The Lion Trees

By Owen Thomas

Literary fiction

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688
4 mins

Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1 – David

“Who is the most important historical figure you can name?”

They stare at me, bright and twinkling with attention. Soaking me in. Assessing me. Measuring me against the others. And I am ready for them.

I sit on the edge of the desk and swing my leg, looking from face to face, letting them take stock before getting down to business. The first-day energy is palpable. Fresh, young, hungry minds. I roll a stick of chalk from one palm to the other like dice. They blink at me.

“Don’t be shy, folks. No judgment here. Who do you think is the most important historical figure of all time?”

Swing, swing, swing. Roll, roll, roll. Blink, blink.

“Anybody. Anybody at all. Don’t all dive in at once.”

Blink, blink.

“How about you… over in the back there… what’s your name?” I look at my seating chart. “Ashley? What do you think, Ashley?”

She is startled. I smile and nod. I am reassuring. I am encouraging. I am everything a teacher must be. A guide. A shepherd. I turn to the virgin green board behind me with a quickness and uncoiling energy that makes them jump. Beneath “Mr. Johns” I dramatically click chalk to slate, poised to write. A display of trusting servitude. A humble scribe.

I wait. I wait.

“Madonna,” she says, finally, with a pop of gum for punctuation.

“M…” I write the first letter and turn. “Mother of Christ?” I ask, hopefully. I am an optimistic person.

Ashley screws up her face, rapidly cocooning her forefinger in a spiraling strand of purple glop. “Huh?”

So maybe I’m not an optimistic person. I think of myself as an optimistic person, which is really very different than actual optimism. The irony is, my self-concept as an optimistic person may be the only true claim I have to actual optimism. Every morning I come to consciousness with this belief – this understanding – of who I am today. I stretch and I yawn and I swing my feet from the bed to the floor and so it begins. I am an optimistic person. I feel optimistic. People are basically good. My life is a communion with well-intentioned souls. Everything is, more or less, as it should be. Yesterday did not happen. History is a fiction. Each day I am reborn.

Reborn, apparently, into a life plagued by some cruel, recurring amnesia. Because yesterday did, in fact, happen. And so did the day before yesterday. And the day before that.

“You mean… Madonna… the, um…”

“Yeah. You know… Madonna.” Ashley says this with enough self-evident incredulity to level mountains. Her neon-frosted eyes roll over and down to a girl in the next row – Brittany Kline, according to my seating chart – who shrugs back at Ashley uncomprehendingly.

“Okay. Madonna.” The name goes on the board. I am unphased. I am young and hip and rolling with it. “Why Madonna?” I roll up my sleeves and cross my arms. I am in the trenches. On the front lines, making a difference.

“It’s not like I listen to her now or anything cuz she’s totally old and everything, but she’s like totally opened a lot of doors for women in this culture and around the world by empowering them to express their sexuality and taking a stand and everything like that.”

Bad start. That’s all. Luck of the draw. This will get better. I keep moving.

“Okay. Okay. Fair enough.” I arch the chalk through the air from left hand to right. “Let’s get some more names on the board. Give me someone important that goes way, way back. Let’s go waaaaaayyyyy back. Pull out all the stops. Whaddaya got? Mr. Onaya, go for it. Who’s your favorite historical figure?”

“George Washington.”

“Yes!” Bam! On the board! I’m rolling. “Who’s next? Ms. Kent. Lemme have it.”

“Abraham Lincoln.”

“Okay. Good. Good. Next. Alicia, who’s your favorite?”

“George Washington.”

“We already have him.”

“Yeah, but he’s my favorite.”

“Okay, good. But give me some other important historical figure I can put up here so we can talk about what makes them influential today.”

“But I like George Wa…”

“You don’t have to like the person, you just have to think they played an important role historically.”

“Abraham Lincoln.”

I underline the name that, like George Washington’s, is already on the board. The pressure between my molars is beginning to show in my temples. “Try again.”

“Indiana Jones.”

My theory is that all optimists are, of necessity, “historically challenged.” Optimism is a kind of dementia caused by a weakness of memory. A pleasant by-product of a serious mental deficiency. Optimists are not to be admired or emulated. They are to be pitied. Wiley Coyote was an optimist.

“Okay. Indiana Jones. Not a real person, but what the hell.”

Indy goes on the board in a hard, sharp fray of fractured chalk next to the name that does not refer to the Holy Mother of God.

“Who else? Let’s just go down the seating chart. Brian? Give me your best.”

“George Washington.”

“Dean?”

“Abraham Lincoln.”

“Kevin?”

“The Pope.”

“Which Pope?”

“I thought there was only one.”

My problem is that I have too good a grip on the past. This is probably why I am a history teacher and certainly why I am an optimist of the ephemeral, masochistic variety. This is why Tilly tells me I need to learn to “let go and move on.” This is why every day is a “new day” only for a little while; like a rental sprayed with that “new car” fragrance certain to wear off in a couple of hours. The smell of cigarettes and body odor is in that thing to stay. But such is the stench of history.

“Why don’t I just put down Pope as a generic title rather than as a particular person. Kashawnda Davis, you’re next.”

“Jesus.”

“Francis?”

“Jesus.”

“Bill.”

“Yeah. I’ll have to go with Jesus too, Mr. Johns.”

So, in a way, getting up in the morning believing that you are willing to start clean is optimism. It is a tiny, highly-perched, crystalline sort of optimism. Bright, precious and exceedingly delicate. Please, no touching the optimism! Back away from the optimism! I wake up feeling good about the world and about me in it. Maybe for about an hour and a half or so. While I take a shower and drink my coffee and feed my fish and drive to work.

Then I start coming into contact with other humans. That is when everything goes, inevitably, straight to shit.

“Dirk?”

“Michael Jordan.”

In the end, optimism is simply faith. Not faith in God so much as faith in the living. And faith – in the living or in God – requires more patience and suspended disbelief than my battered psyche can possibly endure.

“Sean.”

“Burt Reynolds.”

“Shannon?”

“Gumby.”

It is 10:37 in the morning on the first day of school. They are young and perky and brimming with the future of our species. One by one, I want to rip their hearts out of their little chests.

Did I say crystalline? My optimism is not crystalline. My optimism is origami. And reality, my reality anyway, is a hurricane.

“Brittany? Yes, you.”

“Mozart.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”

Hmm. I turn and write the name and then turn back. She is smiling. Attentive. Beaming at me. Her friend Ashley – of the Madonna Historical Society – is amused, twirling her gum. But this one – Brittany was it? – There is something different here. There is a connection between teacher and student that I have not felt anywhere else in the room. She is tall for her age. A breadth of shoulder is developing. She stands out from her peers in all directions. In the face there is just a hint of the coming woman. And yet, she is all girl. There is a violin case beneath her desk.

“Mozart. Interesting. Why Mozart?”

“Because he was a genius.”

“Okay. So? Being a genius automatically gets you on the list of important historical figures?”

“No. It’s not what you’ve got, Mr. Johns. It’s how you use it.” The class picks up on her, presumably, unintended innuendo. She does not react or break her gaze. I silence the sniggering with a hand.

“And how did Mozart use his genius, Brittany?”

“To make the world beautiful in a way no one ever had before.”

She is honest and clean and eager. She smiles a purity of potential that is the reason I get up in the morning and come to this place. She makes up for all of them. My God, how hope does spring eternal.



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