Another Back to School Story

In last week's missive, you suffered along with me on a stroll down the memory lane of the various indignities suffered in my childhood schooltime experiences. This week, as a means of exposing the pathetic irony of my complaint, we honor the 50th anniversary of the battle won my our nation's most courageous schoolchildren: The Little Rock Nine.

A lot can happen in fifty years, and a lot can stay the same. If you ask The Jena Six, we haven't really traveled so far. But if we retain focus on the heroic topic of this essay, perhaps we can keep an optimistic eye upon the present and future. On September 4, 1957, nine African-American students were escorted by police and area black and white ministers towards Little Rock's Central High School. Actually, only eight. One girl, Elizabeth Eckford, was not aware of the escort for her first day of school in the white world. She walked to the school herself, in her new black and white dress. She walked with grace towards the school and was unperturbed by the angry mob, since the Arkansas National Guard was there to protect her. Until they raised their bayonets to bar her from entering the school, at the orders of the governor. The mob drew closer and angrier, and Eckford was lucky to escape with her life.

The rest of America saw this brutal footage through the magic of a glowing box that had recently begun tying the world closer together. What might have been a footnote in a remote class struggle was brought to the shocked eyes and ears of an entire country by a young John Chancellor, who himself risked life and limb, along with many other reporters, on the 'race beat'. Eventually Eisenhower, somewhat tardily sent in the 101st Airborne to protect those nine students and escort them to school. It was a slow but finally reasonably effective response to a situation that unfolded with unexpected horror so many miles from Washington. Of course, that year for the Little Rock Nine was a continual horror, one that they suffered as knowing young martyrs for the future of their race. Time takes its time, and some twenty years later schoolchildren, this time in South Africa, would again rise up against iniquity. The Soweto Uprising was led by children, most notably Hector Pieterson, a literal martyr for the cause. I visited Pieterson's memorial when I was in Soweto. It was a moving, powerful place... much like the steps of the unassuming facade of Little Rock's Central High School. An homage to the power of youth, strength, and journalism.

These are the stories that I will tell my children when they groan about another year in Mrs. So-and-so's class. Along with the requisite "five miles uphill both ways in knee-deep snow" tales of my own daily walk to school. Truly, though, aside from the normal ruminations we all have for the Labor Day holiday, this year is a special opportunity to reflect on the school year and the special gift that it is.