I geeked out when I found out I would be going to Little Rock Central High School, which spans four city blocks, and when it was built in 1927 for 1.5 million dollars was considered the most architecturally beautiful school in the country. I knew about the Little Rock Nine and had seen the pictures of them walking into the school, surrounded by police and of course, awful, racist people. There is something about the Civil Rights Movement that gets me right in the gut.
I thought I would be walking in to a school immune to its own history, hardened by time, oblivious. I had to remind myself, these are just kids going to school. They don’t walk in thinking OMG I am going to school here, at the site of such monumental shifts in social consciousness and law.
And there is some truth to that, though my presence seemed to bring that pride and awareness to the fore (all my gawking probably helped with that). I don’t want to romanticize my experience, but I found the students to be intelligent, engaged, beautiful, and I even heard poems from students named Jamese and Theo (what’s up, best moderator ever) that made me clutch at my heart and I’m not even just being nice.
And they did seem to know they were somewhere special, even though they groaned when I asked them what they thought of Little Rock.
At my visit, I didn’t say much of anything important, nothing worthy of the space, just tried to share a little about writing and reading. It’s true, those students go to school there probably without giving much thought to the pictures of the Little Rock Nine in the entryway, or the original windows and cabinetry, or the fact that they have a few incredible librarians dedicated to archiving and discovering even more about the school’s history.
After my visit with the students, one of the librarians, Claudia, took me around the school, having warned me to bring my walking shoes. I didn’t stop taking pictures. Then the head librarian, Stella, took me to the Central High School museum (Taos High does NOT have a museum), and to see Carlotta’s (one of the nine) house where the side was blown open by a Molotov Cocktail just before she graduated. Think about that. They had to go to school knowing their lives were in danger just by walking through the door.
I was extra-awake that whole day, knowing I might not stand there again, in a place at the center of so much evil and so much bravery. It is important to stand in those places and pay tribute to the people who risked everything, whether they would have chosen to or not. It makes you feel as good about humanity as bad, sits you right into reality, uncomfortable and beautiful as it is. The human spirit is no joke.
It happens there was a This American Life on the subject that same week. Check out the middle story here, if you’re interested.
Meantime, Central High is definitely my favorite for the week: for its rich history, its curious and open librarians and kids, and its spectacular now.