The Evergreen Award
Jack taught high school reading and writing. He had liked the job from the beginning, partly because it sometimes made him feel like he was important and partly because he had a feeling that there might not be enough purpose, intellectual or otherwise, available to high school students. With the latter near the front of his mind, Jack thought he might be able, on most days, to operate outside of the boundaries of the institution. To that end, he refused to put grades on papers or to give reading quizzes. Instead, he gave time and written responses to the papers he read.
Jack was no crusader, but he did have the sense that some ways were better than others. He felt that letter grades were destructive and he chose not to assign them to the students’ daily work. He did not, however, feel any need to convert anyone else to his way of thinking.
Many of the students he taught considered his class easy. “There are no grades on the papers; why would anybody really try? You don’t have to.” He knew for a fact that a few of them would not read a single book he assigned. Over the years, he had heard several students make that proclamation with intense pride, as if they had pulled the wool over someone’s eyes and gotten away with some act of intellectual quality. Jack read their papers with the same attention as he did the others. He felt he could out wait those students who didn’t read the books he’d assigned and wrote their papers during spare moments they had during the school day. He had found that the wait, more often than not, could extend well beyond a student’s tenure at the school. In many cases the wait would be indefinite. When Jack thought about that, he thought about Beckett and how that particular association made him believe that the waiting was necessary.
Quite a few of Jack’s students liked to come to his class. Those students gave him the sense that what he did in class was, even if it wasn’t complicated, worth something. The part of him that needed validation took heart in this. After particularly long days, Jack could pull out, from the folder stashed at the back of the bottom drawer of the file cabinet, a “thank you, I’ve learned so much” note or two he had saved.
Lately, Jack had found it harder to come to work. The birds singing in the predawn grayness that had begun to greet his morning wake-up did not hold much magic. Those songs, along with the crocus and snowdrop blossoms, heralded the coming of spring and, at school, Founder’s Day and its ritual salute to academic excellence: The Evergreen Award.
The Evergreen Award was a substantial cash award given to recognize excellence in teaching at Jack’s school. Along with the money came recognition on The Plate. Each spring, the name of the winning faculty member would be etched into the expansive silver plate that featured, at its center, the school seal and the inscription, “A great place to be teacher.” The Plate, as it was known, was featured prominently at the main entrance of Jack’s school.
Jack passed by it on most days without noticing he had done so. On other days it would catch his eye, and he would consider the names that were so carefully added each year. They read as a litany of those faculty members the students called the “hard” teachers. Sometimes, when he looked at The Plate, Jack would think about the comparative grade reports, by teacher and by class, that his department head would hand out at the end of each term, and remember the numbers under his name were several points higher than any of the numbers associated with any of the names on The Plate.
These thoughts did not bother Jack too much. He knew he’d never be a hard teacher, and he’d decided that being a hard teacher wasn’t the way he could share his intellectual curiosity with his students.
That unsettled feeling that had kept Jack from enjoying the robin’s song these past mornings hunkered down in his mind. Each year of the 11 he had been teaching, that feeling had returned when it neared the time a teacher to received The Evergreen Award. This year the feeling was worse.
Jack couldn’t describe the feeling as envy for those who won it. He did not want to be any of them. He liked, however, the thought of the money. Hell, he had as much call to spend money as anyone. No, the feeling wasn’t envy. It was more like the beginnings of acute embarrassment or shame¾ something like the feeling one gets after opening the door to a bathroom that is occupied. And this year the feeling was worse: the head of school had nominated him for The Evergreen Award.
Jack’s school had grown its facilities a little bit at a time over the years, but this year was the big one. This year the humanities building would be razed and replaced. The capital campaign was in full swing, and the head of school spent his days meeting potential donors over lunch. On a Wednesday afternoon in early April, the head of school sent word to Jack via e-mail: “Let’s meet to discuss your nomination. Today at 3pm works for me. See you then.”
It was trepidation, not fear, that Jack felt when he entered the vestibule just outside the head of school’s office. He felt confused, like there had been some kind of mistake. Why would anyone want to put his name on The Plate?
“Come in, sit down.”
Jack did both, and the exchange of pleasantries began. After a few minutes had come and gone on the crest of conversation about the weather and the anticipation of spring break, the head broached the matter at hand.
“Your teaching is going well. I wanted to let you know that I have heard good things about it. Having a teacher whose lessons come up at the dinner tables of our largest potential donors makes my efforts to secure funding for the new humanities wing that much easier. You’ve greased the wheels in couple of instances.”
The conversation continued on for a few more minutes before it wound down and both Jack and the head of school glanced at their watches. They stood and shook hands.
“The Evergreen Award,” the head of school said, as if The Plate itself had the power to create or destroy, “brings a lot of guarantees along with it. Good luck.”
Jack nodded and passed out into the hall by way of the vestibule. “So that’s it,” he thought. He walked back to his classroom to pick up his school bag. On the drive home he thought about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and hit upon a good way to challenge his student’s to see that the brick maker, that “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” who had no straw, as the most significant character in the novel. He also thought about Ronnie and his dinner table. He smiled a little. He liked Ronnie, and Ronnie liked his class. He felt good when the alarm went off Thursday morning.
The days past; spring break came and went. The Evergreen Award sub committee of the Instructional Senate, chaired by the head of school, had met and come to its decision. On the last Friday in April, Founder’s Day, the school gathered in the gymnasium for the announcement and acceptance of the Evergreen Award. Teachers were seated at regular intervals among the students to assure decorum for the event. The nominees were seated on a low stage behind the podium.
The head of school approached the podium and the room, at the urging of authority, quieted down.
“The Evergreen Award is the highest award that this institution can bestow on upon one of its own. We have one of the finest faculties of any school, anywhere. The names on The Plate are the names of the best of the best. The legacy of the Evergreen Award is the soul of this institution. It makes this school a great place to be a teacher, and as it is a great place to be a teacher, it is a great place to be a student. This year’s recipient of the Evergreen Award is, Jack Straw.”
Jack rose when he heard his name. He approached the podium and waited for the applause to die down and for the audience to be seated.
“No thank you,” he said.