Freshman year we tried to keep our heads down or at least out of the toilets. The athletes and the beautiful girls had it different, I guess, hoping to get noticed and invited into the right groups—to the best tables in the cafeteria, the parties that sprang up every weekend. If you made one wrong move, you were doomed.
Gym was required for everyone, as was some sort of math, a language, if you had aspirations for college, and biology. The advanced classes got a fetal pig while everyone else got grasshoppers, crayfish, and frogs that reeked of formaldehyde. Someone always caught their hair on fire. Someone inevitably threw up.
My biology teacher, Mr. Lawrence, was a leathery, older man who liked to run distance—he coached the JV football team and track. Just after I graduated junior high, I remember testing myself against the long oval loop at the high school when he sprinted up behind me yelling, “Track.” As he stretched later on the steps of the stadium, I asked what it meant to yell that as you passed someone.
“It’s to let a person know you’re there,” he said.
Some days he wore his whistle during class and he would put his feet up on the black soapstone desk and go on and on about Mendel, the volatility of potassium dropped in water, and the proper way to prepare a slide with saliva. Soft-spoken and earnest, he had a note of incredulity in his voice as he described these things he loved, and he would stop and look at us often to see if we saw the miraculous in what we were covering. He saw miracles in everything—the division of the common cell, the structure of a feather.
One Thursday David Phelps and I dropped frog parts in Lisa Wettle’s purse and waited to see what would happen. We never found out, because that day the Vice-Principal, Mr. Toney, came in and asked to see Mr. Lawrence in the hall. We figured Mr. Toney would be back so we behaved—he liked to paddle students who got out of line.
When Mr. Toney returned alone, he asked us to clean up our stations. We plopped the frogs back in the jars of formaldehyde and washed the trays out in the sink while cutting eyes at the clock. I’d seen Mr. Toney ask a class to put their heads down on their desks for almost a full period and we still had at least another half hour. We filtered back to our desks and kept quiet.
Mr. Toney looked uncomfortable and scratched his head. He stared out the window and began to speak.
“Mr. Lawrence’s wife passed away today after a long battle with cancer.” He shifted foot to foot.
His words were as gray as the print of an obituary from the paper.
“He’s going to need you all to be on your best behavior when he comes back, and I’m not sure when that will be.”
He said we could put our heads down for the rest of the class if we wanted, but he didn’t require it, and when the bell finally rang, we all filed off to lunch or econ or psychology.
We figured Mr. Lawrence would be out at least a couple of weeks and perhaps the rest of the semester, but he returned the following Monday.
“Please get your frogs out,” he said, and we did so, still surprised to see him.
The carcasses made louder noises than usual, some soggy, some creaking as they were disarticulated. Mr. Lawrence handed out mimeographed copies of a frog splayed open with little blanks and arrows pointing to the various parts of the anatomy. Everything inside my team’s frog was a muddy mess, and some of the important organs were still in Lisa Wettle’s purse, as far as we knew, undiscovered.
As we settled back into our seats, Larry Spelvey asked if this was for a grade or practice.
But Mr. Lawrence didn’t answer. He just looked at Larry Spelvey for a long time, and Larry put his hand up thinking maybe Mr. Lawrence hadn’t heard his question even though he sat in the front row, and he kept it there until his arm grew tired, then he lowered it and put up his other hand. Finally Dwight Franklin, the starting left tackle, got so unsettled by the silence, he purposefully knocked his book onto the floor.
But Mr. Lawrence didn’t flinch. He kept looking at Larry Spelvey whose hand remained high in the air until finally his arm seemed to wither like a flower under Mr. Lawrence’s steady gaze. Then he looked at each of us in the room, his eyes big and brown and empty, and he had this smile on his face, just a whiff of one, like how formaldehyde sticks to your clothing all day, but it’s so faint you almost think you’re imagining it.
The kids in the back who never liked to be called on knew he wasn’t going to ask any questions, but they still hunkered low on their stools trying not to catch his gaze. And he stayed like that, his brown eyes sweeping across the lot of us again and again. No one moved or said a word because something in the brief tremor of his jaw made us skittish and worried about the great unstatable horror we would one day graduate into and call our own. We were eviscerated and laid open by how his eyes measured us. He fingered the whistle around his neck, and I wished that he would raise it to his lips and blow it again and again until someone from another classroom would come running and we could call him crazy. But he didn’t.
Finally the clock showed five minutes before the bell, and as one, we rose as we always did and busied ourselves stowing the scalpels and trays and the mangled frogs, and none of us could look at him anymore.
In the hall, Lisa Wettle said, “Somebody should have said sorry about his wife.”
And she was right. But instead half the class stayed home sick the next two days, and when we returned, Mr. Lawrence was gone. Mr. Toney was in his place wearing the whistle every day because all he thought about was restoring order out of chaos and football.
Mr. Toney said we were done with frogs and formaldehyde and dissection trays and that he knew nothing about biology so we could all just put our heads down on our desks until they got a suitable substitute for Mr. Lawrence.
Then Mr. Toney put his feet up on the desk just like Mr. Lawrence used to, and, for a second, I was afraid he was going to take a hard look at us, too, but instead he put his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling tiles trying to unravel the mysteries contained there until the bell rang sending us all our separate ways.
Twenty years have passed and each spring I test myself against that oval track, vowing to fight how winters make an old man slow and thick. As I round each curve and head into the straight lanes blind to what follows, I hear his voice closing the distance between us and I push myself a little harder.
© Brent Fisk
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb]