I looked at the door, the same one Benji left open after morning visits, and I cried.
"Do you remember a boy named Bengino who went here a few years ago?" my co-worker said entering the classroom, and closed the heavy wooden door, an original of the hundred-year-old building.
Normally, seasoned teachers stop to think of former students but I have a knack for quick recollection.
"Friendly Benji? Of course I remember him. Who could forget such a happy child with a cool nickname?"
I hadn't noticed my colleague's sullen expression until glancing up from my lesson plans.
"Dawn, Bengino passed away yesterday in a house fire."
The news caused me to fall back in the chair, my gut winded. "What? How?"
"Supposedly there was an electrical fire. He was trying to rescue his grandmother but they didn't make it out."
When my swirling mind settled, it zeroed in on a not-so-distant memory of Benji from two years prior.
Benji wasn't yet my student, but he had made it a habit of visiting me every morning since my class performed a musical number for the entire school, which, according to him, was "the bomb!"
"Guess what, Ms. Turzio?" He rushed to the back where I sat, his white teeth complementing his extraordinary attire, and stopped several inches from my face. "I'm in your after-school program!" Each of his dimples deepened as his mouth extended to both earlobes.
Benji, a public school student in the inner city of New York, possessed the sweetest of dispositions and showed nothing but contentedness to be in school when his peers looked to flea, especially after three o'clock. He also had deep roots in faith, his exuberance a visible sign that something higher resided in him.
"That's such wonderful news," I said, equally excited for him.
Benji threw his arms around me and squeezed. "Finally."
I chuckled, flattered by his wanting to be in my class but gently reminded him that it wasn't a time for music and dancing.
"You'll be learning the best reading strategies to pass the English Language Arts test."
Fourth grade in New York State is a high-stakes grade for elementary students. It's the equivalent to junior year of high school, where educational institutions make admittance decisions based on test scores. Here in Brooklyn, junior high is the new high school and every parent wants their little scholar getting into the best programs.
Like the college application and acceptance scrutiny, nine-year-olds are inundated with the pressures of test taking, anticipating results that will answer the pressing question, "Am I good enough?" I don't agree with it, but like many teachers I consider myself a buffer between the predator (the test) and the prey (my students).
"I'm going to pass," Benji said, reassuring. "You'll see."
I held up my hand. He slapped it with a confidence that should've been bottled and branded.
"Atta boy, Ben. Now get some breakfast before school begins."
He skipped out clutching the straps of his knapsack, the soles of his loafers squeaking with every shuffle on the spit-shined linoleum. I remember returning to the sturdy desk and shoveling ungraded papers into my satchel.
When the after-school sessions started, Bengino's name was at the top of my attendance sheets. He arrived on time as if on a mission. His devotion carried him through the course; he passed the test and was accepted into a favorable junior high.
He was entering his second year when the fire broke out in his home.
"You know, Benji's ambition could've made him the president of this fine country," I said to my co-worker.
She nodded. "Well, he's definitely a hero giving his life like that to save others."
Photo: NY Daily News
The school bell rang. I looked at the door, the same one Benji left open after morning visits, and I cried. I never thought becoming a teacher would include unequivocal heartbreak like this. Suddenly, I wanted to throw my arms around him and squeeze. I wanted to feel his high-five. But mostly, I wanted to teach him the dance he loved so much.
I took the attendance folder of this year's remedial class and wrote, "Plan a musical performance," vowing to host a special culminating exercise in honor of Benji. My purpose in teaching becoming ever-more clear.