My 4th-grade math teacher would categorize lies by shape and weight. Headaches on test days were triangles (angles acute and obtuse). Bruised knees and hallway trips were trapezoids (competing sides, unequal length). Notes passed under desks were hexagons with wings. All angles non-negotiable. Homework eaten by dogs was a helix spiral. No top. No bottom. To my ten-year-old eyes, she knew everything. “First dogs then men,” she’d warn. On the thirty-first anniversary of the day Emmett Till was laid to rest, I saw her cry. No lie. Bent in unusual forms. I was a newly promoted fifth grader who was fond of the nest. I approached her as she sat on the concrete steps. Her eyes were focused on a newspaper photograph. I looked. A photo of Emmett Till’s casket. Open at his mother’s insistence. Truths in black and white print. Images first published in Jet magazine in 1955 were still fresh. Open wounds in republished form. Truths undenied. The daily paper wrote again of a January 1956 interview with Look magazine in which Emmett Till’s killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, referred to their original lie (retold in new forms) and admitted (for dollars) to taking a life. Shaped. Barely formed. A young life gone. “No boy should be horizontal like that,” she cried. Her words were unshaped. Her spirit was flat. “Are you ok,” I asked. She startled then straightened. “Yes,” she lied (in a shape I’d call a corset, her waist constricted), then mumbled something about getting back in line. “It’s not time,” I replied on instinct. She wiped her eyes then said (the magazine still in her hand), “It’s always time to call (and question) the shape of a lie.” “Why?” I asked without thinking. “Some lies,” she said, “defy all grades and all categories.”
About the Poem
With Carolyn Bryant Donham dead at eighty-eight, what becomes of her truths? What becomes of the lies that have simmered? What becomes of their shapes?
About the Author
Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.