I’m sharing more short fiction with you, dear reader. I wrote this short story after my bestie saw the tree in question (you’ll see further for context) and posed a simple idea to me: write a story about that tree. This was the result. I’ll share in excerpts. Read on…(and this is something I welcome doing with you here on TSP: you give me a topic, I write a story from it. We shall do that next.)
People tended to forget that history, their history, was soaked in blood. But Alice Harper refused to let the annals of the past go. She incorporated that painful history in most of her lessons, doing her level best to surpass the ineffectual books that crowded the shelves in her classroom. In the end, each young mind in her American History classes would recognize that Myron, Georgia, and the United States (certainly the Southern United States), at large, was not always the place of freedom they had known it to be.
“But does every lesson require so much intensity?” asked her colleague and close friend, Nadine Maxwell, as they ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge that afternoon. “I understand that you want the kids to take the past to heart, but—”
“But what, Nadine? Is it too real for them? Are we trying to shield these children from reality now?” Alice asked. “If you ask me, the ‘reality’ they’re exposed to has been whitewashed beyond repair. It’s about time we stop force feeding them fantasy.”
“Good Lord, Alice, calm down.”
“I just want you to be clear with me: what is so wrong with my idea?”
Nadine released a long, deep breath. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with your idea. But it’s just too much. Why subject them to such a place of horror?”
Alice abruptly stood and collected the remainder of her lunch. “That place of horror is where a great number who came before us breathed their last breath. I’d like to believe that you would want these kids to show it some respect. I guess I was wrong.” With that, she deposited her food in the garbage and stormed out of the lounge. In her haste, she nearly collided with Henry Cooper, a fellow teacher. “Oh, pardon me, Hen. I was just…” She glanced behind her. “I had to get out of there.” As she reached down to pick up his fallen lunch bag, Henry gently stopped her and picked it up himself.
“Did someone leave something ghastly in the microwave again?” he asked.
“Well, ghastly is the right word, yes, but it has nothing to do with the microwave. I need to get back to the classroom. See you later.”
Richard Mason, Myron High’s principal, felt that Alice was being “improper.” A week later, scores of parents—via emails and phone calls—threatened to remove their children from her classes.
That late afternoon, as Alice sat in her empty classroom, her eyes turned toward the windows and focused on the graying, dimming sky, she felt like having a drink. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, depending on how one looked at it—she wasn’t one of the teachers who kept alcoholic reinforcements in their desk drawer. Sighing, she glanced down at the lesson plan on her desk, which she had presented to the school board a few days ago: a field trip to take her students to the Hanging Tree.
Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly, with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings, began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone anonymously tied a rope around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red.
The knock on her classroom door interrupted her thoughts. “Come in,” Alice wearily called.
Henry Cooper pushed open the door and walked into the room. “I was passing by and saw you inside. Just wanted to check if everything was all right.”
“Thanks. Last minute paperwork. What are you still doing here?”
Henry sat down across from her. “Same as you: finishing up a few things.” He paused. “Nadine told me about your idea to take the kids to the tree.”
She sighed. “Let me guess: you’re shocked and outraged that I would subject those young minds to something so horrifying?”
Henry shook his head. “On the contrary: I completely support it.”
Alice raised her eyebrows. “You do?”
“You’re a wonderful teacher, Alice. I have no doubt that you know what you’re doing. I remember hearing about the Hanging Tree when we moved to Myron. My parents sat me down when I asked them about it and told me everything I needed to know. They didn’t shield the truth from me. And that made a deep impact, believe it or not. I think you have the capacity to impact your students in a similar way and I support that wholeheartedly.”
Moved, Alice smiled at him. “Thank you for understanding, Henry.”
“You’re welcome. Hey, you’re doing important things. My binomials pale in comparison to living history.” Henry taught tenth and twelfth grade Algebra.
“Don’t say that. You’re as dedicated as they come. I’ve always thought very highly of you.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “Means a lot coming from you. In fact—well, never mind.”
He regarded her, his expression unreadable. He then laughed softly to himself but remained silent.
“What is it, Hen?” she pressed, confused.
“All right. There really is no other way to say it. I’m in love with you.”
Later, she would recall the strange sensation that settled over her in that moment, like inhaling sharply and losing her breath all at the same time.
“You don’t have to reply,” Henry continued. “I’m not sure why I said it so run-of-the-mill like that, like we were talking about the weather. I’m sorry about that.”
For the second time that day, Alice wished she had a drink.
Henry stood up. “But it won’t be the elephant in the room, Alice. It’s merely how I feel. If you want to talk about it, we can. If not, that’s okay, too.” With that he walked out of the classroom.
Alice leaned back in her chair, her hand planted over her chest. Shock seemed to manifest itself everywhere: within the goose bumps that appeared on her arms, the electric tingle in the middle of her scalp. By the time she had the presence of mind to finally leave for the day, the sun had already set.