By Rick Kambic
Mary Benton was uncomfortable being interviewed by a committee after a she was anonymously nominated for the prestigious Golden Apple teaching award. She thinks students are more worthy of recognition.
The veteran teacher trembled and stuttered when a crew of cameras and family barged into her art class on May 7 with news that she won the honor.
“Children, do things you’re scared of doing,” Benton told her class. “I was terrified of this award and its process, but when you shine you let others shine. Because I did this, now the whole world will know how talented you all are, and how supportive our community is.”
Golden Apple is a nonprofit organization of active and retired teachers who recognize 10 Illinois candidates each year. The group promotes industry pride, and leads in teaching fellow educators new ideas.
Benton is the only teacher in Lake County chosen this year, and her nomination was in a pool with 619 others.
Benton has taught art at Hawthorn Middle School South for 35 years. She said the school was the first to offer her an interview after college, and she’s never applied for another job since.
“It’s a pleasure to work here,” Benton said. “I love getting up every day. I love coming to school. There’s not one day where I don’t want to be here. The kids are amazing.”
Representatives from the Golden Apple Foundation said Benton was a prime choice because of her passion for instilling pride in students. The multiple display cases located throughout the school, and all the student art on the walls of every hallway are evidence of that passion, officials said.
Even ceiling tiles in several parts of the school were painted by students in art classes. The idea first started more than 10 years ago when a leaky roof damaged the ceiling in Benton’s office. At the time, the school did not have money to replace the tiles.
Benton took down the ceiling tiles and offered them to her students. The tiles above Benton’s desk now have pictures of Homer Simpson, the Vernon Hills High School logo, potted flowers, butterflies and tigers, among others.
Coworkers soon took notice when visiting Benton and many of them asked for their ceiling tiles to also be painted.
“This school is her canvas,” Principal Robert Natale said. “About 90 percent of the artwork you see in this school came from students in her classes. She’s very passionate about the visual arts, and she’s exceptionally good at getting her students invested in their own projects. It’s not work to them.”
Students from Hawthorn South are also prominent at Aspen Drive Library’s annual art festival, Natale said.
Once all the surprise guests had entered and she collected herself Wednesday, Benton advocated for art curriculum everywhere.
“Art is important,” Benton began. “Our community knows this, but I want the world to know that art is important. All classes are important. Art is a core class, not an encore. It needs to be in the schools, taught by a professional art teacher every day, or as much as possible.”
Natale later supported Benton’s stance. Natale said Hawthorn Middle School South offers a “whole child education.”
Seventh-graders Milen Aguilar and Teddy Chen were interviewed by the Golden Apple committee, and also invited to the May 7 surprise announcement. They said art class was a “chore” before they met Benton, but now they stay after school and work on non-class projects.
“She doesn’t care if you’re a good artist,” Aguilar said. “She just encourages us to have fun, and she always invites us to come back whenever we want.”
Kevin Benton, Mary Benton’s husband, was also part of the brigade that barged into the classroom. He confirmed that his wife does not seek attention, but admitted the recognition is well-deserved.
“This is one she earned,” Kevin said. “There are no coincidences or lack of candidates. Her love for the arts and determination to students are undeniable. She’s at school early to help students and she stays late to let other students do extra projects. Even over the summer when people assume she’d have relative freedom, she’s always doing research on how to make her class an evolving experience.”
Kevin Benton is a carpenter, and 20 years ago he built an art studio for Mary in their home so she can test potential class projects at her leisure, or explore her own creativity.
“If I can’t do it in 30 minutes, they wont be able to do it in eight days,” Mary said jokingly.
In her free time, Mary likes to collect old photos and recreate them on her drawing board. Specifically, she likes photos of people when they’re unaware of the camera, so she can recreate real emotions. She also enjoys painting and ceramics.
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