"Stop Popping": How I learned to stay creative

How my fourth grade teacher inspired me to be me

It has been hard to stay in touch with family and friends as a senior. Nonetheless, like most college students, I always attempt to call home during my off-times.

This past summer, in one of my many phone calls with my mother, she reminded me of a dreaded moment during fourth grade.

The moment is probably nothing for most people but for myself – a self-conscious young man with an obtuse mind – it hurt.

My fourth grade teacher called me out for what he liked to call “popping.”

The only definition of “popping” I recognized growing up was if something looked fresh.

Aside from that, this new definition by my teacher confused me.

My classmates and I were all huddled in the back of the room for an exercise of sorts, discussing something we had learned. What we were discussing doesn’t matter but what transpired next has replayed in the back of my mind since.

My teacher asked a question and I followed his question up with an answer, in “typical Ben fashion,” as many of my friends would call it. My answer was abstract, I went off on another one of my typical tangents – but my point must’ve been brilliant, even though I forgot the details of it.

My teacher decided, instead of a respectful response, to call me out.

“Your answers are like popcorn, Ben, they’re going all over the place,” he said. “We should have a word for it, I think. I call it popping - stop popping, Ben.”

The whole class stared, some snickered. I had been bullied like any skinny, not overly-performative masculine boy would be in elementary school. This moment, however, stood out.

I got back home and told my mother about it immediately. She reassured me there’s nothing wrong with answering a question and grossly withdrawing from my original point.

This still hurt, however, since this was the first teacher that introduced me to journalism.

I was thrust into writing for my school’s first-ever newspaper alongside my brother Brenton who drew comics. It was sweet as could be and I loved every second of it; my name in print, even if it was on an elementary school level.

The newspaper was barely anything, though, even if my teacher’s efforts to bring it to the school were big-time. The newspaper never ran on time and my brother’s comics were shoddily scanned on a school printer.

I remember one instance where I wrote a preview of NCAA March Madness that ran in the paper. The paper’s release, however, coincided with the NCAA men’s basketball final and still ran.

If my teacher was going to allow any creativity in the classroom, it would be at his own pace. He often gave me money to go grab him a Mountain Dew soda in the nearby teacher’s lounge. I thought it was a special task to complete but looking back, I could see it was an excuse for me to get out of his hair.

After the fourth grade, I tried to modify my “popping” abilities with no luck. It was stressful and at times anxiety provoking.

How could I live up to my educator’s expectations? The answer to that question is non-existent.

Elementary school went by and middle school brought some of my favorite childhood memories. I asked myself if I would finally find a teacher who would encourage my creativity and to my luck, I did.

Mr. Leight, my seventh and eighth grade English teacher, acted as a renaissance man as far as teaching is concerned. It took me until college to find an educator as passionate as him; someone who brought fun and creativity into the classroom.

Mr. Leight played music during our study halls, walked us through his experience at the inauguration of then-President Obama in eighth grade and also started my school’s comic club.

As a kid who loved to draw, his club created a space for me to express that creativity. Other students and I took our talents to an art space downtown, even having our comics displayed during an exhibit at the end of the school year.

To say Mr. Leight made me come to terms with my “popping” abilities would be an understatement.

Other teachers, like my former social studies teacher Mr. Smith, did the same.

Mr. Smith and his book club filled my life with joy, engrossing myself in books like “Slam!” by Walter Dean Myers and eating pizza every Tuesday. He helped in expanding my love for history and politics, even gifting me with a pin of President Obama during the 2008 Presidential election.

Mr. Smith, Mr. Leight and so many others are living reasons why education - education that cares about the individual rather than the group - matters. They’re reasons why “popping” matters, why the arts matter and why being out-of-the-box is never a bad thing.

“Popping” has got me further than I could ever imagine, further than not “popping” at all. I’ll “pop” forever and never look back, encourage the next generation to “pop” and look for signs of “popping” in every article or book I read.

So, if you’re reading this, I’ll never stop “popping.”

Benjamin Blanchet is a senior arts editor and can be reached at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com.


Benjamin Blanchet is the senior engagement editor for The Spectrum. His words have been seen in The Buffalo News (Gusto) and The Sun newspapers of Western New York. Loves cryptoquip and double-doubles.