Mrs. Fenster inserted her key into the lock of room L227, turned it and walked in. A faint scent of formaldehyde hung in the air, the ghost of amphibians past who had given their all for the enlightenment of young minds. She would leave the door open until class began and thank her luck that at least she was not stuck in the "outer space", local vernacular for the portable classrooms. Hers were all English classes, so the dissection trays remained gathering dust in the cabinets and Bunsen burners were all stored until future chemists would again need them. She deposited her briefcase and canvas tote in the cabinet of the lab table at the head of the class and hung her coat in the locker in the corner.
It would be about 15 minutes before her first period class began to assemble. She always liked to have a few minutes to gather her thoughts and hone her focus for the day ahead. She glanced over her lesson plans for each class: 1st period - Speech - Acceptance speeches upon election to class president (many of her students had been elected to various positions by their peers, a number later holding public office); 2nd period - Freshman English - Pop test and discussion of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi (if only they could spend more time learning and less time testing just to keep them reading); 3rd period - Senior Research - Development of a bibliography (internet or no internet, books and index cards are still a necessity); 4th period - LUNCH (Thank goodness!); 5th period - Study hall (mildly managed chaos); 6th period - Creative Writing - Oral presentation of short stories (a perennial favorite class, as it was an elective and generally gathered a select group of promising students).
Although forty-something, her attention to style and diligence at staying in shape kept her younger than her years, even if she was no longer occasionally mistaken for one of the students. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of her husband, Matt, a middle level manager on the "early coronary" track, whose job of late consisted of agonizing over moot decisions and preserving his place in the office hierarchy. While his career was relentlessly grinding him down, she drew energy and vitality from her youthful charges. "All tits and testosterone!", she once overheard Coach Landrum growl, but she knew better. These young people were changing and growing faster on the inside than the outside. She was delighted to have an opportunity to work with these gems in the rough to help discover the artists, authors, teachers, and civic leaders who would bloom under her mentoring care.
The first bell rang and the sparkling clamor of young voices rippled down the hall. Rising from her seat, Mrs. Fenster went to the door to enjoy the parade of promise file past. The most apt and eager students were always first. She liked to encourage them with her welcoming smile. She felt more than adequately compensated when some of them deigned to return her attention and affirmation in like manner.
She was particularly gratified to see Matthew, one of her most promising and challenging students, as he flowed down the hall with the human tide. She beamed and called out "Good morning Matthew!" and was treated to a wave and a wan smile from the shy, reclusive youth. She looked forward to seeing him again in her Creative Writing class. Knowing the quality of work he was capable of, she already planned to call on him to share his story before his peers. It would be the highlight of her day.
Matthew was special to Mrs. Fenster. She prided herself in the progress he had exhibited under her diligent, painstaking care. It was she who persuaded him to enter her public speaking class where, with her constant attention and encouragement, he began to successfully deal with his exaggerated youthful shyness and reveal the inner qualities she perceived. In further effort to enhance his self expression, she encouraged him to become a part of the Poet's Club where he soon manifested his soul through brooding, introspective verse.
Being as shy and introverted as he was, Matthew kept mostly to himself and, while he did number a few girls among his small circle of friends, mostly those in the Poet's club, he never really dated. Not that he would have difficulty attracting the attention of the girls if he cared to. Although not a lettered athlete due to his reticence at participating in team sports, he kept in shape by cycling, roller blading, hiking and swimming.
The second bell rang and Mrs. Fenster lingered just a moment longer at her doorway to scowl with disdain on the stragglers shuffling carelessly to their home rooms before turning to begin her first class of the day.
The bulk of the day was delightfully unremarkable. No fights, no firearms, no urban terrorists, at least not in the vicinity of room L227, although a small tornado could have plucked a "portable" from the campus without disturbing the occupants of that windowless vault. "All quiet on the Western front," she thought, a day to remember for its very ordinariness.
"Ah, lunch time already? Time does fly," thought Mrs. Fenster. In the lunchroom she again happily caught sight of Matthew, sitting alone at a table with several others. Matthew had a gift for wrapping solitude around himself like a blanket. It took a person with extraordinary patience to penetrate that protective shield, as Mrs. Fenster well knew. He looked up and noticed her, she smiled at him approvingly, he looked a bit awkward as he swallowed his mouthful, like the teenager whose mother appears at the prom with his forgotten handkerchief and instructions on how to use it.
Lunch was followed by Study Hall, a gross misnomer to all but Mrs. Fenster who, when not occupied keeping order, graded pop tests from her earlier class. "If only they would all read something, or write, or draw, or at least doodle quietly," she thought. Mrs. Fenster handed out a number of hall passes to rest rooms and library, but doubted if these destinations were essential except as an opportunity to escape the semi-structured environment of a class room. At least no one opened a gas cock and set the plume aflame as one child had done previously at the cost of 10 days suspension.
The 6th period Creative Writing class assembled, a smaller group than most and, for the most part, eager and enthusiastic to share their efforts. Matthew took his assigned seat, front and center, before the beaming countenance of Mrs. Fenster. Realizing it was unlikely this shy lad would be one to clamor to go first, she was pleased to save his prose presentation for the end, anticipating it like sinfully rich dessert. Most of the other offerings were of the "What I Did on Summer Vacation" genre, although one bold youth led the class on a tale of adventure a la "What I Did And the Folks Were At Disney World" (dream on, kid).
In the last five minutes of the school day, Mrs. Fenster at last turned and addressed the pensive student sitting before her, "Would you please share your story with us now, Matthew?" Rising slowly from his seat, he rounded the lab table and took his place behind the lectern as she stood aside to drink in the product of his soul.
With trembling voice he began, "My story is entitled Garden Plot and it's based on this picture my Mom shot last year in our yard." He stepped from behind the table and presented the photograph to the student at the first desk, indicating that it should be passed around as he read his story:
Once upon a time, there was a preying mantis who lived in a beautiful garden, a very serious creature who knew little of joy. He had never even taken a mate as he had early on observed that among his species each wedding announcement for the bride was matched by an obituary for the groom.
It came about in the course of time, that the mantis realized that Summer was far gone, Fall was upon him and cruel Winter was soon to follow. This made the mantis even more serious, if that were possible, but it also made him want to grasp at life before it fleeted by him. It was as he was contemplating the hard winter that lay ahead that an amazing thing occurred: a beautiful, winged creature flew into his view.
With wings a blur, the iridescent beauty flitted effortlessly through the garden as though buoyed by the very joy of life as she tasted the nectar of many flowers. Soon the mantis found the hummingbird hovering very near him, pausing in her flight and examining him as though seeing such a creature for the first time.
The mantis at first went about his business as usual, preying throughout the garden, but more and more he was aware of the nearness of the hummingbird. Just sharing the garden with her seemed to make the ever shortening days seem warmer and, before he knew it, his heart was lighter than it had ever been even in the Spring.
The mantis found himself wanting to see more and more of the beautiful hummingbird, and it seemed to him as though the hummingbird wished to do likewise. Less and less he lurked in the dark, shadowy recesses of the garden. More and more he came out to the light to see his (yes, he now thought of her as HIS) beautiful friend. He learned that he could crudely communicate with her despite the obvious distance between them, waving his large forelegs as she dipped and darted in reply.
The companionship of the hummingbird made the mantis so very happy, he longed to bridge the gap between them. He often pondered and wished to find a way for them to be together. More than anything, he wanted to embrace his beautiful hummingbird and hold her close to him and feel her soft warmth and share her joy of life.
He realized that the hummingbird frequently refreshed herself at a feeder hanging over the garden. He resolved to wait there and meet her to share a refreshing drink of that red nectar that she so enjoyed. Poised on the feeder, she soon flew into his view and seemed more than delighted to rush into his waiting embrace.
At the moment he found her in his grasp, he realized that at last he was the mantis he was meant to be; that this was the moment he had, without knowing it, waited for all his life. But he was just that, a mantis, and could not even at this moment deny his nature. Squeezing her even tighter, his loving embrace became a death grip.
Suddenly the mantis realized that the light of his own life as well as hers had been extinguished by his folly of his impetuous actions of a moment. But he had not long to mourn his loss, for at that moment, the benevolent being that had created the garden and provided the nectar smote him likewise to his death.
As Matthew finished his story to accolades of "Awesome" and "Kewl" from his peers, the picture, having made the round of the students was passed to Mrs. Fenster. It depicted a large preying mantis clinging upside down to a hummingbird feeder, its deadly pincers outstretched toward a Ruby Throated Hummingbird hovering nearby. Silently she handed the photograph to Matthew as he handed her his paper and returned to his seat. The last bell rang. "Class dismissed," she uttered in a soft monotone as she gazed blankly at the far wall.
Matthew departed with unaccustomed haste and was quickly swept into the hall toward the exit. Alone again, Mrs. Fenster settled down to grade today's work. As she toiled, Ben, the custodian came in to do his daily chores. Finding her busy, he excused himself until later. "No, go ahead, it's no bother," she assured him. He quickly and quietly made his rounds and departed.
Coming at last to Matthew's paper, Mrs. Fenster penned him this personal note:
One of the foundations of good writing is research. Even a tale well told loses its impact if the facts don't bear it out. The reason I say this is throughout your story you refer to the preying mantis with masculine pronouns and the hummingbird with feminine. However even a cursory look in a bird book would have told you immediately that only the male hummingbird has that bright ruby throat patch as does the one in the picture. And a little research in entomology would have revealed that the largest preying mantises are the females of the species.
This being the case, the grade for your paper would have been B if I assumed you were in error on these points due to a lack of effort on your part. But I believe you did take those very facts into account in preparing this thoughtful homily, therefore it will be A.
Please keep up the good work.
Leaving the papers stacked on the table, along with a copy of her lesson
plan for the next day, Mrs. Fenster walked out of room L227, closing the
door behind her for the last time.