During a recent orientation for new members of the Maryland General Assembly, Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) had to laugh at the first rule of protocol for freshman legislators. Their mandate, to "be seen and not heard," is often applied to the schoolchildren she has spent her life helping to educate.
Benson, who often rejects that popular prescription of etiquette for her students, expects to have a hard time conforming to custom and receding into the shadows during her first session in Annapolis.
"That is not one of my characteristics and I'm not so sure I'll be able to live with that rule," Benson said during a recent interview. "I feel it's really important for me to have some input as long as I'll be voting on issues."
Benson, 49, was elected to the House of Delegates in November after five years as principal of John H. Bayne Elementary School in the Capitol Heights section of Prince George's County.
She is one of 45 freshman legislators. And, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association, educators such as Benson make up the second-largest single group of professionals in the General Assembly behind lawyers. This session, there will be six senators and 19 delegates with previous job experience in education, said Tom Gray, the teachers association lobbyist.
A motherly figure who became known as a fierce and effective advocate for the 500 "little babies" who attend John Bayne, Benson hopes to use her new position to improve the lives of children statewide.
Visibility and outspokenness are the very tools she has used to turn her school into a model of community participation and public-private cooperation, a place where high expectations are held not just for students and teachers, but for parents and local institutions as well.
Benson's first actions upon becoming principal at John Bayne in May 1985 included visiting civic leaders in the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods near her school and recruiting volunteers for tutoring and mentoring programs.
Since then, she has pestered the owners of an apartment complex adjacent to the school to donate space for a community health center, challenged county residency requirements that she felt penalized homeless children, and delivered stern lectures to parents who sent their children to school with dirty clothes and uncombed hair.
"All that knocking on doors, it really paid off during the campaign, which was essentially more of the same thing," Benson said. "People knew me and my reputation, so they knew what I stood for and were receptive."
Although Benson has always been politically active -- working as a poll watcher for dozens of Democratic candidates in Prince Goerge's County and holding offices in both the state and county teacher unions -- she says she joined the delegate's race last summer with reluctance.
She was recruited to run for one of the three District 24 House seats last spring by Wayne Curry, former president of the county Chamber of Commerce, and former state senator Tommie Broadwater, who was heading a ticket to unseat the district's incumbents. Initially, she turned them down.
"I really did not feel that my job here was finished. I wanted a few more years to really make a difference," she said.
Her recruiters did not give up, though, and two days before the filing deadline in July, Benson threw her hat into the ring. "We reviewed my list of accomplishments and they convinced me that I could have more of an impact if I went to Annapolis to fight for more than the 500 children at John Bayne," Benson said.
Though her candidacy was opposed by the county's Democratic establishment during the primary and she spent less than $3,000 on her campaign, Benson finished second in the September primary, defeating incumbent Carolyn J.B. Howard. Ironically, Benson's district does not include the school she has run for so many years. The 24th District spans the inner-Beltway communities of Takoma Park, Mount Rainier, Seat Pleasant and Glenarden in north central Prince George's.
Benson will take a three-month leave from the school system to work in Annapolis, and also will look for a new position in education, perhaps as a multicultural curriculum specialist.
A new principal for John Bayne will have to be appointed and those who have worked with Benson say she will be difficult to replace. It is not just any administrator who keeps a closetful of children's underwear and fresh soap and towels in her office to make sure none of her students have to do without the basics that are so central to their self-esteem.
Two weeks ago, Benson was delighted to learn that she has been appointed to serve on the House's Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, which deals with the state's education policies, as well as such issues as political reapportionment. "I want to make sure that African Americans get their share of the pie" when new legislative districts are drawn, Benson said.
Benson said she doubts she will sponsor any bills her first time out and plans to devote much of her energy during the next three months to forging political alliances, learning about the legislative process and helping the county's delegation fight to preserve its school funding. She said she is particularly interested in issues dealing with senior citizens and substance abuse, as well as the plight of homeless people.
Benson attributes her concern for the needy, in particular poor children, to her own childhood in Western Maryland's Hagerstown, where she was one of five children. A minister's daughter, she attended racially segregated public schools until the ninth grade, but says the small black community in her home town always stressed racial pride and encouraged youngsters to pursue opportunities.
It was only after she transferred to an integrated high school, Benson says, that she was made to feel disadvantaged. She recalls how her school counselor discouraged her from applying to college and told her she would never amount to anything. Benson was accepted at Bowie State College, however, and graduated with a degree in elementary education. She later earned a master's degree in education from Catholic University.
"I guess it's like teaching. You have to be there to understand the way it works," Benson said of the legislature's traditions. "I'm not looking for a career in politics, though. I just want to do as much as I can as quickly as I can."