Why are we reading this?


“Why are we reading this?” demanded Eric. “Why are you asking?” I was tempted to retort. It was hardly as if he had more pressing demands on his time. Reminding myself that patience was the day’s watchword, I resisted an “I’m the teacher, that’s why!” retort. Instead I explained that during this week we were commemorating a very important event in our nation’s civil rights history: the fiftieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s integration of Central High School.

The first of the news articles began by setting the conflict in its historic context, citing Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Emmett Till. My students could identify the first two (if they couldn’t, I would have cried), but the third had them stumped. I explained he was a black, Northern teenager who was murdered in the South—which is all I recalled.

The oldest of the Nine, Ernest Green, was quoted, saying that “Jim Crow,” “water fountains,” and “jobs” were what had motivated him to attend Central, the Cadillac of Arkansas’s high schools. This was trickier for the students. Jobs—it must be that blacks couldn’t get good ones. Water fountains–Huh? Jim Crow? So we halted the reading again for explanation.

“When was this written?” Eric interrupted.

I pointed to the dateline: “Yesterday.”

“Then why are they reporting something that happened way back in 1957?”

The other students gazed at him in wonder.

Our second article was an interview with another of the Nine, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who compared her 1957 experience with that of Elie Weisel. “75-100 people were just constantly violating our bodies and minds, twenty nice kids, and 1,900-plus silent witnesses—people who stood by, watched, and said nothing.”

“Who’s Elie Weisel?” I asked.

Luckily, some in each class had read Night. Since Eric hadn’t, he was informed Weisel was a Holocaust survivor. The connection eluded him.

We then turned to YouTube to watch an interview with Green and footage of the 101st Airborne Division escorting the students into Central High. Finally, to prepare for the writing assignment, I asked students to think of a time they felt discriminated against because of anything: their gender, youth, religion, race, economic status, where they lived.

“Can anyone think of such a time?” I asked. The class was silent. Neither the Somali young woman in a hijab, nor the students with mental health issues, chose to respond. None had heard of Jena, Louisiana. Had I asked which of the school rules they thought was discriminatory, they would have clamored to respond: no cell phone use in school, no smoking on school grounds, and no visiting My Space.

Then Eric reported he felt bad reading “stuff like this;” it was as if all white people were racist. In fact, he didn’t know anybody who was racist. Well, just a minute. Maybe his brother was a little bit because of being in prison.

Okay, so we were on to the assignment: write a stream-of-consciousness paragraph from the viewpoint of one of the Nine. Eric couldn’t do it. Brittney tried to help out. “You know, just use your imagination. Pretend you’re one of them. What do you feel?”

Eric averred he had no imagination.

Fortunately, the others did. Josh wrote that he was terrified, and wondered why he had ever signed up to go to Central. Amanda asked why nobody did anything to help. “After all, we’re all the same,” she concluded.

I guess the lesson was a success. Maybe a few would be among the 20 nice kids rather than the silent 1,900 when their opportunity to support human rights comes along.

Rosemary Ruffenach is a real teacher, but all of the students’ names have been changed.