Teaching this particular skill is like catching bubbles; extremely difficult but possible. Recently, I picked up A Mighty Long Way primarily because it is the central text in EngageNY Grade 8 Module 3B but more importantly, it covers a topic I have always been interested in; the story of the integration of “The Little Rock Nine”. When teaching this topic I frequently used video clips and photographs to stress to the students the intense desire African American children to attend a school that afforded more opportunities for their future. I ultimately wanted my students to have empathy and be in awe of the bravery of the children who led the battle of integration of American schools. I believe I fell short of teaching empathy because I did not provide students an opportunity to hear the voice of students and the incredible hatred they faced while simply attempting to attend school.
A Mighty Long Way is a memoir of Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the original Little Rock Nine African American students who, volunteered to start her sophomore year at the all-white, Little Rock High School in 1957. This is a powerful narrative that provides not only a first hand account of her agonizing endeavor but gives the readers an opportunity to hear the voice of a child who carried the weight of an entire race on her shoulders. Despite the 1954 ruling of Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education declaring state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional Central High in Little Rock Arkansas fought bitterly to prevent integration. As Carlotta anticipated the start of school in September of 1957, not only did she have the “typical” first day jitters, but she also had to wonder why so many wanted to prevent her, along with her African-American classmates, from attending school. “I could hardly believe my ears. Were white men and women in Little Rock really so angry about black students attending Central that they were willing to harm us? I just wanted to go to school and get the best possible education. What was so wrong with that? I thought that people were threatening violence at first made me more angry than afraid” (A Mighty Long Way p. 65-66) This statement coupled with the violent images from that historical day provide an opportunity for students to begin to provide an opportunity for students to begin to t of an education, for all, but especially for African Americans in the Civil Rights Era.
“The band of boys in the black leather jackets were the worst offenders. They seemed to have come from the woods with their dank, moldy smell and their facial stubble, and they made a sport of spitting on me. If you’ve ever been hit by a nasty gob, you know how disgusting it is, how humiliating, how infuriating, The first time, the wet slime just came flying out of nowhere, landing on the bottom left side of my face. My military escort usually walked on my right. I was trying to work my way through the crowded halls between classes on my second day inside when without warning I felt something wet hit my face. I flinched. Immediately, I know what it was. But who had done it? It was useless trying to single out the villain in the sea of smirking faces quickly moving past me. Was it one of the black leather boys? Or did it come from one of their ponytailed female cohorts? In either case, there was nothing I could do to respond. I had already been warned against retaliation by Dr. Blossom before school even started; responding in kind could lead to my expulsion. And no matter how demeaned I felt, tears were out of the question. I couldn’t let them see my hurt. I couldn’t give them that kind of power. So without a word, I just wiped my face against the sleeve of my dress and kept on trekking. From then on, I stayed on guard, scanning eyes and mouths as I traveled the halls. I learned to jump back quickly or duck to avoid being hit in the face. But I always carried Kleenex, just in case.” (A Mighty Long Way p. 100-101)
Carlotta cites several examples of torment in the hallowed halls of Central High. Her saga continues even outside the school. Her parents eventually were denied work in Little Rock because their child was one “causing agitation”. Eventually Governor Faubus will close Central High for an entire school year to support stance on segregation. As a result, Carlotta was determined to continue her schooling and took college level correspondence courses her junior year. Imagine being escorted to class daily for three years by an armed soldier, all to exercise her constitutional right of equality. I often wonder how many of us have a similar determination and strength of character?
While reading, one can become attached and relate to characters in a novel as I did for Carlotta. I felt her pain, anguish and desire for an education. My empathy for the African American experience during the civil rights movement was augmented by this memoir. Perhaps, students reading of Carlotta’s day-to-day experience while attending Central would help adolescents feel empathy towards the sacrifice and humiliation felt simply by walking down the halls. Quite possibly, students may begin to empathize with those who are being victimized and bullied.