By Michael Belanger
After his fortieth-year teaching, Mr. Crenshaw decided to win his school’s Teacher of the Year competition. He created an alias to nominate himself and then wrote a brief essay about why he deserved the title. Filled with flattering anecdotes about his prowess in the classroom, and one slightly exaggerated claim to have stopped world hunger—at least significantly lessened it, thanks to a past student named Maggie Smith who’d gone into agricultural science —the letter was a perfect exaggeration of the teacher he might’ve been.
Each morning, he’d check his email, waiting for the committee to congratulate him on being a finalist, but each morning he was disappointed. A few days before the deadline, he checked the paperwork and realized he needed a student to second the nomination. Mrs. Crenshaw had always been the one to read the fine print.
The next day, he posted an assignment requiring each student to write, in at least five hundred words, an essay about their favorite teacher. Once they submitted it online, he could do a find and replace, and voila, he’d have an enthusiastic endorsement of his teaching.
Reading the essays over dinner, a frozen pizza that remained stubbornly lukewarm, he was delighted to imagine his career extending into unknown territory, as he became a crew coach who likened life to a river, a math teacher who inspired a love of the Pythagorean Theorem, and a karate instructor who’d given Jake Willis the confidence to be himself. He wasn’t surprised that none were truly written about him; after all, he hadn’t created a new lesson in over a decade.
He finally settled on an essay written about a colleague named Mrs. Romano, focused on how she made learning fun by doing silly experiments, including the classic hydrogen five-gallon jug explosion, which Mr. Crenshaw had done for over twenty years until he’d abruptly stopped after a particularly difficult clean up. The fact that it could’ve come from one of his students—one of his past students, at least—gave him all the confidence he needed to forward the letter to the committee.
After two weeks of waiting, he received word that he was a finalist, and that for the committee to make their final selection they’d have to observe his class. That posed a problem as he’d been leaning a little too heavily on the textbook ever since Mrs. Crenshaw’s funeral. And for a little while before that too, if he was being honest with himself. If he was going to win, he’d need to get back in shape. That weekend, he planned a brand-new unit, complete with objectives, do-nows, group work, simulations, even an activity involving memes, which he’d learned about after some brief googling. On Sunday night, he collapsed in bed, rolled over, and reached out for Mrs. Crenshaw, only to find a set of carefully arranged pillows.
On the first day he began to once again teach, the students seemed surprised, uncertainly taking notes as Mr. Crenshaw scribbled on the board and talked passionately about ectoplasm. He hadn’t done his ectoplasm lesson in years, ever since finding a YouTube video on the subject. He liked the feeling of his old lessons returning, like an escaped pet that had wandered home, scrabbling at the door.
Later that week, he taught one of the most ambitious lessons of his career, with each group acting out one part of the photosynthesis process. As he listened to the laughter in his classroom, he found himself twirling his wedding ring.
On the day of the committee’s observation, he dressed in a suit—the very same suit he’d worn to Mrs. Crenshaw’s funeral—and had students participate in a simulation about FDA approval of a genetically modified fruit dubbed a “Margie,” appropriately named after Mrs. Crenshaw. The students debated, stayed on task, and asked follow-up questions posed to Commissioner Crenshaw, his alter ego for the day.
At the end of the lesson, the students might as well have cheered, and as Mr. Crenshaw waited at the door to bid each pupil goodbye, he could’ve sworn one of the committee members winked at him.
That night, he found himself tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable next to the row of pillows, a pale imitation of the late Mrs. Crenshaw. He’d spent so many years complaining about teaching. The long meetings, the disrespectful students, the acronyms, and the nosy administrators. But at least he’d had someone to complain to. To commiserate with. To work for. Without Mrs. Crenshaw, he felt adrift, untethered from the only thing he’d ever thought worth tethering.
On the night of the awards ceremony, Mr. Crenshaw once again dressed in his suit and tie. He could still smell Mrs. Crenshaw’s floral perfume on the jacket lapel. He breathed it in, immediately conjuring a lesson about smell and memory and the first cranial nerve. Walking toward the auditorium, he imagined Mrs. Crenshaw on his arm, reminding him to stand up straight.
To his surprise, just before reaching the door, he abruptly turned around. Shuffled through the crowds and stilted conversations to the exit. Climbed into his car. Peeled out of the parking lot. A few minutes later, he arrived home and rifled through his garage for the old five-liter water jug. He had work to do. Not just for Mrs. Crenshaw, but for his students. Even the ones who hated science. The ones who resented having to put their phones away. The ones who whispered behind his back and prayed for movie day. Especially them. They needed him. They needed to understand that knowledge could be a weapon, an armor, even an explosion. And even if they didn’t need him, he needed them.
Mr. Crenshaw was startled by the thought: not frightened, not even surprised, but startled that it had taken him so long to realize. After writing and rewriting Monday’s lesson, he crawled into bed, removed the stack of pillows from Mrs. Crenshaw’s side, and tucked in between the sheets.
* * *
Michael Belanger is an author and high school history teacher. His debut novel, The History of Jane Doe, was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award and received a Kirkus starred review. More recently, his writing has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and Pigeon Review. In addition to teaching and writing, he serves as a faculty advisor to Greenwitch, a high school literary magazine that has published talented young writers—including Truman Capote—for over a hundred years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, son, and two wonderfully aloof cats.