An expert from First Baptist Church in coat
and tie came with our class to the Natural
History Museum to lead the second grade
past the error-filled placards on the walls
of the Prehistoric Hall, so we could
in innocence admire the skeletons
of God’s magnificent extinct creation.
I hung back as the class clambered through
the echoing hallway of the wooly mammoth.
I picked out vowels in the word proto-
zoa, almost pronounced eukaryote
before the teacher grabbed my hand and pulled
me back to where the expert stood beside
a fossil of perplexing mollusks, which,
though lovely, he allowed, was still wrong.
How boring evolution seemed, how long
its damp brown creatures took to surface
from muddy pools onto the colorless bank
under the museum’s dim dusty lights,
while back at Christian school the brontosauri
galumphed through Eden, upending flocks of peacocks,
passenger pigeons, parrots still sleepy-eyed
and newborn. Pterodactyls perched atop
the Tree of Life, while wooly mammoths swung
their heavy tusks, thumping small mammals
left and right, not killing them, just bruising
because (the expert said) there was no death
before man’s fall, except for vegetables.
I want to be a scientist when I
grow up, I wrote, and drew a hundred stick-
legged birds, colored each with a different crayon.
I didn’t yet know to hope for Darwin’s
jewel-eyed finches, fluttering in the back pages
of history, each variegated beak
singing its slightly mutated note.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.