BY: Sarah Broussard Weaver
The college professor is calm as he describes genocide. He’s just giving his planned lecture, the one scheduled on the syllabus and outlined in his notes. The students continue doodling or staring into space, only looking up when the professor mentions a detail that’s unexpectedly gruesome.
That is not how I react.
My brain didn’t know any of this before. My back stiff against the small wooden desk. My feet flat against the floor. My palms pressed down on my notebook. My fingers too shaky to hold a pen. My head whirls with the new information.
He drones on, using an unemotional tone that doesn’t fit his subject matter: the Trail of Tears. He is mostly retired, just teaching a couple of adjunct classes held at the high school at night, for adults who missed the main boat when it left at age eighteen or nineteen, bound for the shores of Education and Enlightenment. He has known his subject for years and could recite the horrific facts in his sleep. He wishes he were at home watching the news rather than teaching a night class for people who can’t even make a boat on time.
My eyes and mouth widen. Hairs stand up on my arms as my heart beats faster, his words piling up inside me.
He keeps churning out the facts. He has a list to cover. All exam questions must be taught. Starvation, check. Cholera, check.
Draught. Smallpox. Dysentery.
Check. Check. Check.
Half of the dead were children, check. Native peoples decimated, check.
My hand rises as my throat clears. My voice asks my question: Is it true? My body clenches with my unspoken plea: let it be a mistake.
The professor looks surprised to be disturbed from his groove. He shuffles his papers and begins to answer my questions, which follow one after another. Yes, it’s true. Of course it is. Yes, it was that bad. Yes, we were that cruel. Yes, they were innocent and didn’t deserve it. Obviously yes, it was their land first; no, we didn’t care that it was. He wonders why the questions are so basic, why the student looks so surprised. He wonders what his wife made for dinner and why the clock is moving so slowly tonight.
My head finally hangs, as though my questions had been holding it up. Fingers stop a tear from forming the only kind of tear trail I’d ever known before tonight. I search my memory for a shred of previous knowledge; only Squanto and Pocahontas are found, and a feast of giving thanks with corn-planting instructions, sharing, and communion between two communities, each wearing their traditional headdress, neither better than the other. An idyllic scene remembered from my old high school textbook: the Pilgrims and Indians, heads bowed, giving thanks to the same God. I am questioning my homeschool education for the first time. My always-steady viewpoint has been shaken. What else don’t I know?
The professor has moved on to property laws for women. He is relieved that he has now managed to cover the required facts for the night. He will be home within thirty minutes, wearing slippers, eating his dinner in front of the ten o’clock news as his wife refills his sweet tea.
I haven’t heard a word about the property laws for women. I will be home in thirty minutes too, trying to find the words to solidify what I’ve heard, the words to demand why my world up ’til now has stood silent. I feel helpless, ignorant, and infuriated by the injustice. I wonder if there’s anything I can do, anything anyone can do, to make it up.
Sarah Broussard Weaver is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Lunch Ticket, Rust + Moth, Full Grown People, and The Nervous Breakdown, among other journals. She lives in Portland, Oregon.