He appeared in our lives out of nowhere. Just showed up one night, invited to dinner by my mom. A distant relative, and for the life of me I would never be able to remember exactly how we were related. In his mid to late-thirties at the time, a bachelor, with a receding hairline, a fu-manchu mustache, and a big ring of apartment superintendent keys dangling from his belt loop. Except he wasn't a super. He was a middle school english teacher in South Bound Brook.
Cousin Ben became a regular dinner guest. I was a geeky 1970's middle-school bookworm working my way through the entire Ray Bradbury catalogue, and we connected through a mutual love of science fiction. He took me into the city, and we wandered around the Village, poking our noses into used bookstores. He introduced me to Piers Anthony's Macroscope and Larry Niven's Ringworld and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. I ate it up. All of it. He talked about his house, which he was constantly fixing up, and told us stories about his classes; how the kids would tease him because of his balding head, how he tried hard to connect with them and get them engaged, how he argued with his supervisors in the english department over the assigned novels, how he worked for his union local as a member of its negotiating team.
I come from a family of businessmen; builders and real estate, insurance and finance. A few lawyers thrown in. Those were the kinds of jobs you got when you grew up. But a teacher? Cousin Ben was the first teacher I knew outside of school, the first teacher I thought of as someone who taught to make a living, the first teacher I knew who talked about the job of teaching. Looking back, I realize it was Ben who first put the idea in my impressionable mind that teaching might actually be a career opportunity.
After I graduated from college and moved back to New Jersey, we met several times for dinner at a place on Route 22. He was still working, and a little jaded. I was just starting my first teaching assignment, and he was curious to know how I was making my way in the profession. Of course he talked union, but I didn't really pay attention. (It wasn't until later that I realized how important that work was too.) Then we lost touch. But I did see him several years ago, again out of nowhere, invited by my mom to dinner. He'd retired, and lost whatever hair he had left. He was still reading sci-fi, still fixing up his house in South Bound Brook. And I still couldn't remember exactly how we were related.
Cousin Ben helped improve the lot of many teachers by fighting for fair working conditions and compensation, and touched the lives of countless middle schoolers with his passion for reading and literature. And he showed one awkward teenager that teaching could be a life's work. So before I bring the curtain down on 31 years in an elementary school somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike, I want to take this Teacher Appreciation Week 2017 to say:
Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls.
--Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed