Romans and their language, Latin, from which French and the other Romance languages descended. I had always been fascinated by the ancient Romans, so this unit was cool. We even had a class party with food that Romans might have eaten at a party. (I recall thinking at the time that modern party food was a lot better than ancient Roman party food.) We squeezed in a little bit of French before the six weeks was over and I was in another elective.
When it was time to register for seventh grade and sign up for electives, I knew that I had to be in Mrs. Bensley’s class — whether or not I liked learning foreign languages, I wanted her to be my teacher.
Late that winter, on Tuesday, 14 March 1995, as I walked into my first-period French class that morning, I had seen Mrs. Bensley — who stood outside our classroom each morning with the neighboring teacher, Ms. Rivka Ber — scolding a student. She apparently decided to take the student to the office for misbehavior, and she was late returning to our classroom to start today. We waited. And we waited. And we waited. Before long, we heard the sirens of ambulances approaching our school. Somehow we knew it was connected with our teacher.
A substitute whom we often saw at our school and who was well-liked by students arrived in our classroom. She explained that Mrs. Bensley had been stricken with something while she was in the office. Nobody knew the prognosis.
Then, in third period, our principal, Mr. Ron Thompson, addressed the school over the P.A. system. He said that Mrs. Bensley had passed away at the hospital.
It was the saddest day of my three years at Carmel.
Though I knew Mrs. Bensley for so short a time, her impact on my life has been profound. As a seventh grader in her French 1A class, I discovered that I love learning other languages. By the time high school rolled around two years later, I decided that I wanted to learn more, so I took Latin in ninth grade and German in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades, in addition to French all four years. I eventually studied in France twice: in Tours for a summer in 2004 and in Aix-en-Provence for a semester in spring 2006. I’ve tried to retain and deepen my understanding of French these twenty years now. I follow French and French-language media on Facebook and elsewhere online, and, thanks to the internet, I’m able to watch a journal télévisé from France, Canada, or Switzerland once or twice a week. This is in addition to being able to understand and partake of the history, literature, politics, and culture of a language and country different from my own. My study of French has opened a whole new world to me, and it all started with an unwanted six weeks in the wonderful Mrs. Ellen Bensley’s sixth-grade exploratory class.
Featured image: Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, painted 1884–1886), by Georges Seurat, Mrs. Bensley’s favorite French painter.