Short story from Sheryl Bize-Boutte

PLATEAU

Miss Pennwender was late. 

The five of us in her first period American Government class were not particularly worried at first.  After all, she was a total flower girl hippie, the young white woman icon of that day in 1968, and we knew she liked to smoke a bit.  Sometimes we could smell it on her clothes or in her hair. We all loved her in our own ways. We all knew she loved us and wanted the best for us.  She came prepared each day to make sure we had everything we needed to excel in her class and to ace our college entrance exams. She didn’t just teach us the basic elements of American Government, she taught us the background and history and atmosphere of it all. She was unlike any teacher we had ever had and our bonds with her and hers with us, although never verbally expressed, were strong.

So, on this day, it was just not right that she was not standing in her usual place at the door when we arrived. Things felt tilted and out of balance as we took our usual seats in the portable classroom. Maybe she was just held up in traffic or had overslept, we reasoned with each other. In the beginnings of her lateness, we didn’t entertain any other options.

We sat there just waiting, not speaking as five minutes passed and too quickly became ten.  And even at that mark of time, in our know- everything- overconfident youthfulness we remained certain in our assumptions about her not being on time. After all, we were the “smart” kids, the “gifted” students who had been specifically chosen to be in Miss P’s accelerated college prep twelfth grade class at our Oakland, California high school.  This was no small accomplishment in our white flight neighborhood where being deemed as smart or gifted was a designation bestowed on students at our school less and less.  

While old yearbooks would reveal that almost half of the student body had been inducted into the National Honor Society, and two-thirds were enrolled in special college preparatory classes, this year, only the five of us out of twelve hundred students at our now mixed-race school, had “tested” smart enough to be placed in Miss P’s and other such courses.  We had been hastily assembled in the principal’s office at the beginning of our senior year and without looking directly at us, he mumbled to us that we had “fallen” into the “genius” category on our intelligence testing from the year before and would be taking “special” courses designed for “high achievers” like us.  It all seemed fairly messy and felt as if we had been notified at the last minute, and unwillingly.

We were an interesting group, to say the least. There were the Japanese twins, tall and angular Steve and Mark Tanuki; red-haired and introverted white girl Adelaide Morrison; blond and overly muscular football star Jimmy Fargo; and me, the talkative sandy-haired Black girl.  Sometimes there were four of us who wondered why and how Jimmy got into the class, but we didn’t dwell on it.

Soon enough, the ten minutes became fifteen, the universal cutoff for waiting for a teacher.  For some reason, we didn’t budge. We didn’t even look at each other.  We knew something unsaid. The tilt became more pronounced as we struggled to remain patient.  We knew things did not feel exactly right this day, the discomfort prompting nervous chatter.

“She will be here soon,” Steve said.

“Yes, any minute,” I said.

Adelaide began pacing the floor in the back of the classroom.

“Will you please stop that walking, Adelaide?” Jimmy said a little too loudly, making us all look over at him. “Your footsteps are driving me…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Miss P burst through the door, all shawls and straight middle-parted long brown hair, red-faced, sweaty and looking a bit crazed. In her right hand was set of Volkswagen bus keys.

 In her left hand was an 18-inch-long metal pipe.

“Guys and girls, get your things!” She said breathlessly, a small bit of spittle spray escaping her thin, dry lips. “We are going on a field trip!”

Without a second thought, we gathered our bags and books and followed her down the hall and out to her VW bus, haphazardly parked right in front of our classroom building.  Somehow, she had driven past the gated and fenced teacher’s parking lot and through the school grounds to pick us up.  We were so excited to be doing something out of the ordinary with our freewheeling teacher and going on what we thought was a field trip, it would only seem out of character when we looked back.

We happily piled into the VW. 

“Don’t worry,” Miss P said.  “I will have you all back by the 3:05 bell.”

Off we went.  Miss P’s VW bus allowed us a comfortable and scenic ride. The 580 freeway took us through town and then on to other cities along the way.  We talked, laughed and pointed out familiar landmarks as they passed.  I even showed everyone the exit my family took to get to my grandmother’s house in Richmond.  By the time we passed that landmark, everything else was new territory to all of us except Miss P and Jimmy, both of whom seemed to know much more about places further north from Oakland.

Soon we reached the San Rafael bridge.  It would be the first time I; the twins or Adelaide had crossed it and we paid attention to every bump and window view. After a little more than an hour of driving, we finally reached our destination, Point Reyes National Seashore.

We all disembarked from the VW bus, looking at each other quizzically.  Was this some kind of nature lesson? And if so, what did it have to do with American Government?  Her keys secured into her macrame shoulder bag, lead pipe in her right hand, Miss P turned to look back at us briefly and began swiftly walking toward an incline. We could clearly see the plateau near the top. Like sheep, we followed her.  We climbed along with her and didn’t say a word until we reached the grassy top.

The view of the ocean was magnificent.  It took what little breath we had left away and then its stunning beauty gave it back to us full force.  The waves were calm and dancing against the shore like ballerinas in a choreographed line.  It was a special place.  We knew we were here for a significant reason.

“Come and sit with me,” Miss P. said.  Her brown hair was glinting in the sun, pushed back the slight breeze with rhythmic timing. Her face was drained of color.  Her eyes seemed vacant.

“He hit him with the pipe,” she said as she held it up to the sunlight.

“That pipe?” I asked.

“Yes.”

 We all really looked at the pipe then.  There was a red stain on one end we had not noticed before.

“Where, when?” Steve and Mark asked in unison.

Below, even though we could no longer see them from where we sat, we knew the waves were silently breaking against the rocks. Surely, they would soften and cleanse everything we were about to hear.

“At the club last night.” Miss P had her head in her hands and began to moan as she rocked back and forth.  We instinctively drew closer and surrounded her.  We didn’t know yet what had happened, but we did know it was hurting Miss P and that she needed us. We didn’t know what to say to her, so we just closed in on her so she could feel us there.  After a while she raised her head and looked at each of us.  Her eyes were filled with tears. Her voice was weak and thready when she spoke.

“His name is Lamont.  He is the love of my life. That man hit him with the pipe.  He said to me white girl why are you with that spook? He said I have been watching you come in here with him.  Then he hit him with the pipe and dropped it where Lamont fell. He said you won’t be with him again bitch.

I don’t know why I picked it up. I don’t remember much except leaving the hospital this morning.”

She looked up at the sky.  She let go of the pipe and let it settle in the deep grass.

“Well, how is Lamont?” I asked.

Miss P just looked at me and dropped her head.  Then she walked slowly to the edge of the plateau.  We followed.  I grabbed her hand.  Jimmy took her other hand.  The rest joined hands and we just stood there together looking at the waves kiss the shore. They were gray and silty now.

Now we knew why she had brought us here. Of all the people she could have chosen for this moment when she needed someone the most, she had chosen us.

And as we stood there, afraid and worried for a man we had never even met, we felt Miss P’s palatable love for Lamont.  Although in different ways, and for different reasons, on that day we all felt the ugliness, bigotry, tragedy and horrid meaning of what had been done to him.

We heard the roar before we saw it. The waves had become all foam and fierceness. They hit the rocks below with such force the plateau seemed to move backward.

When the spray hit us as we stood there together, we all knew Lamont was gone.

“Well, I said I would have you back by the 3:05 bell,” Miss P said as she disengaged from our hands.

We walked back to the VW bus.  We rode back full of our own thoughts about what had happened. Everyone was sad.  Miss P was silent.  I was angry.  So, so angry.

We reached the school at 3:00 and stepped out of the VW bus.  Miss P hugged and kissed us all.

When the 3:05 bell rang out with a screeching finality, we watched as Miss P turned from us and walked slowly away, climbing into and starting up the VW.  

And with what would be her final wave to us, and ours to her, we watched wordlessly as Miss Pennwender drove away.

Pushcart Prize nominee Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte is an Oakland multidisciplinary writer whose autobiographical and fictional short story collections, along with her lyrical and stunning poetry, artfully succeed in getting across deeper meanings about the politics of race and economics without breaking out of the narrative.  Her writing has been variously described as “rich in vivid imagery,” “incredible,” and “great contributions to literature.” Her first novel, “Betrayal on the Bayou,” was published in June 2020 and a poetry collection she has written with her daughter Dr. Angela M. Boutte, titled “No Poetry No Peace,” was published in August 2020.  She is also a popular literary reader, presenter, storyteller, curator and emcee for local events.

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