Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Book cover image

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club.  The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year.  This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.

In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957.  David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts.  The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.

Photo by Johnny Jenkins (Bettmann/Corbis)

This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above).  In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people.  Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.

Photo by Will Counts

In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration.  From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth.  There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred.  It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain.  After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth.  But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.

We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young.  Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory.  What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage.  The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt.  Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed.  The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember.  In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause.  A photo of that moment might not tell the same story.  It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black.  Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph.  Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.

I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.

Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know.  I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different.  I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary.  I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds.  The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK.  There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.

I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.