Sunday, January 8, 2012

When the going is tough. . .

We've all faced those moments when we think we have to give up, get out, go back; it's too much. And then, more times than not, we keep going anyway. Maybe we don't finish first or come out with the results we dreamed of, but by then, just having kept on going is first prize enough.

Working with kids, both my own and my students, I see those moments all the time. I want to celebrate the split second resolve(s) that keep kids going in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. I hope as students look at their own moments when they found their resolve to keep going, they can get a deeper understanding of some of the struggles of kids who came before them and helped change the world against overwhelming odds.

I have read the story of Ruby Bridges to my classes year after year. I love that story and find her ability to wish for forgiveness for the hateful mob more inspiring each time. This year, I want to also share with them the story of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, pictured below in a photo that "went viral" in 1957.
The information I gathered came from several sources, but this Vanity Fair article by David Margolick, who has just released a book about Elizabeth and Hazel, was particularly helpful. (After a brief email correspondence with the author, I ordered the book! I love getting deeply into these stories!)

All her life, Elizabeth Eckford had worked hard in school and aimed to go to college. She had attended a good but segregated black high school in Little Rock when the city school board decided to admit a small number of black students to its best high school, Central High, beginning in September, 1957. Elizabeth was delighted to be accepted. Although she wouldn't be able to participate in after-school activities because the school board felt whites would not accept that, she believed in the importance of education and wanted to take courses that her own school didn't offer. Elizabeth's family didn't have a phone at the time, so she didn't know that the eight other black students were gathering at the home of the president of the local NAACP chapter and heading to school together. She went to school alone.

The bus dropped her off a few blocks from Central High and as Elizabeth walked the rest of the way, she noticed that there were more cars and commotion than usual. Then she saw the mobs of white people and the groups of National Guard soldiers outside the school. Assuming that they were there to help, she tried several times to enter the school, as she saw white students walking through the guards and being allowed admittance. However, as she soon discovered, the National Guard had been ordered by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to keep the black students out. As the white mob yelled threats and insults, the National Guard did nothing to protect Elizabeth, but they did threaten to arrest a white reporter who had tried to comfort her and protect her from the mob when she sat at a bus stop and tearfully realized she could not go to school that day.

Nor was it easy to get away. While the crowd called out that she should be tied to a tree, the white reporter and a white woman hustled her to a store so they could call a cab. No go. The store closed up tight and refused to help. Finally the woman helped Elizabeth onto a bus and she was able to go to the school for blind and deaf Negroes where her mother worked in the laundry.

Elizabeth's picture, with Hazel in the background screaming for her to go home, was printed in papers all over the world. Interest in both girls was high. Newspaper articles near and far hailed Elizabeth as a quiet and dignified hero. In interviews outside the school in the coming days, reporters asked Hazel what she believed and she happily shared her strongly racist, segregationist views. The political embarrassment President Dwight Eisenhower felt finally propelled him to send in the 101st Airborne Division to carry out the law.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the story. Although by September 25, the Little Rock Nine, including Elizabeth, made it into Central High and were able to start attending classes, the racial bigotry and bullying did not end. Elizabeth reported a fraction of the pushings, shovings, bottle throwings and continual taunts to the Vice-Principal, but nothing ever happened. She was made to sit alone at the back of her classes and no student dared befriend her. In the showers of the gym, white students would sprinkle broken glass on the floors and arrange to scald her by flushing all the toilets at the same time. The content of some her classes was also racist. She learned that "slavery actually civilized blacks, that the black officeholders during Reconstruction were "ignoramuses," that the Ku Klux Klan was founded to defend white womanhood. A stern woman with a pince-nez who had taught at Central since it opened, Miss Penton refused even to touch Elizabeth. When there was money to collect, she made her put the coins down on her desk."

Throughout her 11th grade year, she considered leaving Central High many times, but somehow, completed the year. She had no one to turn to for support, as her mother would have pulled her from school if she knew what was happening and her father downplayed the seriousness of it. She wasn't very close with the other black students and they didn't want to talk about it when they were together. However, somehow, on her own and against all odds, she finished the year and joined the other Little Rock Nine students on a trip to Washington, D.C. where she met her hero, Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education to the Supreme Court in 1954.

Little Rock Board of Ed did not want another year like 1957, so they closed all the schools in 1958. Elizabeth got private tutoring and then moved to St. Louis to complete her high school and then college education. When she was 21, she returned to her home town and was surprised to get a phone call from someone she had never heard of: Hazel Bryan. Hazel introduced herself and apologized for screaming at Elizabeth and contributing to her misery at Central High School. Elizabeth accepted her apology.

It's remarkable to ponder it. Elizabeth not only persevered completely alone through more trials than any one person should ever face, but forgave one of her tormentors. The next 30 or more years were not easy for Elizabeth. While trying to work and raise her family, she was hounded by reporters and depression. Yet, in 1997, Counts, the same photographer whose picture of hatred and dignity had circled the globe so famously in 1957 asked to photograph the two women together. Here is is:
They forged a friendship that lasted a few years, offering the hope of reconciliation to many.

Many of us have never heard of Elizabeth Eckford and she probably wishes her name were not famous. Yet, while aiming only to obtain an education for herself, Elizabeth opened doors for millions of students, black and white, and taught millions more the lessons of perseverance, triumphing with dignity over difficulties and even offering forgiveness. I hope my students and I can learn her lessons well.

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