Ben has a lesson to teach

A teacher finds that, centuries later, Franklin's life speaks to teenagers

Spring had segued into an early summer, although it was still May. The afternoon sun was warm as students pushed their way through the glass doors out of the school and into the parking lot. They had been complaining about the air-conditioning for weeks. "Too hot in here," was the mantra.

I stepped over book bags piled up in the hall and stopped by the faculty mailboxes. Two students brushed by me as though I were a potted plant. Tired and tense, I returned to my classroom and sat quietly for a few minutes before the scheduled department meeting. We'd be talking about curriculum for the following year.

Suddenly, an old friend emerged from the recesses of my mind: Benjamin Franklin. I imagined him as a child walking with his father, who pointed out various tradesmen at work. Would young Ben like to be a candlemaker? A bricklayer? The small boy didn't yet know that his love of reading and writing would lead him to a career as a printer.

I envisioned Franklin later in his life, strolling the streets of Philadelphia, grimy and tired after his boat trip from New York, his pockets crammed with a grimy shirt, stockings, and the few coins remaining from his voyage. With 3 cents he purchased "three great puffy rolls." Tucking one under each arm, he nibbled the third as he walked along.

Still years away from becoming a writer, inventor, and diplomat, roles on which his fame would rest, the 17-year-old Franklin – the age of my students – had set out to seek his fortune and discover what life had to offer.

I carried my old hardback copy of Franklin's autobiography to the meeting. Its paper cover was badly frayed, its pages filled with penciled asterisks and comments in the margins. "Let's teach this again," I said.

"You've always pushed for Thoreau's 'Walden,' " one colleague said with a laugh.

"Thoreau helps us assess our inner lives," I said, "but I think the kids need the solid wisdom of Franklin just as much."

"I don't know if they can relate to Franklin well enough to read the entire book," others said, skepticism in their voices.

I felt a need to teach the wisdom of this 18th-century exemplar. The stress of modern life has reduced civility in our exchanges, I thought – in the workplace, in the community, and even in families. Franklin had continually worked to make himself more agreeable to others, more of a team player in life. Might his book inspire students to do the same?

"Wisdom is never dated," I said. By the end of the meeting, "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" had joined the list of books to be taught in the fall.

Early the next year, we delved into the book. Students seemed to identify readily with Franklin's arguing with his older, authoritarian brother, with his leaving home to seek his fortune, and with how he learned to build a good reputation in his chosen field.

Frugality and industry, lessons parents often find difficult to teach, shone through Franklin's book. He emphasized the importance of first impressions and the perceptions others may have of us. "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman," he wrote, "I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearance to the contrary."

"That doesn't mean you fake it," I told my students, "but let how you look and sound reflect the best that's in you."

Franklin spoke of "the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually." My students well understood the need to work comfortably with their peers, knowing when to yield and when to hold fast to one's convictions.

Recognizing the difficulty of controlling our reactions when things go awry, we reflected long on Franklin's words: "Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable." We spoke of the need to check our emotions before we lash out at others or ourselves. My students drew comfort from the realization that the problem was a timeless one.

Franklin reminds his readers to "forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve." Hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and resentments rear their ugly heads. But Franklin's words, I told my students, give us pause and help us rein in our anger and tears.

My students already knew about his inventing the Franklin (wood-burning) stove, the famous kite experiment, the first subscription library, and others of his well-known inventions and accomplishments.

But by the time we completed the autobiography, we had watched an impressionable young man learn how to make it in this world. Franklin succeeded economically, but, equally important, he learned to deal honestly and civilly with others. At a young age, Franklin grasped what it meant to play fairly and to promote peace. None of my students doubted the need for this lesson.

One particular bit of wisdom from the book has stayed with me, I told my classes: Be grateful for the gift of every day, however mundane it seems. "Human felicity," Franklin wrote, "is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day."

The visible signs of Franklin's world are gone: the unpaved roads, the short pants and stockings, even the giant penny rolls that assuaged a young man's hunger on his first trip to the city that later claimed him as its own. But some things haven't changed: We need to get along with one another, and learning to live in peace and harmony with one's fellows still requires the skills Franklin teaches us by the example of his own life.

Franklin's wit & wisdom

"Who is rich? He that rejoices in his portion."

"Drive thy business – let not that drive thee."

"Little strokes, fell great oaks."

– Aphorisms collected, revised, or authored by Ben Franklin, writing as 'Poor Richard'

I began now gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the printing-house. In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchas'd at the stores thro' the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem'd an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom; others proposed supplying me with books, and I went on swimmingly.

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