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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Warriors Don't Cry--What Can We Learn From Melba Pattillo Beals?


Ah, faith. I do struggle with it so. 

My little one said yesterday that she thinks that God is everybody, so if you want to praise God, you are kind to people. 

My big one says he worships science and does not remotely believe in God. 

Me, I wrestle regularly with the great mystery and what I think about it. I love to read about others who are honest enough to wrestle, too. 

Yes, I'm still reading City on Fire, and the books about Anna Leonowens, but I'm also reading Warriors Don't 
Cry, by Melba Pattilo Beals, one of the nine teenaged kids from Little Rock, Arkansas who faced up to death threats--no, no, no, that's nowhere near enough to describe what those kids and their families put up with.  


The day Brown v. Board of Education was decided, some huge white guy tried to rape twelve-year-old Melba, screaming that this would teach her not to try to go to school with his kids. 


And the famous photographs of tiny Elizabeth Eckford trying to get to class on the first day do not come near to describing what that day was like. Elizabeth didn't have a phone, so she didn't get the message to go in together. 
By the time Melba and her mother arrived, the Arkansas National Guard--big, tall, white guys, armed and in uniforms-- kept turning her back, turning her back, keeping her out of the school, forcing her again and again into the face of a massive mob that was screaming out threats of murder. 

Alone, this little girl kept her shoulders back and her face calm. The entire street was crammed with screaming grownups. The wall of sound alone created pain and terror, not to mention the very real threat of being lynched or trampled. Alone, this little girl walked to a bus stop, where a white couple sat with her, protecting her from spit and hits until the bus came. (Like Mr. Rogers always said, "if you look for the helpers, they are there.")

Meanwhile, Melba and her mother were almost torn apart by the mob, getting to their car and getting away barely in time. The enemies of segregation meant business.  

In school, all year, the kids were assaulted.  In every class, in every hallway, in the bathroom. They were tripped going down stairs so they fell down the stairs. They were shoved down the stairs. One boy made it his business to constantly toss sharp-edged metal bottle openers at Melba. Girls held her shut in a stall and sent burning paper over the top, five or six girls tossing burning paper at her, trying to set her on fire. "Don't you dare think niggers can use the bathroom here." A boy nearly choked her to death. Another threw acid in her eyes, and only the swift action of a soldier kept her from blindness, a soldier named Danny, set to guard Melba for the first weeks of class. 

At one point, on the first day, the students were rushed from class to an inner principal's office, where they overheard two men discussing whether they would need to toss one child to the mob, to get them lynched in order to get the rest free. "These are children," said the other voice who turned out to be the police chief. "What are you going to do, have them draw straws to see who gets a noose?" 

Later, the students learned that they were able to escape only because the mob attacked three Negro reporters with bricks, and then went after those white northern reporters, beating some of them senseless. 

How did Melba survive all this? Reading her first memoir--she wrote another one, also marvelous, called White Is A State Of Mind--it's clear that the support of her mother and grandmother kept her sane. The community around her both helped and hindered. They were all there, worrying and praying, but when Melba invited her old friends from Horace Mann to her birthday party, only her "official" boyfriend showed up.  The rest went to a Christmas party that they hadn't even told her about. "You might be willing to risk your life for this thing, but we didn't volunteer for it," her one-time best friend told her. That alone would be enough to send my special-needs kid into a well of pain. 

But Melba's faith, clearly, helps her. She recites the Lord's Prayer to try to focus while dodging the torments and terrible dangers of the halls. In one instance, her grandmother's words come to her: "God loves you, child; no matter what, he sees you as his precious idea." 

I have not been able to give my children that kind of dumb, blind faith. What if I could? What if my kid believed that, the one with the disability? What if I could say, "God loves you, child; no matter what, he sees you as his precious idea." Maybe I should teach my children special prayers, something they could say with enough faith that they could hold tightly to it, even when walking through the challenges a disability creates.

They do know some Jewish prayers. And I have a Buddhist one that I taught them, though I'm probably saying it wrong. "May you be well. May your mind be well. May your body be well. May you be free from fear. May loving kindness surround you and fill your days." They chant this with me when we see an ambulance. I said it over and over beside my father's deathbed. When we were driving on the freeway and caught a glimpse of a small car, the back completely crumpled, the top peeled off, and in the back, a woman in a nurse's suit, sprawled, terribly injured, as her friend, also in a nurse's suit, waved down the ambulance, I said it to myself, it over and over to try to take away the shakes. It is, I suppose, a very real way to make you focused, to keep you thinking about the helpers that Mr. Rogers said you could always find if you looked hard enough. 

Though it is very hard to believe even Fred Rogers when we know that in our family, there were seven little child cousins murdered by the Nazis, the Poles, the French and the Russians, during WWII, simply because these babies were Jews. 

If I am doing the Buddhist medication correctly, it starts with you saying that phrase for the person you are worried about. Then, you say it for yourself. Then, for someone you absolutely adore--like, say, my children, or my husband. Then, for someone you cannot stand, or are having problems with. (Like, say, my children or my husband, or the horrible, uncaring principal at my children's school, or even Dick Cheney. And I have to tell you, I'm actually not sure who is worse: our principal, who bullies the parents of children with special needs to try to get the parents to pull them from the school, or Dick Cheney. Well, okay, it's really no contest: Dick Cheney.) 

And then I get stuck, because would it be a good thing if Dick Cheney were free from fear and surrounded with loving kindness, or would that just set him free to be more monstrously toad-like? Would Hitler have been turned into a better person if his mind and body were well? 

Maybe. If his mind were well, he would have to have become free of hatred, I suppose. 

And certainly if Cheney, or Hitler, or Trump, had been surrounded by loving kindness as children, they would not have grown up to become the hate-spewers that they did. 

So, maybe I *will* work on teaching my children all the prayers I can think of. 

And maybe even if one kid doesn't believe, the prayers will still help--at least to calm mind and center soul, and to remember that it *is* possible to have a well mind and a well body and to be surrounded with loving kindness--and, okay, it is, I suppose, possible to love our bully of a principal. The problem is, I'm absolutely sure that loving her means I have to say hello when we pass in the halls and it took me so long to learn how *not* to do that. 

And as for Dick Cheney? Um. Well. . . (Wince.) Maybe. Someday. When he's very sick. 

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