When terror visited my school

Mark Benjamin
Guest Columnist

I was 10-years-old and all of 60 pounds when the gang of teenage boys entered my 5th-grade classroom to beat up my teacher Mr. Gates.

It was 1966, but it might as well have been yesterday, so seared into my memory is the sheer terror of what happened shortly after lunch that day.

Mark Benjamin
Mark Benjamin

Mr. Gates was at the blackboard putting up some math problems for our class to solve. One of my classmates called out that there were some people at the doorway. Mr. Gates turned and looked at them, angry boys glaring back at him. He walked slowly toward them, asking quietly what they wanted.

“Did you hit my brother?” screamed the skinny teenager in front. Mr. Gates did not break his stride or eye contact as he slowly closed the distance.

A word about Mr. Gates. He was a big, bull-necked man with close-cropped hair and a no-nonsense attitude. Class discipline was as strict as the creases in his trousers and the knot in his tie. Mr. Gates had no tolerance for interruptions when class was in session. So when one of our classmates misbehaved that morning, Mr. Gates swatted him on the butt and the kid ran all the way home to tell his older brothers and their friends. So this mob had come to even the score.

One of the boys hurled a rock at Mr. Gates’ head. He ducked and the rock slammed into the wall. Another boy picked up the wastebasket and flung it across the classroom, papers flying everywhere. We were all screaming, crying, jumping up from our desks and cowering in the far corner, our eyes riveted on the terrible scene.

I will never forget what happened next. Mr. Gates came at them and they retreated. Then he placed his hands on either side of the doorjamb, lifted his body up and kicked out, knocking them all into the hallway.

There was a lot of noise and other teachers spilled out of their classrooms running to help us. The boys ran away but were soon caught and later convicted.

We were back in class with Mr. Gates the next day as if nothing had happened. There would be no counseling or hand wringing; only the math problems on the blackboard that had been interrupted and still insisted on being solved.

But I sometimes wonder what might have happened to Mr. Gates. What if the boys had wrestled him to the ground? Punched him and stomped upon him with their boots? What if they smashed his head with a crowbar? What if they shot him? Would we have watched our teacher Mr. Gates slowly die? Would we have heard him cry for his wife and children?

I remember the story of one of the teachers at Columbine who was shot. As he lay on the floor dying, his students knelt by his side and showed him pictures of his family that they retrieved from his wallet.

I was lucky. My classmates were lucky. We didn’t have to live the rest of our lives with those kinds of memories.  But luck is not a plan for our children’s safety at school.  I write this piece so that I might convince our neighbors and friends that school safety is important enough to pay for. After all, without a safe school, a whole lot more might be interrupted than some math problems on a blackboard. Please vote yes on Nov. 5.