EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — As a second-grader, Kerry Benedict recalls one of her teachers at Longfellow Elementary School asking the age-old question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Benedict's answer: a babysitter.
While the response may have reflected positively on Benedict's childhood babysitters, the teacher, recognizing the occupation's limited career opportunities, suggested her student open her mind to greater possibilities.
Benedict's revised answer — a teacher — has had a lot more staying power.
In fact, she has never wavered from that goal, and this fall that child's dream has come full circle.
Benedict, now 24, is teaching at Longfellow, assisting with the launch of the Eau Claire school district's new Spanish dual immersion program, the Leader-Telegram reported. She collaborates with kindergarten teacher Reanna Goodman this year and is expected to follow the same students and be their first-grade teacher next year.
"I have always said I wanted to end up here again," Benedict said before school on a recent Wednesday. "I feel like it's home."
Adding to Benedict's sense of deja vu, the educator who helped inspire her dream to be a teacher so many years ago is one of 19 people still on staff from Benedict's time as a Longfellow student. Now an achievement gap reduction teacher, Nanette Coubal works with students right across the hall from Benedict's kindergarten room and has agreed to be Benedict's mentor as she gets accustomed to her new role.
Coubal, who was honored a couple years ago to receive a letter from a dean at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse indicating that Benedict had identified Coubal as a person who made a difference in her life by helping her choose teaching as a career, said she is delighted that Benedict's career path led back to Longfellow.
"It's great to have her as a colleague," Coubal said. "She's just fitting in wonderfully."
Staff at the school have a special culture they call "the Longfellow way," and Benedict didn't miss a beat picking it up, Coubal said.
"The kindness, compassion and camaraderie that we feel for one another, as well as the students, it's part of her," Coubal said.
While making the transition from student to colleague can be awkward at times — "It's a challenge to call my old teachers by their first names; I still feel like I'm going to be in trouble," Benedict acknowledged — she insisted teaching at Longfellow is literally a dream come true.
Likewise, when the Eau Claire school board approved the launch of the Spanish dual immersion program this year at Longfellow, it seemed almost too good to be true for Benedict.
As a double major in elementary education and Spanish at UW-La Crosse, Benedict taught third grade in a Spanish partial immersion program in La Crosse for two years after graduation.
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"It just feels like it was meant to be," she said moments after a student walked by her classroom door with the greeting "Buenos dias."
The fledgling Eau Claire dual immersion program has 21 students, divided almost evenly between native Spanish and English speakers. The students speak exclusively English and Spanish at different times of the day. The goal is for all of the students to become bilingual.
The program, which is beginning with just the kindergarten class, will expand each year by one grade level until it serves kindergartners through fifth-graders. Briana Smit, English learner coordinator with the district, has emphasized the positive impacts that research shows bilingualism has on children's development — not only in terms of language skills, but also on achievement in math, science and social studies.
Already, Goodman said, students in the class are learning faster than expected and are showing increasing signs of confidence speaking up in their non-native language.
For her part, Benedict looks forward to helping these pioneering students make their own memories in a building that has meant so much to her.
Benedict's ties to the school run deep and her memories go back a long way in several spots inside those brick walls.
As the kind of ideal student who her former fourth-grade teacher Scott Gee remembers as calm, organized and "super together," Benedict didn't get scolded much during her first stint at Longfellow. Thus, the North High School co-valedictorian still recalls, as she descends the stairs heading to the playground at Longfellow, how she once got shushed by a teacher when she squealed after getting stung by a bee on those very same steps.
Benedict also can be forgiven if she resists snack offers in the school office. She described being selected as a student to appear in a commercial and having her mother — another angle of this seemingly too-good-to-be-true story is that Benedict's mom, Jenny, used to be a playground supervisor and partnership coordinator at Longfellow — and a teacher tell her what a good actress she was as they stood in the school office.
As soon as the words got out of their mouths, Benedict promptly plopped down on all fours and started hitting herself in the stomach. The stunned adults initially assumed she was demonstrating her acting ability until a purple Gobstopper candy flew out of her mouth and they realized she had been choking.
Even the classroom where she now helps students with their English and Spanish skills has memories attached to it. The room is where she attended fourth grade and had Gee as a teacher. He jokes that even back then Benedict had a teacher vibe and occasionally would suggest a better way to do something.
Benedict was the very first student to enter his room on his first day as a teacher, and he appreciates that she now works alongside him on the school's teaching staff.
"As teachers, we look at our students as our own kids, so now it's like my own kid has come home to teach," Gee said. "It's really cool."
Benedict agrees, and perhaps summed it up best in this Facebook post, accompanied by before and after pictures, in advance of school starting four weeks ago: "I am BEYOND excited to return to Longfellow this year as a teacher rather than a student. My love for learning began at Longfellow 19 years ago. I am thrilled I will be able to share that passion with students just like me."
Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/