From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1954 –
A Pair of Pants for Benjy
By Pansye H. Powell
I went to school that last day with my mind almost made up. I hadn’t yet signed my contract for the next year, and I was in the enviable position of having two jobs open to me – my present one as a teacher in the Central Junior High and a new offer from a publishing firm downtown that wanted me to become its representative, traveling with expenses paid – no more paper checking, no more disciplinary problems, no more worrying over other people’s children …
To me, jaded and worn by a difficult year of crowded classrooms and worrisome problems, the chance to remove myself from it all and go into a different experience seemed almost providential. But I had waited, accepting neither offer, until now the final day of school had come with its last classes and, in the afternoon, promotion exercises for the ninth graders who would be going into senior high in the fall.
I’ll mail my contract back unsigned tonight, I thought, as I walked to school.
In this state of mind I entered the building and went to my room – and there was Benjy!
Benjy was an odd child, not too bright, but not the kind to cause any particular trouble in a room. He was tall and very thin; he was out of school quite a bit, too, with some ailment or other, but, when it came time to graduate the ninth graders, Benjy’s name was on the list.
He was so quiet that I hadn’t given much thought to him – it’s always the ones who cause us trouble that we notice, of course; but today I had to notice him, for, as I looked over my room at the start of the day, I realized that Benjy had come to school on this all-important day wearing one of the same patched shirts and faded ragged levis that he had worn all year.
We had told all the boys and girls who were to graduate that they should wear their nicer clothes; there would be an audience, and each one would walk across the stage in the auditorium to receive his certificate of promotion. They were not to dress in fancy clothes, but each was to be neat and clean and make a good appearance. And there was Benjy – same levis, too tight for him now, and a checkered blue-and-white shirt.
I looked at him and thought, I’ll bet if I sent him home to change, he wouldn’t have anything to change into. It’s not my job to see that he looks right to graduate. That’s his mother’s business. I’m not going to worry about him.
But I noticed the pathetic effort he had made to spruce himself up for the day. His hair had been combed at some time during the past two hours, and his face and hands looked as though he had scrubbed them. I tried to steel myself against taking pity on him.
All the time I was trying to argue myself out of helping Benjy, I knew very well what was going to happen. I was going somehow or other to find Benjy some decent clothes to graduate in. I just couldn’t let him go up on that stage looking like a scarecrow. On this one day of his life, at least, he must look as he deserved to look.
I set the class to finishing a last assignment in their literature books and hurried up to the principal’s office. Mr. Bascom was busy at his desk, but he looked up as I entered and waited for me to tell him my errand.
“I’ve come about Benjy Martin, Mr. Bascom,” I hastily explained; “he has come today in the same old clothes he has worn all year. I know it’s no use to send him home for something different. Can we do something for him? Could we somehow get him some better-looking things?”
He didn’t seem surprised that I should have come to him with such a request. Instead he said, “Hmmmmm,” and pulled thoughtfully at his lower lip, the way he does when he is trying to work out a problem. “What size is he?”
“Well, he’s tall for fifteen and thin as a beanpole.”
Mr. Bascom was tall, too, taller than Benjy, and thin, but not so thin as he.
He came up with a suggestion, “I have a pair of pants and a shirt at home that I was going to give away. I’ll bet they’d just about fit him. You go back to your class, and I’ll dash up home and get them and be right back.”
With real relief, I welcomed this shifting of the responsibility for Benjy’s sartorial effect to reliable shoulders and hurried back to my room. Satisfied that all was being taken care of, I plunged into a brisk discussion of the story the class had been reading in my absence. Half an hour later I looked up to see Mr. Bascom standing outside my door. I went to meet him.
He looked at me with a crestfallen air. I could see that he was holding in his hand one freshly ironed very white shirt – and that was all.
“My wife gave the trousers and shirt to the Deseret Industries this morning,” he explained. “I brought this good shirt, thinking maybe he could wear it, and that would help out some on his appearance.”
“I’ll get Benjy,” I said, “and you try the shirt on him.”
A few minutes later Benjy returned to the room, face beaming proudly above a very white shirt; but, below the belt, his old levis looked all the dingier in contrast to the immaculateness of his upper half.
Mr. Bascom looked at me anxiously. “What can we do about those pants?” he muttered, so no one of the interested observers of our rather unusual behavior could hear.
“Maybe we could borrow a pair of pants from one of the other students who won’t be graduating,” I ventured. “Couldn’t we have one of the other teachers inquire in his classes for a student who would be willing to lend a pair of pants just for the graduation exercises?”
“Sounds likely,” he smiled again. “I’ll have John Dimmick ask in his mathematics classes of eighth graders. No one need know who’s going to wear the pants.”
That was the way it stood when the bell rang for the first period to be over. I watched Benjy walk out of my class and saw how proud he was of the white shirt he was wearing. He gave me a shy grin as he went past. That, I remembered, was the first time he had ever seemed to note my existence as a person.
The morning wore on. The exercises were to be at two o’clock in the afternoon. At twelve o’clock, between classes, John Dimmick came to report to me that he hadn’t had any luck in finding a suitable pair of pants for Benjy. He had asked in two classes. “I wouldn’t worry any more about it,” he comforted; “you’ve done your best.”
But I wouldn’t give up. Suddenly I thought of something. Gym class! Boys’ gym class! That was our last hope! There would be a class at one o’clock. Surely in a big bunch of boys – even if they were seventh graders – there would be someone who would let Benjy wear his pants for an hour.
I asked John to watch my class for a few minutes, since he didn’t have a class at this hour, and dashed over to the boys’ gym. Mr. Hales was, of course, surprised to see me coming in, all out of breath. The boys were lined up in their street clothes for roll call, the last one of the year. I glanced hastily down the rows – some of the boys looked as tall as Benjy and certainly several were as skinny.
I told Mr. Hales my errand and he turned to the boys:
“Attention, fellows! Miss Carter has something to say to you.”
They were quiet, looking at me. I hoped I’d be able to find at least one pair of possible pants for Benjy. Desperation made me eloquent, I guess, for they listened without a snicker. But they did not offer to lend anything. I stood waiting, and the silence became embarrassing. Finally, a voice spoke up from the rear row.
“Would mine do?”
It was Henry Bishop who spoke. Henry was the tallest boy and the skinniest one in the room and was shunned by the other boys because he was considered a sissy.
“Suppose we give you boys a chance to see,” Mr. Hales suggested.
Benjy was sent for, and he and Henry and Mr. Hales retired to the boys’ dressing rooms. There the exchange was made. Henry’s clean, dark slacks gave Benjy a dressed-up air that fitted with the dignity of the part he was to take during the afternoon. On the other hand, Benjy’s shabby levis were a very tight fit for Henry, who retreated to the janitor’s room and spent the next three hours in solitary communion with a magazine most of the time, while Benjy was happily receiving his promotion from junior high.
Later, the janitor, who shared Henry’s seclusion at various times during the three hours, repeated Henry’s comment on the occasion: “Well,” he said, grinning broadly, “if I don’t make it out of here, I can always say that my pants graduated, whether I do or not.”
Meanwhile, up in the auditorium the graduation exercises were proceeding. When the time came for the graduates to march across the auditorium stage in single file to receive their diplomas, I watched anxiously for Benjy. Then I saw him standing at the side of the stage, waiting until the girl just ahead of him had taken the prescribed four steps before he should start. He straightened his collar, hitched up his pants at the belt, and he stepped out proudly.
It was then I made up my mind to stay with schoolteaching. Never again would I say that schoolteachers work without adequate compensations when they do extra things to help their students, for when I saw Benjy Martin step across that stage with his head high and his white shirt gleaming, I was paid, you bet I was paid!