I was badly shaped by my good fortune and so failed to see the darkness and the things that darkness hides. Until the stark moment came, evil remained distant to me, mere lecture notes on the crimes of armies, mobs, and bloodthirsty individuals whose heinous acts I could thrillingly present to my captive audience of students.
For that reason, it wasn’t unusual that I was thinking of old King Herod that morning, the torment of his final days, his rotting genitals, how they’d swarmed with worms. It was a vision of guilt and punishment, of afflictions deserved by an abuser of power, and I knew that at some point during the coming semester I’d find a place for it in one of my lectures.
It was a bright April morning in 1954, a little less than one hundred years since the beginning of a conflict that had, by the time it ended, orphaned half the children of the South.
I was twenty-four years old, and for the last three years had taught at Lakeland High School. At that time, Lakeland was typically demarcated by race and class, with a splendid plantation district, where my father still lived, and a New South section where local tradesmen and shop owners congregated in modest one-story houses strung together on short, tree-lined streets. The workers who manned the town’s few factories resided in an area known as Townsend, and which consisted of small houses on equally small lots, though large enough to accommodate the vague hint of a lawn. To the east of them lived that class of people for whom, as goes the ancient story, there has never been room at the inn, and which was known as the Bridges.
A Negro netherworld made up the east side of town, unknowable as Africa itself, and with nothing rising from it, at least not yet, save the fervent voices of its ministers and the singing of its choirs, both of which, during the long, languid summers of religious revival, were broadcast by loudspeakers mounted precariously in the trees gathered round their always freshly painted churches. During these humid evenings, their voices stretched as far north as the antebellum mansions where the Delta’s eternal rulers sat on their verandas, sipping iced tea and chuckling at the religious revelries of the "Nigra" preachers.
As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonor had ever been ascribed. As a son I could not have imagined a more noble father than my own, save perhaps that fabled one who’d once cut down a cherry tree, then refused to tell a lie.
And so the event my father forever after called the "incident" took me completely by surprise, though he never failed to make clear that it had sprung from a long-standing affliction he called the "bottoms," black moods that for generations had stricken the Branches, both men and women: its family disease. The "incident" itself had occurred twelve years earlier, while I was at boarding school, and though I was still quite young, it should have suggested that I lived in a world whose unsteady underpinnings remained invisible—a walker on a pier whose rotten timbers lie hidden beneath the water.
But no such warning sounded in my mind, and so I sailed blithely on through boarding school and college, until at last I faced the decision of what to do with my life. As a fortunate son, I’d had many options, of course, including heading North, as my father suggested, and which had been his own early goal, though even this had not been as important as "writing a great novel," a hope he’d claimed to have abandoned long ago. I had no such grand ambition, however, and simply decided to mark my return to the Delta with an act of noblesse oblige.
I took a teaching job at Lakeland High School, and by that means hoped to render service to the people over whom my family, in concert with a few others equally highborn, had maintained a long dominion, and among whom it had flourished both before and after the Civil War. Thus I would follow in my father’s footsteps, for he had taught at Lakeland for nearly twenty years before the "incident." I saw no reason why I might not do the same. After all, I was the only son of an aristocratic family whose fortune still counted among its assets that romantic vision of the world without which, as romantics hold, nothing can be changed.
Three years later, I was still at Lakeland, now quite re-accustomed to the dreamy countryside through which I drove toward school each morning, the Spanish moss and winding estuaries, the morning mists that rose sleepily from swamps and streams, the strange phantasm of the Delta, the spectral quality of its ever-changing light.
It was a spring day, the one in question. One of my students described me this way: Mr. Branch was already at the front of the class when I came in that morning. He said hi to us as we came in. He was smiling, like usual. He was a friendly person and it seemed like he enjoyed teaching school. In class, he liked to hear himself talk. The only strange thing about him was that he never came to the football games or basketball games like the other teachers did. Dirk said he thought he was better than us because he came from a rich family. Dirk said he looked down his nose at us. Maybe he did, but what I noticed is the way you couldn’t tell who he liked and who he didn’t like. At least before things changed, and he picked one to like the best. But he’d been at Lakeland three years by then.
Wendell Casey, Statement to Police
True enough, but there was something Wendell left out in his assessment. I was good at teaching, and knew I was good at it, a fact that was later officially recorded in court documents:
Mr. Titus: So you liked your occupation, Mr. Branch?
Mr. Branch: I believe it is a vocation, sir.
Mr. Titus: Fine, then. But you are a teacher, are you not?
Mr. Branch: Yes, I am.
Mr. Titus: And do you consider yourself a good teacher, Mr. Branch?
Mr. Branch: Yes, I do. Particularly for the kids at Lakeland.
Mr. Titus: Why particularly them?
I hadn’t had time to answer fully then.
Now I do.
I was a good teacher for the kids at Lakeland because I’d adapted my teaching style and course content to the kind of students they were, generally indifferent to formal learning and easily distracted, so that the real challenge was simply to engage them, keep their thoughts from drifting toward family troubles or the usual school gossip, or if not these, then into that white zone where nothing happened at all. My method was to add a shocking detail, bloody or macabre, though I’d found that tales of inconceivable stupidity also worked well, mostly by giving them a brief sense of superiority. They loved to hear about schemes they’d have seen through, blunders they wouldn’t have made. But there was a painful if unspoken self-awareness in their snickering derision, because in their hearts my students suspected that they were losers, too, deficient in some quality, some ingredient left out, ineffable but potent, the alchemic mystery of their lives.
That morning they arrived at Lakeland as they always had, some on buses, some in rattling cars, one in an old brown van that would later be quite thoroughly described: It had a sloping front bumper and no hubcaps and all its rear windows had once been covered in black plastic torn from garbage bags and taped to the glass, and on that day it had carried a shovel and a bag of lime and had gone up an old logging road and gotten stuck in the mud and had come back down with mud all over the wheels and splattered across the sides, rocking and jolting because there’d been a bad rain and everything was glistening and slippery, and so the man behind the wheel was having trouble just keeping it on the road.
The young author of that passage no doubt walked to the building alone that morning, as he always had before, surrounded by other students, some moving singly, like himself, some pulled tightly in little knots of conversation. It was early spring, the first weeks of the last semester, the prospect of summer already crowding my students’ minds. They’d shed their coats and jackets, caps and scarves, along with the gloominess that is imposed by the bleak look of a Southern winter. By then the bare trees and low, overhanging clouds had given way to budding plants and bright blue skies so as I got out of my car and made my way toward the school that morning, I found all but invisible what would appear so clearly to me later on: the world behind this world, where the string of fate spins on, and she who cuts it is stone-blind.
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas H. Cook
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