She sat up with a start, her bifocals slipping off her ears. They skidded on a bare spot of her desk—so littered with letters and knickknacks—and clattered a few feet across the museum’s checkered tile floor. The historian rose and waddled a few steps from her desk, bending over with great effort as her breasts—victims of gravity and childbirth—hung low in her blouse.
A boy skipped diagonally across white tiles and snatched up her glasses. He handed them to Angela—still bent over, chest heaving from labored breathing—and beamed at her with a grin that would be toothy had he not lost both of his front teeth.
Angela stood up slowly and mustered a smile at the boy as a teacher—dressed in a drab black dress, faded from age—caught up with them, the rest of her class following in an ant line.
“Why, uh, thank you young man,” Angela said. “What is your name?”
“My name’s Billy Barnes!” he said. “Do you like my new shoes?”
Billy’s high-tops blinked a fast pattern of red light as he jogged in place, his striped swishy pants keeping a steady beat.
“Well I’ll be! Those are some—”
“That’s quite enough, Billy,” the teacher interrupted.
Angela glanced at her, marveled at the woman’s wrinkleless face. Her perfect skin poorly complemented the silver hair sprouting above her temples.
“My apologies, Mrs. Robinson,” she said. “I suppose the children are still on a sugar high from last week’s Valentine’s party.”
Angela chuckled, plunked back down in her chair, and wiped her glasses with a tissue.
“Oh, it’s no problem,” she said. “You must be Mrs. Pringle from Wood Creek Elementary Sch—”
“Miss Pringle,” she said. “Yes, we’re here to learn about Piasa Heights for Black History Month.”
Angela withheld a wince; the teacher’s quick correction and pronunciation of “black” lingered on the vowel sound. Malice emanated from Miss Pringle’s wiry brows and stern figure made rectangular by her dress’s shoulder padding.
To Angela, Miss Pringle’s dangly rubber ducky earrings were a thin disguise.
Though she didn’t want to, and it made her stomach ache to do so, Angela could not help but picture Miss Pringle’s thin lips forming less friendly synonyms for “black” outside the classroom.
“Well good!” Angela said after a moment of silence. “I’m glad you and your class came today.”
She mustered up a smile for her audience. Even on the worst of days, children raised her spirits. Class tours were her favorite.
“I hope you all brought your thinking caps with you, because there’s so much to learn in so little time!”
Angela stood up again, this time with less strain, and began the tour. Two decades earlier she would have toted an outline of the Piasa Heights History Museum to help organize her thoughts, but by this time, she had long since cemented her routine. She had more than memorized the old stories of the Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating on slavery law downtown, the Underground Railroad stop just across the street from the museum, the famous jazz musician born three blocks away in a tiny house, the history of Elijah P. Lovejoy and his abolitionist newspaper. She often played them out in her imagination in her free time, dreaming of new episodes and conjuring alternate endings.
A few minutes after beginning the tour, one student’s question jolted her attention from the comfortable routine.
“Ooh, ooh, Mrs. Robinson!” Billy said. “I have a question!”
“Sure, Billy. What is it?”
“Mrs. Robinson, did you escape to the North on the Underground Railroad?”
Miss Pringle hushed Billy and scowled at him, and her class took that as a signal to remain quiet.
The question did not exactly come as a surprise to Angela. She had answered it several times before, usually with a joke about how she was “old, but not that old” while holding back a tinge of anger at the children’s understandable ignorance.
But this time, something was different.
This time, she took in Billy’s eyes—framed with a girl’s long lashes—his Power Rangers sweater, Mickey Mouse watch, light-up shoes, the gap in his teeth—then shot a look at Miss Pringle, a blue vein pumping in the teacher’s forehead—and was not shocked or frustrated with Billy, but instead felt for him a deep pity.