When I was in the third grade, my father visited our classroom dressed up as Benjamin Franklin. Portraying Ben as himself, he taught the eager third graders about Ben’s work in colonial times, highlighted some of his American accomplishments, showed us an electricity trick, and shared a few related jokes. It was thrilling for us all, and of course, I still remember it like yesterday.
Throughout his life, my father continued to portray Ben Franklin for various events, cruise gatherings, adult social groups and community library functions over the years. The attached photo shows his last portrayal and public appearance as Benjamin Franklin.
After my father passed away, my siblings and I were clearing some of the estate only to find the original thank you letters written by my third grade classmates all those years ago. In the letters, students thanked Ben for his visit, shared what they enjoyed most, and invited him back again.
Now in honor of my father and his deep respect for Ben’s contributions to America, I continue the tradition by dressing up as Mrs. Abiah Franklin (Ben’s mother) and giving presentations for elementary school classrooms. In character, Abiah Franklin also shares about colonial life, her 17 children of which Benjamin was her youngest son, and some of Ben’s many accomplishments.
It’s extraordinary how willing children are to move with you into make-believe. There’s definitely a part of them that recognizes at once that someone is dressed up, and how could a citizen from the 18th century suddenly appear before them in 2015. Yet amazingly, by the end of our time together, the students are calling Abiah “Miss” and asking questions that prove they, too, have seamlessly entered the world of make-believe. This was evidenced, in particular, by one young lad who took it upon himself to carefully explain how indoor lighting worked and that the light above was actually not candles on the ceiling after all.
Questions from students during Abiah Franklin’s presentations are always entertaining. I receive questions like “What was it like living in the colonial days?” and “What was Ben like as a boy?” and “How did you ever get along without WiFi?” – until, of course, they realize Abiah doesn’t know what WiFi is. Eager to assist, students also work hard to explain to me what a camera is – only to discover that an explanation is much more difficult than they expected.
As a parting souvenir and tangible reminder of the visit, students each receive fake $100 bills with Ben Franklin on them. Without a doubt, Ben’s accomplishments were many and the lending library, fire stations, national postal system, police force, and University of Pennsylvania as an Academy–to which he played a major role in founding–all still stand today. It’s hard to imagine that contributions from one life still exist over 300 years later. His invention of bifocals also still exist today in various forms, and in his time, his invention of the Franklin Stove improved heating and efficiency with less smoke. Of course, we’re all aware of his famous experiment proving that lightning is the same as electricity. Additionally, some of his published witticisms like “a penny saved, is a penny earned” from his 13 colonies’ best seller Poor Richard’s Almanac still circulate today.
Good humor is also abundant in these presentations. For example, in the colonial days there were many house fires because fireplaces were used daily inside homes and houses were made of wood. To be ready to put out fires, families often kept buckets by the door just for such a purpose. In a recent classroom I visited, Abiah commented to the students that the blue bucket and gray bucket by the classroom door must be there to put out fires – to which students quickly shouted with laughter, “No, those are trash cans!”
Overall, it’s not just children who can benefit from Ben’s example and inspiration. True, he wasn’t perfect and had relationship challenges of his own making. However, he did strive to constantly improve himself by following 13 main virtues. Additionally, his philanthropy inspire us all to raise the bar. If he were here today, he would encourage us to observe and perceive any needs in our present communities, seek out ways to improve them, and help others when we can.
So Benjamin’s legacy lives on, as do some of the early documents he helped to draft like the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Although he was clearly many things: a diplomat; an inventor; a printer; an entrepreneur; and a writer. He was also, most certainly, an American Patriot.
After Abiah Franklin left the most recent classroom she visited, students could be seen peering out the window on the lookout for a possible time machine awaiting her departure. You see, learning is always a bit more fun . . . when a piece of history walks right into the classroom!