The Hard Stuff

I came across this picture today.

This girl is walking into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. She was one of nine chosen to desegregate that school. The president, Eisenhower, had to intervene so that the principal would let her in the doors.

An act that even with presidential intervention required military in the background, and that inspired at least one photographer in the foreground. As I was looking at this picture I wondered about the girls in the background. At the hatred in their faces, at the frozen words spewing from their open mouths. What brought that anger? Was it just fear of change?

It has to be more, right? I has to be more than fear of change.

Where are those white girls now? What do they feel when they see this picture? Is that level of animosity self-perpetuating–does it have to be held on to in order to avoid shame and guilt?

I was raised in the West by a leftist liberal father, and by a mother who made me swear I wouldn’t sit directly on the toilet seat at school after my class had an influx of Vietnamese refugee students. Did fear of change, or maybe fear of difference, make my mother racist? Because she was a beautiful, lovely woman otherwise. Was she taught to be the way she was?

If she lived in Arkansas in 1950 something, instead of Southern California, would that fear be aimed at black girls just trying to get to Algebra class instead of Vietnamese kids learning English at my school?

I don’t remember being angry when I went to school one day in the third grade and my class had ten new Vietnamese students. I don’t remember any real anger from any students at my school. That was  twenty-ish years after the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School. (Think about this. Twenty years ago was 1990. The twenty years between 1957 and 1977 weren’t any longer.) Did these teenagers and their ploy to get into school change the world enough that the Vietnamese kids at my school didn’t have to fight as hard?

I’m leaving for Vermont on Tuesday. I’ve been scared. The kind of anxious scared that makes you stare at the ceiling all night. But I looked at this girl today and realized that I don’t have to be. If she was brave enough to walk through that gauntlet day after day, then I shouldn’t be scared.

No that isn’t right.

I realized that it’s okay to be scared. But it’s not okay to give in to fear.

I tell my kids, and my clients, nearly everyday to choose the hard stuff.  I try to teach them that they don’t have to always pick what’s easiest. That they are capable of the hard stuff. It’s why I didn’t let Adrienne drop her calculus class at mid-year, even though the C is bringing down her grade-point average. It’s why I don’t let Nick use autism as an excuse.

And it’s why I’m putting myself on a plane, a train, and a taxi on Tuesday. This is my hard stuff. It was easy to study my plan B. It was easy to prepare to be a social worker, in case writing doesn’t pan out. It’s incredibly hard to study something without a safety net.

I know I’ve been gone for a couple of weeks. Trying to get my head around things I guess. Trying to get things done. But I’m taking you with me to school. I’m bringing you along with me as I do my hard things.

I’m not comparing my situation to that if the little girl in that picture. I have a daughter her age, or close to it, and I’m not sure I could have been brave enough to send her into that war zone. No, I’m not comparing. I’m drawing strength. Because that girl, and eight other children, did their own very hard thing–the rest of us know it’s possible.


Filed under spirit

6 responses to “The Hard Stuff

  1. With that kind of determination, you’ll do great!

  2. So glad I caught you before you go!

    I hope all goes well and this adventure leaves you emboldened, at peace, and with a clear(er) vision of your future. And if you don’t object, I will pray for your family, who will be missing you! : )

    I actually read an article a year or two ago about one of the women in the background–top photo, the girl directly behind who is yelling. She said in the article that when she was younger she never saw the photo, but when she was older and saw it she was deeply ashamed of herself. She had not realized how ugly her racism was until she saw it in the photo.

    I am so glad no one has forever captured my own ugliness for posterity! It is bad enough to see it in the mirror privately, or mirrored in my daughters’ expressions. : (

    But yes, do focus on the positive of that lone brave woman than the moral failures of the woman around her. (But maybe there is a metaphor here for your adventures as well. . . )

    Best wishes!

  3. I’m so glad that I posted this so that you could tell me what you read about that woman.

    I grew up with my father telling me that racism is ugly and ignorant, but that it isn’t the person it’s what they were raised to believe. And that people can change. That was the whole basis of his belief system. It’s why he strongly opposed the Death Penalty, and why he doesn’t believe in war. Because acts you can’t take back imply that people can’t change. That they aren’t redeemable.

    Thank you for your prayers. They mean a lot to me.

  4. Reminds me of Ruby Bridges and a song that one of my favorite artists wrote “Ruby’s Shoes” I still can’t hardly listen to it without crying.

    Sadly the story about Hazel Bryan (the woman in the picture who has the hatred in her eyes as she speaks to Elizabeth Eckford) may not be accurate. see
    and wikipedia

    Regardless…(and you’re likely already past the scared spot and onto amazing and exciting times) I know it will be okay. Sometimes we just have to do the stuff we want to do “scared”. You will be wonderful! I can’t wait to hear all about it.

  5. Hi anywoman,

    Thanks for the two article links–they are not the ones I read, so it was good to read that perspective too. But even if Hazel Massery struggled with honestly reconciling her racial mistakes with a post-Jim Crow world, as these articles say, that does not change the fact that seeing herself in those photos brought her shame, and made her try to make things right in the eyes of the world. She did not do it perfectly, and may not have meant it fully, but she still did it. That is more than most racists did during desegregation!

  6. Yep, I don’t envy Hazel’s lifelong struggle with the shame of her behavior when she was so young. I also don’t envy the struggle that Elizabeth seemed to have as the result of being a really sensitive person with all that hatred targeting her when she was so young. The story portrays Elizabeth as coming out of the depression because of the follow up publicity, I wonder if she would agree.

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