short story

I walked from the parking lot to the campus with a measured pace, alternating between staring eye-level at the restless crowd in front of me and tilting up to catch glimpses of orange embers coloring the sky. “Is there a fire?” I wondered. I heard the crowd chanting the word “coward” and cringed. Everyone in this town has always been passionate about education. It’s been that way since before I can remember. Either way, even I knew this wasn’t a good look for us. We’re better than this, no matter what’s happening.

I stopped when I reached the wall of bodies. My friend was standing in the middle. Maybe she could explain why this was happening. Astounded, I watched as she chunked a book over the gulf of people into what I assumed was a bonfire on the other side. I could hear its pages flapping in the air, cutting through the barely discernible chatter — angry conversations that continued to escalate.

“Nice one!” I heard someone scream from the distance as the light from the flames flickered wildly.

I approached my friend.

“What is this?” I asked. “This is nuts.”

“You haven’t heard? The Teacher of the Year just left. We’re burning his science books.”

“That’s crazy. That’s not helping anything.”

“Ah. It’s making me feel better,” she said. “He was never great if you ask me.”

“Why’d he leave?”

“He said the class sizes here were too big. He said he had to think about his family, and that schools weren’t paying him enough. He had a lot of reasons.”

“That seems reasonable.”

“Whatever. Mr. Russell is a way better teacher than him. I bet he could teach 100 kids at a time if he had to.”

Oddly enough, her words were prophetic. As the year unfolded, that’s what happened and more. Every teacher began to leave the state. Schools began to close down. Amid all of this turmoil, Mr. Russell didn’t flinch. He taught every subject he could: English, Spanish, science, math, art, journalism and history. He taught everything from kindergarten to 12th grade, and he taught it well. The world was in awe. The state was so impressed; administrators spent whatever it took to keep similar faculty, bringing high-level teachers from other cities to help just so he wouldn’t leave.

I should’ve seen that coming, though. I should’ve never worried. At the end of the day, there’s nothing that people in this state love more than education.