MOBILE, AL—Students at Adams Middle School have been feverishly speculating about the true circumstances surrounding seventh grade history teacher Mr. Benson's unannounced second-semester leave of absence—now approaching one month—raising the mysterious disappearance well into the status of legend among the student body at large.
"I heard he was a pot addict, and he went mental, and they took him away to a mental institution," said Gregory Oswald, 13, a student of Benson's, adding that he remembered noticing a growing impatience in Mr. Benson in the weeks before Christmas break. "Someone told me that the first night he was there, they shocked his brain. Now he can't remember anything about the Civil War anymore."
Many in the semi-popular teacher's fifth-period American history class say they remain suspicious of Principal Robert Standish's relative silence on the matter, and were unsatisfied by Standish's tersely worded public-address announcement explaining that Mr. Benson was out on "personal matters," and would "return soon."
"Mr. Benson is dead," said Joel Brown, 12.
A number of other students, such as seventh-grader Julie Krivus, seemed certain that the "Get Well Soon" card that was passed around for their teacher on Monday was meant to cover up a horrific boating accident in which the 36-year-old had his face "burned all the way off." "They had to take him to France to get a new face, but something went wrong and now he has to wear an iron mask," Krivus said.
"Or maybe Mr. Benson faked his death because he was in trouble with the mob, and then went on a spiritual quest to India," she added.
Other students' theories as to Mr. Benson's whereabouts include training for the 2008 Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly, robbing banks, fighting in and winning a Kumite death-match in Hong Kong, opening a restaurant in Texas, flying a hot-air balloon around the world to help poor people, searching for his real parents, having acid thrown on him by eighth-grade science teacher Roy DeWalt, being captured by the CIA as a terrorist operative, and working for the CIA to help catch terrorist operatives.
"He had an affair with that [eighth-grade] slut Heather Winston, and the janitor caught him," 13-year-old Lauren Eckhard said. "But then she got pregnant with his baby, and that's why she had to move away last year."
One student, who asked not to be named, said that he recently listened in on a conversation through the teachers' lounge door in which faculty members spoke specifically about Mr. Benson's location. Though the student claimed specifics were difficult to make out, he heard nothing to dispel the theory that Mr. Benson was in fact a matador recovering from wounds he sustained in his last bullfight in Madrid.
"Remember how he had that limp right before break?" the student said.
Sixth-grader Vince Shelky, who was recently given a detention for attempting to break into Mr. Benson's desk while the substitute teacher was at lunch, said he was sure there would be "tons of clues" regarding Mr. Benson's disappearance in his extensive lesson plans and personal papers.
"Why would the desk drawer be locked in the first place if there wasn't something really important in there?" Shelky said. "But the point is, basically, he was living a double life. Teacher by day. Alien by night."
Despite the growing clamor and the widening scope of possible scenarios to explain Mr. Benson's absence, not everyone is convinced that the teacher ever actually went missing to begin with.
"I saw Mr. Benson coming out of McDonald's yesterday," said 12-year-old Harry Dale, whose testimony was dismissed by a number of students aware of his reputation as a burnout. "I didn't recognize him at first—he was wearing a trench coat and a hat, but I could tell it was him. When I tried to get a closer look, he disappeared."
Curiosity was further piqued last Friday when Mr. Benson's wife, Lisa, appeared at the school to pick up her husband's mail, and told the receptionist that he would be returning within a week.
"I wouldn't listen to his wife," Amanda Bell, 13, said. "She's the one who poisoned him anyway."