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You Can’t Unring That Bell 

 I saw Richard Nixon chopper off the South Lawn of the White House for the last time in 1974.

I saw Bill Clinton in 1993 nudge Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat toward one another in a nerve-wracking moment that produced a fateful handshake under a blazing September sun as hundreds, watching, held their breath.

I've seen up close some of the world's most powerful leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Hosni Mubarak and Tony Blair.

I went to the Persian Gulf when the war machines were rumbling and Saddam Hussein was still fooling himself.

Still, no brush with history has meant to me what my affair with Little Rock Central High has in import and influence. It is that, you know — an affair, four decades long — beginning in the days after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ever curious, I asked my parents what all the grown-ups had been buzzing about. There had been happy, congratulatory, celebratory phone calls and visits, and I knew something was up.

My mother pulled an old cardboard shirt box from beneath the bed. It contained several yellowed tear sheets from the Arkansas Gazette. She explained that the adults were excited about something called “integration,” which, she carefully explained, had involved years of struggle, hope and sacrifice. All of which, she apparently surmised, an 11-year-old could best grasp in the context of what had happened, seven years previous, at Central High.

I knew the beautiful behemoth on sight. On rare occasions when errands required a trip in the direction of Park Street, I would gaze in awe upon the grand, imposing edifice. It was the biggest and most magnificent structure I had ever seen. I couldn't imagine how students didn't get lost. I used to ask if I would be going there when I reached high-school age. My parents said maybe. I remember feeling, at once, excited and scared to death.

This was before I had learned about the 1957 crisis. Before I had seen the picture of Elizabeth Eckford and those frothing mouths behind her, shouting only the devil knows what. And all because she was, to use the term of the times, a Negro?

Whenever I pored over the old news stories, I would stare at Elizabeth's face, as if staring would bring the scene to life. I wanted so badly to ask her: “Weren't you terrified? Why didn't you run? What made you so brave? Will that happen to me if I go to Central?”

My obsession with Little Rock Central took root that summer of '64 and has yet to diminish.

Four years later, I found myself mounting the long steps that frame the front portico as an entering sophomore. Central had become my school.

My three years there included some moments of racial tension and flare-ups, but the ghosts of the racists who had taunted, harassed and, occasionally, assaulted the nine black pioneers a decade earlier were, for the most part, gone. No rabid mob outside, no armed National Guard, no international media presence, no special cars or chaperones to ferry the hundreds of black students to and fro, no country-boy governor taking a loser's stand against the United States government.

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