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Living and teaching as ‘Mr. Bennett'

Neil Lange, 53, has taught special-education students in Room 403 at Bennett High School since September 1981. Teaching may be his full-time job, but he really doesn't think of it as work. In fact, Lange considers himself the luckiest person on earth to be able to teach at Bennett.

That's why Lange is known as "Mr. Bennett," the go-to person on many levels at this storied school. He was instrumental in the building's $40 million makeover. He runs the school's leadership program. And in his spare time, Lange volunteers at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.

PT:Are those the Bennett colors you're wearing?

NL: Every day, I wear a different blue and orange tie – I must have 60 or 70, but I always wear a white shirt and dark pants. I would never come in in front of kids without a shirt and tie. I just think that's wrong. I'm a professional who loves Bennett High School, and it's my aunt's fault. My Aunt Gertrude went here, graduated in '36. As a little kid, I always heard about how wonderful the school was.

PT:You always wanted to be a teacher?

NL: Actually, I wanted to be a French interpreter. I love French. If you call my answering machine at home, the message is in French.

PT:How do you spend your summers?

NL: I have a cottage in Angola, but I do the master schedule, too. I volunteer. I think it's good for the kids if they come in the first day and know where they're going. Other schools in the city are plunking kids in the auditorium for the first week, sometimes up to the first month. The kids don't have a schedule so they're not in classes.

PT:You also volunteer at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda.

NL: Since 1980. My dad used to get free tickets for the organ concert every month. He'll be 91 in July. It was free entertainment for our family. There were seven kids and not much money. Actually I was part of the four-man crew that painted the theater. I also make the popcorn for the concession stand.

PT:As a teacher, what has been your finest hour?

NL: The thing that I really like doing is our Taste of Bennett Awards. It will be 21 years June 5th. An award may be for the best smile, or for being friendly every morning. The students are recognized for doing something positive. We have a catered dinner and we usually get from 150 to 200 people. The award ceremony follows in the auditorium. The kids all walk in with candles.

PT:What about working with teenagers appealed to you?

NL: You can actually tell the high school kids what you need them to do. You don't have to play games. I missed one day my very first year [at an elementary school] and the kids actually trashed the bathrooms. We were studying rocks in science and I brought all these great rocks in, and they told the substitute this big rock was the restroom pass. They used it to break all the fixtures.

PT:What have kids taught you?

NL: Not to shout when I want them to be quiet. In the beginning I was a shouter, and I learned it's much easier to put my hand in the air. That is the signal for silence. When you yell at a kid to do something, you put them in a defensive position. If they have a hat on, I'll just tap my forehead. If they're wearing sunglasses, I'll tap my glasses. If they have their cellphone on, I'll put my hand out in front of me. They have to give up their cellphone. They'll get it back at the end of the day. For the most part, the kids will make a good choice.

PT:Are your kids old for their years?

NL: I think that some adults in this building look at our population, which is mostly African-American, and think they are criminals or thugs. There are some gang members in our building, but I think that, for the most part, kids are just kids.

PT:Are you ever in danger?

NL: I got punched once by an irate aunt. Totally blindsided, and then she got the principal, too. We both got clocked. She was arrested, but we didn't press charges. In hindsight, maybe we should have. We got the order of protection.

PT: How bad a problem is attendance?

NL: It's a horrible thing, really. I actually have this contest. Any kid who has perfect attendance for a week I give them a candy bar. Too many parents are giving children adult responsibilities: "You have to stay home and watch your little sister get on the bus" or "You have to stay home because the cable guy is coming." All too often these are the reasons why they're not coming to school every day.

PT:Tell me something good about Bennett's multimillion-dollar makeover.

NL: Do you know who ran the reconstruction project? I did. When I look at the others, like the McKinley build and the School 81 build, they're putting all of this modern stuff on. Here, we were able to keep the brick in the back for the wings. We were able to put cove molding in the hallways, like it looked in 1925. We opened up the transoms, so we were able – for the most part – to keep Bennett High School looking like when it opened, but we upgraded it.