“Cut it out!” Sam Cooperman protested as Mark Withers reached across the aisle to extricate a tan notebook from under Sam’s arm. Mark pulled it in spurts. Sam was gradually conceding as the notebook was slipping out from under his wing. Then, Mrs. Dooley, our replacement teacher rapped on the blackboard. The blackboard was actually green with the letters of the alphabet parading across the top. I could smell the chalk. Mrs. Dooley’s upper arms jiggled under her blue dress, “Class, there’s going to be an announcement this morning about Mr. Gleason.”
Mark let the notebook drop to the floor. I felt a tightening in my chest.
“Of course you…”
Just then, the PA system crackled to life, and we could hear the voice of our principal, Mr. Feathers. I waited for Peggy, who sat behind me to mutter, “I wish Mr. Feathers would fly away.” I looked behind me; Peggy was sitting upright with her lips closed.
Mr. Feathers made the usual morning announcements; then he said what we all feared that Mr. Gleason, our teacher, had passed away. Mr. Feathers led us in a moment of silence.
Mr. Gleason was diagnosed with cancer this past October but continued teaching us through December. On January 9th, he was taking a break, they said, and we got a substitute teacher; then they said he wouldn’t be coming back; that’s when Mrs. Dooley arrived. A week later, we heard that Mr. Gleason was in the hospital, and now this.
Mr. Feathers’s voice broke a couple of times during the announcement, but he continued speaking. Sometimes Mr. Feathers had to hold it together and take charge.
After the PA system’s announcement, Mrs. Dooley asked us to write something about Mr. Gleason on an oversized card. She passed the card around the room, “Mr. Gleason’s widow would surely appreciate it,” Mrs. Dooley encouraged.
When Peggy passed the card to me, I didn’t know how to say what I was thinking. So, I
wound up writing that Mr. Gleason was nice. Talk about lame! Even worse, I drew a yellow sun.
What I wanted to say was that Mr. Gleason made everyone in the class, even Sam
Cooperman, who wore his older brother’s clothes that were two sizes too big feel as if
they mattered. And in the middle of a Tuesday or even a Wednesday, Mr. Gleason
could open a book deeper.
Later, while Mrs. Dooley stood in front of the blackboard moving her mouth, I gazed out the window at the schoolyard covered with snow. It seemed like the snow would
always be there, frozen and hard. There were also rays of light from the sky that broke
into a million shards of sparkling rainbow colors.
I kept remembering the grimaces Mr. Gleason made near the end.
Soon, the snow would melt, and Mrs. Dooley would give Peggy and Claire some chalk
to draw hopscotch squares on the playground. I knew I’d never stop thinking about the
snow and ice that had once covered all the asphalt, though.
Once, I had trouble with adding and had to stay after class for extra help. Mr. Gleason
sat with me, and we wrote on paper instead of the blackboard. The paper had been
torn from a spiral notebook, which shredded one of its sides. Mr. Gleason’s pencil
made scratching sounds when he wrote. His fingernails had half-moons just like mine,
only bigger. He glanced at his watch once. I felt terrible that Mr. Gleason probably
wanted to go home.
Another time, I came back into the classroom early after gym class because Mr.
Feathers wanted me to ask Mr. Gleason a question. When I entered the room, Mr.
Gleason was leaning over his desk, clutching his stomach. I waited, shifting from one
foot to the other. When Mr. Gleason stopped grimacing so much, I asked him the
After he died, I often wondered if asking Mr. Gleason a question while his stomach hurt
caused him to get cancer.
Claire passed the card to Sam. Sam wrote, “Come back.”
“Sam,” Mark Withers said. “He died.”
“Yeah,” Sam lamented, as he looked down at his hands.
I imagined that Sam missed Mr. Gleason’s gaze. It was the kind of look that could fill
you up inside and radiate out into the universe.
When our class first learned about the cancer diagnosis, we half-expected Mr. Gleason
to no longer show up, but every day, he did. Mr. Gleason would walk into our
classroom with his thick folders. Then he’d set the folders on his desk and greet every
one of us.
That was what Mr. Gleason taught us about death.
Then one day, I guess he just held out his arms and flew away.
Edward Gleason 1924-1965
Cyndi Cresswell Cook writes short stories as well as memoirs