Fiction · 12/03/2014

Teacher of the Year

People took pictures of me. The first time it happened I liked it. I smiled big. I was driving with the windows down, and I heard someone say, Are you really the Teacher of the Year? I nodded. My car had magnet signs on the doors. The car was a new crossover SUV, one of the prizes I’d received, courtesy of Prewitt Toyota. It was mine to keep as long as I didn’t remove the magnet signs. I couldn’t do that for a year, until a new Teacher of the Year was crowned.

Not long after that first picture, I stopped driving with the windows down. I didn’t like the attention. People would point and say, Hey that’s the Teacher of the Year. Others would be funny: Hey Mister Teacher of the Year, why aren’t you in school? Some were just mean, Hey Teacher, fuck you! I wore my ear buds when I drove, whether I was listening to something or not. I didn’t take the stares personally.

About a month into the new school year, I was on my way home after a parent-teacher night when I was recognized in the Taco Bell drive-thru. The cashier asked, So what do you get for being Teacher of the Year? I wasn’t sure how to respond. Her tone had an accusatory edge. I said, There’s a cash prize. She asked, How much? I said, Five thousand dollars. Not bad, she said, not bad. I wanted to be honest. I had nothing to hide. On some level, I felt like I’d earned the prizes. The cashier kept going. That’s a nice car you got, she said. It is, I said, turning away and peering down at the interlocking ellipses of the Toyota logo on my steering wheel. There was more that they gave me. There were restaurants where I ate free for the entire year. There were sideline passes to the Atlanta Falcons game where I was to perform the opening coin toss. There was even a day of the year (March 22) dedicated to my honor by the city council. The cashier filled my cup with Diet Coke. She said, School supplies and new shoes ran me a hundred bucks. She said she had to get the Internet turned back on at her apartment. She said the new manager wouldn’t let her kids do homework at the back tables after school. She was paying an out-of-work neighbor thirty dollars a week to keep an eye on Neesa, just to make sure she was home and not out doing God knows what. She took a deep breath and spoke into her mouthpiece, greeting the person who’d pulled up behind me. While keying the next order, she handed me the Diet Coke and told me to pull around. I’d have to wait for my dinner. The oven is broke, she said.

There were others like her, others who made me feel like it was all too much. I met hundreds of educators, and many regarded me with scorn. I spoke at professional development conferences and teacher in-service days. I led workshop after workshop. I was a panelist for endless discussions, and everywhere I went there seemed to be someone waiting to lash out during the Q&A. They approached the microphone, fists balled at their sides, and said things like, I know the real Teacher of the Year, before going on to share the story of a colleague who’d been stricken with a terrible illness.

I needed a rationale for my luck, so I donated some of the prize money. It felt good giving the money away. It was a rush, but when my guilty feelings returned, I donated again. I donated until only a few hundred dollars of the five thousand were left, and that last chunk I set aside to spend on Christmas presents. Of course I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t bother to register a Like or a Tweet for my chosen causes. I didn’t want attention. I even planned to sell the car after my term ended. I didn’t need a new car. It wasn’t like me.

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These were the first, easy solutions. The criticism didn’t stop coming, and though I learned to block out the bitterness and anger that my title inspired in some, there were other things I couldn’t shut out. Once, I was approached after church by a group of civic-minded ladies who wanted to know my position on high stakes testing. Another time, my class was interrupted when a reporter showed up at the school asking for my take on the arrest of a former gym teacher accused of running a child pornography ring. I’d never met the man. I didn’t have a take, but I realized I’d become a public figure. My next-door neighbor who only talked to me about crepe myrtles and the Auburn Tigers suddenly wanted to know why his grandson had to read As You Like It for his English class. When would he ever use As You Like It? I didn’t know. As far as he’s concerned, kids need to be learning computers. Everything is computers, he said, shaking his junk mail at me. I felt solely responsible.

So I did my homework. On weekends, I read up on the issues, went to the library and skimmed academic journals. I wrote an op-ed on teaching to the test, and it was published in the Sunday paper. Beneath my name was the italicized title, Teacher of the Year. In letters to the editor written in response to my piece, a couple men proud to consider themselves common-sense types derided my viewpoint as mamby-pamby, but overall, I felt good about the op-ed. I kept a few copies of that paper in my car and offered them to interested parties whenever a conversation turned toward the subject of testing. For other issues — stringent dress codes, undue focus on athletics, student privacy in light of emergent technologies — I wrote my opinions on note cards and leafed through them before large social events and speaking engagements.

The fall passed that way. My students knew I was Teacher of the Year, but they didn’t care. They were the same as any other group of students, a few of them eager and gifted, a few dim and incompetent, and most unmotivated but capable. Only if I made an obvious mistake, if I misspoke and said something like, See you Wednesday, before dismissing class on a Monday, would I hear one of the boys — always a boy — comment, Okay Teacher of the Year, see you Wednesday. There was nothing unusual about that. I’d taken worse abuse for bad haircuts.

Then in January, the week after returning from the holiday break, I got news that my college roommate had killed himself. I’d just seen him while he was in town for Thanksgiving. We met up with a group of old friends at one of the bars where we used to hang out. Apparently, it was a cliché idea. In fact, all but a few tables had been moved from where we remembered them and were lined up along the walls to allow space for a large crowd to mingle. This was still a dirty college bar, but less so tonight. Tonight the men had bald spots. The women wore turtlenecks.

Pete, my roommate who would shoot himself weeks later, wanted to know what it was like being Teacher of the Year. It must feel good, he said. I guess, I said. I made a face to let him know I didn’t feel like talking about it. I pointed across the room and said, Remember that? Pete nodded. There was a game we used to play, arcade golf, Golden Tee. I was hoping we would get a chance to play, but no sooner would one game end than someone else would shoulder up to the machine, ready with bills to feed the slot. We spent the next few minutes reminiscing about nights that ended with memories of that game.

Back in college we’d done a lot of drinking, but now we were all married. Most of us had kids in school. We were drowsy after a couple beers, each of us yawning between sips, each of us but Pete. Pete didn’t seem drunk, but it was obvious he’d had a lot to drink. He thought it was clever to make a T with his hands, to signal timeout while one of us was talking, so he could run to the bar for a refill. An hour in, he switched from beer to rum and coke.

Then, back from one of his timeouts, Pete said he was proud of me. He squeezed my bicep and said those words, just like that: I’m proud of you. I didn’t know how to respond. I thanked him. I told him that meant something coming from him, though I wasn’t sure how to feel about a buddy like Pete being proud of me. It was strange. Parents are proud of children. I told students I was proud of them, wrote the words on homework assignments. For the rest of the night, I watched what I said in front of Pete. I didn’t drink as much as I thought I might. The Golden Tee machine came free sometime after ten. By then, two of us were already late getting home. It was a no go, but I didn’t feel right leaving Pete to play with strangers. I’d meant it when I said I’d give him a call.

Later, at Pete’s funeral, a few of us from college met up in the parking lot. We passed a flask and drank in honor of Pete. Inevitably, we talked about the last time we’d seen him, which for all of us, had been that night during Thanksgiving weekend. It came out that Pete had said weird things to everyone who was there. It wasn’t just me. He told Nick he’d always admired his courage. He said he’d wished he’d been more spontaneous, like Sideburns. Everything he’d said had been positive, complimentary, but somehow awkward and wrong. As we kept talking, moving on to other memories from that night, we discovered another thing each of us had noticed on our own and, for some reason, not shared at the time. In the back corner of the bar room, behind a group of red-faced men playing darts, a few college-age kids sat drinking pitchers. When they spoke, they didn’t take their eyes off us. We knew they were waiting for the crowd to thin, for us has-beens to leave. We were ruining their night just being there. We could all relate to what that was like.

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In time, I came to accept being Teacher of the Year. I began to feel like I was doing a service to my profession and helping future students by playing an active role in our ongoing conversation about education. Being Teacher of the Year felt like a second job, an alter ego. I would slip into Teacher-of-the-Year mode without thinking about it. Certain questions or topics of conversation would trigger the change. My voice would go higher, and I’d use words I picked up from the journals. I gestured widely and frequently with my hands out, away from my body. As useful as this act had become for my panel discussions, at home, my daughter would roll her eyes and ask to speak with her father. Hello, she’d say, are you in there? Once, when we were alone with nothing to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon, my wife confessed that, though she loved me, she was not attracted whatsoever to the Teacher of the Year.

Then, in May, with the school year winding down and my term drawing to a close, I received an invitation to attend a charity gala at the country club. It was going to be hosted by the weather man from the local NBC affiliate. The meal was being catered by a noteworthy local chef. The silent auction included a purebred Irish setter. The purpose of this dinner was to name and honor the newly-chosen Person of the Year.

I didn’t respond to the invitation. I screened incoming calls. I told myself I didn’t have to go. They couldn’t make me. Three weeks after the invitation arrived, I was making a new pot of coffee in the teachers’ lounge when our principal’s voice came over the public address system. He had an exciting announcement. I got a chill. He said I was a Person-of-the-Year Nominee. He encouraged all students and staff to congratulate me on this tremendous accomplishment. It’s a great honor for all of us, he said, to be represented in such a way by a man like me.

At the gala, we — The People of the Year — were served dinner on a stage at the front of the room. We sat on one side of the table, facing out, overlooking the ballroom. I didn’t know where to place my eyes. It felt strange watching people eat, so I kept my gaze set on the back of the room, on the silent auction tables and the setter in its pen. It was a beautiful dog. After checking in at the registration table, I’d stopped by its cage and let it smell my hand. I had a beagle at home. The setter smelled her on me and sniffed enthusiastically, licking at me through the wires of the pen. His tail brushed the walls in a stifled wag. He was still a puppy, but just barely. I would’ve stayed longer with the setter — there was something about him that calmed me — but I was interrupted by a pat on the back.

I don’t think we’ve met, a tall man with a friendly smile said. He reminded me of the Man in the Yellow hat from the Curious George books. I’m Dave Collins, he said. I didn’t recognize the name. My face must have conveyed as much because then he said, I’m Father of the Year. Oh, I said and congratulated him. I wished him luck, and he laughed. He said he thought this whole thing was rather silly. I said, Yeah me too. There are so many people in the world, I said, it’s ridiculous to think such a small group deserves a fuss like this. The Father of the Year nodded in agreement before mentioning that one of his sons had been in my class back in 2009. Oh, I said again. I’m bad about remembering students. After a few years, I forget them. I bump into them from time to time at the grocery store or the movie theater. They shout my name from across the room, jog toward me, their hands spread, eyebrows high. Many thank me for being a great teacher, their favorite teacher. They tell me how I’ve influenced their lives. A few have told me they plan to pursue careers in education because of me, but their faces are never those of people I know. They’ve grown up. All I can do is smile and say thanks. At home, I look through old pictures, but they don’t mean anything to me, and I’m left remorseful for my lack of feeling. At the gala, I nodded to Dave Collins and asked what his son — name, Randy — was up to these days.

As we ate, we made small talk, though several People of the Year knew each other in one way or another. Animated conversation took root. The Fireman of the Year had identified a gas leak at the home of the Attorney of the Year. The Electrician of the Year had installed track lighting in the game room of the Gardener of the Year. Everyone seemed to have had a cavity filled by the Dentist of the Year. He was my lock for the big prize.

Once all had been served, the weather man introduced us individually. We stood as he listed our professional accomplishments and contributions to the community. Hearing the applause after my profile was read, I knew I had a shot. People stood to applaud me. There was even a whoop, stray and exuberant. I might be named Person of the Year, I thought, and I didn’t want that. Our introductions were followed by an informative Power Point about the foundation that was benefiting from the dinner. During an especially dull part about the process for nominating new board members, I got up and slipped offstage. I drifted along the wall to the back of the room, to the silent auction tables, where I found myself drawn to the setter’s pen. It only took a moment before he recognized me and rose, tail wagging. Then I bent and unlatched the door. Shoo, I whispered. Go. The dog sniffed the space where my hand had been. He stepped cautiously through the pen door and looked at me, smiling, panting. I frowned, lowering my brow. Get the fuck out of here, I said, but instead of bolting, the setter came forward and greedily licked my hand. No, no, I said, getting louder. The Power Point ended. The lights came up. The tables in the back noticed me right away. Then the dog jumped up, putting its paws on my knee and barking a gleeful rowf. The room jostled. Everyone was looking. It was my moment. No, I shouted, No you stupid dog! No! No! I raised my hand, but the setter pulled back, balancing upright for a moment on its hind legs before shrinking to a statuesque sitting position. There was silence. The setter licked its nose, holding my stare. Naturally, the room erupted in applause and exhortation.

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Dan Townsend lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where he worries about erosion. He’s taught high school English and freshman comp. His stories have appeared online (Matchbook, Drunken Boat) and in-print (Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction) He works in a pharmacy and watches football.