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.