Grade Books by Dennis Milam Bensie

     Lincoln Grade School was a big, square building built of stone in 1939. My mother went to school there in the 1940’s and I went to school there in the early 1970's. I had issues with gay taunts in the fourth grade so I left Lincoln Grade School and transferred to Washington Grade School across town.

     I was bullied more when I got to Nuttle Middle School in the fall of 1976. I began to avoid going to school as much as possible. I was a ghost. A queer boy; secretive and different than most kids. I did things that made no sense, even to me.

     Alone at home, I had a rich fantasy life. I wanted to be a teacher --my bedroom was my classroom. My mom put a large, cork bulletin board on the wall that I used in place of a chalkboard to teach my class. The twin bed was a large bank of school desks for my students. I took 3 x 5 notecards and wrote pretend names of pretend students on each of the cards. I carefully arranged the cards on my comforter as a seating chart. When I taught my pretend class, I was in control of the room. I had a polished voice and and all my students loved me.

     At real school, I was in awe of all my teacher’s grade books. One could tell a good teacher from a bad teacher by how neat the grade book was. All of the columns and small boxes where a grade would be placed were very important. The numbers, letters, or check marks by a student’s name told of the past and could predict the future. The power of the classroom all boiled down to a simple, spiral-bound notebook with very specific lines and boxes that was designed just for a teacher.

     I wanted to be a good teacher. I needed a grade book. A real one. Where did teachers get their grade books?

     I looked at different stores in town for grade books but no store sold them. There were other types of ledgers, journals, and notebooks but the lines and spaces were not right for a teacher. I couldn’t take an accountant’s book and turn it into a teacher’s book. That wasn’t good enough.

     I tried to compensate by taking a ruler and making my own custom grade book with all the lines and the spaces in the right place. It wasn't easy to do and make believable. It felt fake. I could excuse my bedroom-classroom and the notecards with fictional student names. But I just had to have a real grade book.

     Seventh grade was already swallowing me up within the first weeks of the school year. Day to day, I felt myself getting smaller and smaller. One morning I got to school and was overwhelmed with anxiety. I couldn't breathe. The nurse arranged for my grandmother to pick me up from school and keep me until my mother got off work late that afternoon. Grandma lived two blocks away from Lincoln Grade School.

     I got out of the car and told Grandma that I was going for a walk to catch my breath. She watched me gasp my way down the driveway. I walked over to Lincoln Grade School and sat on the front steps to collect my thoughts. It felt rebellious to be absent from my school and sitting in front of the wrong school in the middle of a school day. Yet, I was too hollow to be rebellious. I wanted to be at home, in my room ...teaching my classroom.

     I needed to do the morning over.

     I wanted to be in control.

     I fantasized about kicking the bad kids out of my classroom.

     I would give good grades to my good students in return.

     A’s and B’s.

     Not F’s.

     It was lunch time. I heard children start to fill the playground behind Lincoln Grade School. I got up from the concrete steps and marched right up to the front door of the school and walked in like I belonged there. I marveled at the hallway with the old, checkered marble floor and high ceilings. All the classrooms were empty. There was an elegant echo to Lincoln Grade School that I missed. Nuttle Middle School was too modern with bright colors and carpeted floors.

     To my immediate left was the Kindergarten classroom that was my very first classroom years before. I followed the hall to my old second grade classroom. I timidly went into the room and looked out the window to the playground. The swings and slides had all changed since I attended that school.

     I took the stairs to the second floor and went into my fourth grade classroom. The little desks and chairs were sweet, but the room made me feel sick to my stomach. As I turned to walk out of the room I saw an open grade book in the center of the teacher’s desk. The paper in the notebook was pale green with black lines. It's cover was a darker green, thick cardboard with a bumpy, textured feel.

     I sat down at the teacher’s desk and carefully thumbed my way through the book. The left margin of each page was perforated and folded back--one page per subject: English, Math, Spelling, Social Studies, Science. Each piece of paper lined up perfectly with the list of student’s names, printed in blue ink. The school year had just started. There were barely any marks in the book. It was practically new.

     I closed the note book and tucked it into my jacket. I went to the next classroom and did the same thing. I took teacher's grade book right off the desk and made my way down the hall.

    Voices and footsteps were coming up the stairwell. Lunchtime recess was over and the kids were on their way back to class. I quickly ducked into the music room. For the first time since I had entered Lincoln Grade School, I was scared. I didn't want to lose the grade books I had swiped. I deserved them for all the pain I had felt at school.

     I sat on the floor in the corner of the music room and waited. I pulled the grade books out of my coat and looked at them. The names and grades were all unknown, but the books held honor. They were beautiful to me: linear, clean, artistic. The two teachers had carefully judged and documented each student homework with symbols that were as important as brushstrokes in a painting.

     I had no idea what was going to happen to me that day and I didn't care. If I got caught stealing and trespassing, I would have a lot of attention; trouble perhaps. If I didn't get caught, I would have satisfying props for my fantasy school. I could paint my own picture of judgement and grades.

     When the students and teachers all got settled into their classroom after lunch, I slipped out of the music room and went to the boy's bathroom. After a quick pee, I turned around to leave and walked right into a young boy with blond hair. He was probably in the third or fourth grade and was quite startled to see me. I tried to act calm; like I belonged in the building. I left him behind and made my way out of the building. My breathing was suddenly heavier than it was when my grandmother came to pick me up across town an hour before.

     I got outside through a side door without anyone seeing me, yet I was spotted by two teachers as I ran past the windows of the principal's office. I quickly made my way back to my grandma's house.

     "How are you feeling?" Grandma asked.

     "Better," I said.

     "The fresh air probably did you some good," she said with a half smile.

     Mom picked me up after work. There was barely an exchange about my breathing or sickness between Mom and Grandma. They both knew of my struggles as a sissy boy. Nothing would change.

     At home, I wasted no time tearing out all the pages of the grade book that were written on by the two real teachers. It felt good to throw them away. I literally erased two whole classrooms and all their hard work. I could then start the grade books over with my own grades and check marks. Vivid, perfect and mine.

Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. He holds a degree in Theatre Costume Design from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and completed an apprenticeship in theatrical wig construction at Los Angeles Opera. His costume and wig design for Valley of the Dolls at Empty Space Theatre in Seattle garnered him a feature article in Entertainment Design Magazine and a Seattle Times Footlight Award for Best Design. 1n 2012, his video WE DO THE (WIG) WORK took first place at the Washington State Labor Council Film Contest and was shown at the Seattle International Film Festival. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was published by Coffeetown Press and was a pick by the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. His second book, One Gay American, was released in September 2012 to rave reviews. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.

Bay Laurel  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  Winter 2012