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A Central identity 

click to enlarge CENTRAL GRAD: Ryan Davis stands outside his alma mater.
  • CENTRAL GRAD: Ryan Davis stands outside his alma mater.

In educational theorist Paulo Freire's book, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," the author discusses how the essence of education is the practice of freedom: People are only as free as their knowledge allows them to be.

Frederick Douglass' learning to read, illegal for the enslaved at the time, was for him a first taste of freedom.

Mary McLeod Bethune, the 17th child of former slaves, left Bethune-Cookman College in Florida as a legacy and example of her restless pursuit of education (an “agent of freedom” she called it, for black people in America).

The history of public education in America is inextricably connected to the ideals of freedom on which our republic is based. Nineteenth-century education reformers such as Horace Mann saw common education and compulsory school attendance not only as egalitarian, but also as a “benefit to the state.” Mann called free, public and compulsory education the “great equalizer … a well-spring of freedom.” Within Mann's lifetime, many states established public schools.

Fast-forward a century to the Brown decision of 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate-but-equal schools were, instead, separate and illegal. Witness the statements of resistance from statehouses across the country. See Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing “in the schoolhouse door.” Observe another used-to-be moderate southern governor call out the National Guard to deny nine selected black students entrance to Little Rock Central High School. Then, reflect on the past 50 years as we celebrate the moral triumph of those brave students — as we ponder the legacy of school desegregation, in general, and of the 1957 Central High School crisis, in particular.

I graduated from Little Rock Central High School 10 years ago. Aside from Central being a physically imposing place, the weight of its history (even pre- and post-1957) bears down on you from the time you first enter if you are as curious as I was, as I am.

I was one of the so-called exceptional black students, which meant, among other things, missing plenty of class.

I remember being (or at least feeling) carted out whenever guests — elite college recruiters, “dignitaries,” cameras — required a small, supposedly representative audience with students.

I remember hearing that white students had met to discuss how they would unite to vote for a white homecoming queen. In high school, the rumor is just as salient as the reality.

I remember the six black students who went on an honors English overnight trip to Oxford, Miss., being asked to split themselves equally between the vans so we would not look segregated.

What I learned over time was that people (black people, white people) were satisfied with safe symbolic gestures. We rested easy when one homecoming court queen was black and the other white. We were solemn when Dr. King's “I Have a Dream” speech was played during black history month. All of our discussions on race in America (rarely teacher-initiated) ended in hugs and tears of joy, for we had come so far in the 55-minute class period.

We were the byproducts of post civil-rights fatigue. I am not sure exactly what I was looking for or if I was (am) expecting too much. I just know that I was often dissatisfied.

Then, there were the moments that made Central High School and Little Rock central to my identity, experiences I took with me when I went off to college in Lake Forest, Ill. My college life, always wrestling with the color line, was informed by what my family, Little Rock, Arkansas, the South and Central High had made of me. I came to understand what Dr King meant when he said that we were “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

When part of Central's auditorium caught fire my junior year, students cried, talked, comforted each other and prayed. Some of us thought the school was going to burn down. The education I received at Little Rock Central High School is irreplaceable, so are the experiences.

Ryan D. Davis is a 1997 graduate of Central High School. A graduate of Lake Forest College, he is a student at UALR's W.H. Bowen School of Law.

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