This story is by Robert Dyer and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The banner draped above the bleachers proclaimed, “Spring Fling 1955.” The gymnasium of Rutherford B. Hayes Junior High School defied the efforts of the Spirit Committee to create a magical scene. Decades of sweat from young teens’ basketball games, wrestling matches, P.E. classes, and pep assemblies could not be erased by twisted crepe paper streamers and a few balloon bouquets.
Surrounded by the aroma of the disinfectant used on the worn boards, Ruth Smithers stood by the punch bowl out of a sense of duty. She had been a fixture at Hayes ever since she completed her teacher training right before America entered the Great War. The building had only been open for a year when she moved into her classroom. Almost four decades later, she still occupied the same room. Hundreds of students passed through during that time, and she could recall something about each one. That fact alone moved her to legendary status.
Legends can have a dark side, though, and the exploits of Miss Smithers stood out like a blackened thundercloud. There was not one story that was handed down from generation to generation about her as fun, nice, or someone’s favorite teacher. Most often, Miss Smithers was the villain in some piece of Hayes history. Football stars forced to sit on the sidelines because of incomplete homework and girls reduced to tears at her admonition over the length of their skirts were some of her fabled deeds. Assignments over weekends and holiday breaks did not endear her to her pupils. Even fellow faculty members cringed at the memories of the embarrassment caused by her correction of their grammar during staff meetings.
Despite her years, Miss Smithers stood ramrod straight. There was no stoop to her shoulders, and she wasn’t above enforcing good posture in her class as well. Besides being known as “The Terror” behind her back, the students also called her “Bird Woman” thanks to her wiry physique and sharp features. Taller than average, she could look many of the boys in the midst of their growth spurts right in their eyes. When she spoke, each word was clipped, distinct, and complete. A dropped consonant was unknown to her.
When Theodore Dirksen started across the gym toward the punch bowl, she knew something was up. Her eagle eye had spotted him with Mike Youngstown in the corner with their heads together, and they were occasionally casting a glance in her direction. They were in her third period Algebra class and were as thick as thieves. Inwardly she enjoyed their constant teasing of each other. Mike was nowhere near the student Theodore was, and by all reports, he did not come close to Mike’s athletic ability. Those differences didn’t stop them from being friends, and she admired that.
There was no doubt in her mind that Mike had instigated something. He loved to put Theodore on the spot. She simply had to wait patiently to see what drama was going to unfold and what her expected part was going to be.
“Good evening, Miss Smithers.” Theodore’s eyes managed to look anywhere but directly into hers.
“Good evening, Theodore. Would you care for some punch?”
“No ma’am.” She could practically hear him swallowing hard before the words rushed out, “I was wondering if you would like to dance with me?”
That was not what she was expecting. This had to be a dare from Mike. “Dance with you?” She pierced him with her gaze from above her glasses.
“Yes, ma’am. Some of the other teachers have danced. Perhaps you’d like to?”
Memories from long ago dances came back. She hadn’t always been “The Terror.” When she first began her career, she and another young teacher, Mr. Case from the English department, made quite a pair on the dance floor. She could still smell the orchid corsage on her wrist and feel his strong arm around her waist. A twinkle always seemed to be in his blue eyes. The gym became a magical place whenever they were together.
He left when the war broke out. A bullet before the Armistice brought that phase of her life to a halt, and the beginning of a new legend.
A voice she hadn’t heard in years came back into her head as Theodore stood before her. Let’s give the students something to remember. That is what he would say to her each time he guided her to the middle of the gym.
She surprised not only Theodore but herself when she said, “I would be delighted.”
Just as they hit the dance floor, the song changed to Nat King Cole’s, “A Blossom Fell.” Her years of dance training as a young girl came easily back to her and she was impressed by Theodore’s poise. Even though she stood a good head taller, he matched her perfect posture. He guided her around the floor with a grace she found impressive.
“Theodore, I have to say, you are doing very well.”
“Thank you. My mom makes me take lessons. The guys don’t know ‘cause they’d laugh their heads off at me.”
“The word is ‘because,’ Theodore. Your mother is very sensible. Every young person should know how to navigate a dance floor.”
As they glided to the mellow voice of the crooner coming through the speakers, she noticed the other dancers falling by the wayside until she and young Theodore were the only two remaining on the floor. She spied Principal Conkling standing on the side with his mouth hanging open. Other chaperones and the rest of the students stared in disbelief.
There was no feeling of foolishness on her part as they twirled around the painted tiger in the middle of the gymnasium. She found herself enjoying tweaking the image the students had formed of her. Paul would be proud.
At the end of the dance, she could not resist dropping into a deep curtsy as Theodore bowed in her direction. The sound of applause ringing through the gym brought a momentary blush to her cheek.
“Miss Smithers, can you do me a favor?”
“Theodore, after that lovely dance, it will be my pleasure.”
He looked down at the floor. “I’m glad we danced and all, but Mike put me up to it. I’d like to get even with him for trying to embarrass me.”
Boys. There is nothing like that one upmanship they love so much.
“Leave it to me. Let’s go and pay a visit to Michael.”
She watched as Mike’s eyes grew in size as they approached. He was looking for a way to escape, but her gaze held him locked in place.
“Good evening, Miss Smithers,” Mike managed to say. “Um—I—You’re a wonderful dancer.”
“Thank you. Theodore tells me you’re having trouble with your Algebra, but you’re afraid to ask for help.” She shook her head while clucking her tongue. “What nonsense. Next week, you can spend an hour after school with me every day. There are no baseball games scheduled, and I’ll let Coach Clark know you’ll be late to practice. He won’t object when I tell him. You need to work on Algebra as much as your fastball. Don’t forget. Every day.”
She left him cornered with no way out. “Yes, ma’am,” was the only thing he could mutter. Ruth Smithers gave a nod of her head at Mike while giving Theodore the faintest of smiles. The look of satisfaction on his face could not be hidden.
From her perch by the punch bowl, she watched as the two boys were surrounded by scores of their classmates. They were pounding Theodore on his back, and she could swear she could see his chest puffing out at what she assumed were their words of admiration.
Her decades of teaching taught Miss Smithers that this was a moment those in attendance would long remember. She heard him once again. Nice job, Ruth. Now Theodore will be known as the young man who tamed the Terror of Hayes Junior High. I couldn’t have scripted it better myself. She could see the twinkle in his eyes once more.
As she suspected, the buzz that began during that dance endured longer than that night. For the remaining years of her career, each Spring Fling carried with it the whisper of what happened on that floor. While crepe paper and balloons could not create a sense of magic in a tired gymnasium, the passing of one legend and the birth of another could.