Grandmother shares advice for teachers, students


By Bria Hall, Staff Writer

Myrtle Harris-Benton isn’t the typical retired grandmother, even though she is retired, she has spent her entire life inspiring people to reach their full potential. Born on October 21, 1952, she had a simple childhood, born and raised in Louisiana where there were still rules about integration. She moved to Chicago where she met her future husband, a veteran who joined to support his mother and siblings. She lived on the south side of Chicago. Her working-class neighbors were teachers, so teaching was always close to her heart.

Harris-Benton was raised Catholic, so she and her brother went to catholic school. She was enrolled in college track, an older version of AVID, so taking the easy road wasn’t an option.    Since her mother was a seamstress by trade, Harris-Benton thought that she would be getting an easy A in sewing classes, but the nuns could see through her plan. While others in her sewing classes were making aprons for the class, she said she would make “a whole suit.”

Her initial career choice was to be a nurse, so she volunteered at a hospital. After she saw “too much sickness to handle” Harris-Benton decided to teach. She graduated 7th of 70 in her graduating class, so she was photographed on the Chicago Defender with two of her friends.

Harris-Benton has always had a strong work ethic, starting from when she was a child and continuing throughout adulthood. It started when she worked at Mr. Small’s candy store, paying her high school tuition through the Neighborhood Youth Community program, and during the summers she worked at the Argonne National Laboratory, which she said was a “really great experience.”

In college, she didn’t just go to school, she got a job in the library. In the library, she did a range of tasks in several departments from “book prep to repairing books to working the circulation desk for checking out books.”

She wasn’t a perfect student, though because she did find herself on academic probation for playing “cards in the Pier Room instead of studying…. but I was on the Dean’s list after that.” She did enjoy much college had to offer, but couldn’t enjoy weekends, because she worked after school and weekends.

Harris-Benton had some advice for upcoming freshmen and for current college students struggling with figuring out their lives or themselves. She says:

  1. Put your education first
  2. Follow courses that you like
  3. Choose your friends wisely, all friends are not there for the greater good
  4. Ask for help, teachers want to see you succeed
  5. Set goals for yourself, the next four years will go by faster than you know it

Following graduation, she worked for many schools in many cities and many grades and subjects from social studies, science, and math. She taught 10 years in private Christian schools and 30 years in the public school system. Her career hasn’t been limited to teaching, though. For four years, Harris-Benton became the principal of a small Christian school, because she says she “had been at the school the longest and they trusted me to make news changes for the school.” She has gone back to school twice because you are never too old to go back to school. In 2009, at the age of 47, she went back for her masters in educational administration and in 2011, she went back again to become the librarian at her school, Oscar Depriest Elementary School in Chicago.

In her many years of teaching, Harris-Benton has helped many students strive to their full potential. She remembers one student in particular.  This student had a brittle bone disease and his mother was going to his classes every day. My grandmother, being the hardworking and dedicated teacher she was, asked the mother to leave. The boy did get better in her class and according to Harris-Benton “he’s still making his mark on the world.”

All of her former students are making their marks, their careers ranging from teachers, nurses, business owners, parents, and many more successes. She jokes that she runs into former students everywhere and I remember our home phone ringing with calls from former students who wanted to check up on her and tell her about their accomplishments.

Harris-Benton’s advice for anyone who wants to give teaching a try is that it won’t make you rich, but you should teach for the love of it. She said: “Knowing that you have nurtured, loved, encouraged and helped children put in your care fulfilled their dream is truly priceless.”

Now that she has retired, she gets to do the things that she has always wanted to do, but couldn’t because she had work. She does crafts like making dolls, Christmas ornaments, Cut and Scan t-shirts,  and her specialty knotted blankets.  She also tries making many new recipes. Her day isn’t complete without watching Perry Mason, one of her favorite shows and reading a mystery book, her favorite genre. She lives in Las Vegas, the capital of casinos and entertainment, so going to the casinos is a must. She still tries to keep in touch with family by calling, sending gifts or traveling for big events in their lives like graduation, weddings or baby showers.

One of her traditions, while I was growing up, was spending holidays at her house. I would always get excited about her cooking because it would always unite us as a family. While interviewing my grandmother, I decided to ask her what was the secret of her cooking. She responded: “I make my food with love… I use recipes used by my mother and grandmother for my family to enjoy.”