1957: Silence For the Nine

Katie Hallock, writer

Jane stared at the constellations painted on her black ceiling as she waited for her alarm clock to chime incessantly. The cheerful hum of Arkansas crickets seemed to taunt her. She sighed at the thought of the first day of school. It wasn’t something she was particularly thrilled about, especially this year. The high-pitched ringing pulled her out of the dreaded anticipation of the day ahead of her. She got up and threw on her favorite yellow dress, the one her best friends claimed made her look like Audrey Hepburn. She walked over to her record player and after a cursory perusal of albums, she chose “Blue Suede Shoes”. The calendar stared back at her as she walked over and tentatively crossed out the fourth of September, 1957.
“Janie! Breakfast is on the table so you better get down here!” Jane’s mother hollered. She not a patient woman, but she adored her child more than anything else in the world. The appreciation for her precious girl most likely stemmed from the fact that she was unable to have one of her own. The adoption was her “proof of heaven and a God above.” Jane took one last look in the mirror as she pushed back her straight copper red hair with a headband. Downstairs, the tiny round kitchen table was stacked with pancakes, her dad’s specialty, and probably the peak of her day.
“Morning, sunshine,” her father mumbled before he kissed the top of her head. He hated mornings, but he would always hop out of bed at dawn to make his daughter pancakes. (Jane admired the selfless disposition of her devout catholic parents. She felt a surge of guilt stir in her stomach as she thought of their selfless courage that must be genetic. She knew she wasn’t as good of a person as either of them). They both wrapped their hands around hers simultaneously, in their familiar routine of reciting The Lord’s Prayer (NIV). Once her dad said amen, Jane finished breakfast quickly, eager to end the anticipation.
* * *
Each morning before school, Jane would meet Susan and Beth at the concrete steps of Little Rock Central High School, so they could walk to class together. This morning, however, they did not meet up due to the swarm of red screaming faces and a cacophony of deplorable slurs.
The fast paced crowd swallowed Jane up as she shuffled her feet frantically through the provoked hornets nest. The mob was a blur of flailing arms and faces she could barely make out. Through the commotion, Jane spied Hazel, a girl who she used to ride bikes with on Sunday afternoons when they were younger. She was chanting “lynch them!” so emphatically that her face turned a deep shade of red. Jane could no longer recognize the sweet face of that little girl who once helped her up after she crashed her bike. This was the case with most of her classmates. Left and right, she was enveloped by feelings of hate, so strong they left an electrical charge in the air.
She spotted Susan and Beth, gesturing wildly at the girl adjacent to them. Their words blended in with the noise, but she didn’t need to hear them to know what they were saying. The recipient of their harassment walked stoically, composed in every manner. She seemed to glide through the crowd as if she was alone. As she walked up to the doors of the school, they were promptly shut in her face upon arrival, blocking the way for her and the eight other kids.
“This is infuriating. How is it even legal?” Beth retorted as she straightened her cheerleading skirt. She knew how it was legal— everyone knew about the Brown vs. Board of Education court case (History).
Susan chimed in as she reapplied crimson lipstick in her locker mirror, “Just because some judge said they can go here, doesn’t mean they actually can. Don’t worry Beth, we can have them gone in a couple of weeks. Me and the boys have been talking, and they have some really good ideas that will send them back where they belong. What do you say Jane?” Jane had remained silent, hoping that if she, unlike Susan, just kept her mouth shut long enough, no one would notice that she hadn’t publicly declared a stance on the issue. She felt terrible for the nine. Each day was new torment for them; she didn’t understand how they kept coming back everyday, more determined than the last.
The boys were constantly getting beat up, the girls hit and relentlessly teased by the other girls. Jane knew what her parents would do. They would always intervene and stop cruelty, no matter the cost. They would be friendly and kind, regardless of the retaliation they would inevitably receive from the other white students. This was what they advised Jane to do when they discovered that the first case of integration would occur at Little Rock. She had intended to reach out to one of the nine, but days had passed, then weeks, and it became more difficult to defy her peers. She would never personally initiate harassment, but she never intervened— always allowed it to happen, and somehow that was worse. She slammed her locker shut as the bell rang and jogged to fifth period.
In English class, Jane sat behind Elizabeth Eckford, a sixteen year old girl who got straight As and always seemed to know the answer. “Time for a pop quiz everyone,” Mr. Marshall said, prompting a unanimous grown from the class. Mark, Susan’s boyfriend, leaned over and whispered, “Hey Jane! Write really big so I can see the answers.” She rolled her eyes, but mouthed “fine”. Elizabeth turned around to face Jane, which was strange. She never spoke to anyone but the teacher. She paused for a beat, then tentatively asked, “Can I borrow a pencil?” Her eyes were pleading, but Jane felt Mark’s eyes on her. She glanced over; He was scowling at Elizabeth. Jane froze for a moment, but couldn’t ignore the look on Elizabeth’s face. She reached into her bag and handed over a pencil. All Elizabeth whispered was “thank you,” but the words packed more weight than they normally would. Mark was bewildered, then livid. He held his hands out at Jane in a questioning manor and frowned, but didn’t say anything because Mr. Marshal was already on the second question.
* * *
The diner bell rang as the door swung open, revealing a “whites only” sign.
“I swear it’s like she was one of them.” Mark chomped on a fry and leaned back in the booth.
“Yeah what were you thinking Jane? You are not helping us get rid of them by being friendly.” Susan snapped. She ate a cherry the same shade as her lips. Her dark brown eyebrows moved closer together as she peered over the rim of her strawberry milkshake.
Jane composed a quick defense, “I just wanted her to stop talking to me.” The words tasted bitter as they left her mouth. She pushed her plate away, her appetite had completely disappeared since the conversation started. She knew her cowardice was only fueling the fire; the lie was simply so much easier.
“It’s fine. We’re making progress. I saw Ricky push his chair back to trip Minnijean Brown. She dumped her tray on his head, but she’s expelled now!” His excitement was evident. “When I heard the good news, I spread a note- ‘one down. Eight to go.’”
“That was you?” Beth said through laughter. “That’s brilliant Mark! Anyways, Susie we need to buy new dresses and . . .”
The girls’ demeanors had flipped in a millisecond. Suddenly, they were changed back into normal teenage girls. Beth and Susan’s chit chat faded into the background as they dismissed the issue and started discussing what movie to go see Saturday night and other trivial matters. Jane stared at the beam of sunlight streaming through the window that warmed the pale skin of her hand; her color was a passport, and it could get her into any establishment. She removed her hands from the table and straightened the fabric of her yellow dress that did not bring her any joy at the moment.
She had a choice. She could use those hands to right the wrongs that so many people like her were committing, or they could throw one more stone. They left the diner and piled in Mark’s brand new vibrant cherry red ‘57 Chevy. Jane stared at the immaculately trimmed bright green trees of her suburb as she watched them pass by, one by one. The afternoon flew by in a haze and suddenly she was home on her bed, gaze fixed on the ceiling. She laid like that for a while, until she heard a tap on her window. She opened it to find her boyfriend, Will, standing on the lawn with a handful of pebbles. None of her friends knew about Will— that he was Jane’s boyfriend, or that he even existed. They ran in different circles.
Will and Jane were going to be NASA scientists and name all of their kids after constellations. They were determined to help America beat Russia to the moon, especially after Sputnik. Of course, a woman could not be a scientist, and young love was likely to fade, but it was a nice daydream. Will was extremely intelligent, and always achieved his goals. She knew he would make it.
Jane’s feet flew down the carpeted stairs to the front door. She silently turned the handle and closed the door behind her. As they strolled down the sidewalk, everything was bathed in a dim royal blue. They only talked for a minute about subjects that didn’t matter until the conversation shifted to the events taking place at Little Rock High.
“Janie, it’s ridiculous what happens in my Phys. Ed. class. One guy brought a baseball bat. And then later, the same guy hit Terry with a metal lock from one of the lockers.” Will’s eyes pierced hers, shooting straight into her pathetic heart. She finally broke under the pressure of his gaze, and she knew what was right and what needed to happen.
“I know. I know that unlike you, I’ve been inexcusably horrible. But I’m going to change that.”
He smiled a half smile that betrayed his doubts about her declaration, but nevertheless, Jane knew that this time, she meant it.
* * *
Books were scattered across the checkered tile floor. Curses, slurs, and laughter echoed through the hallway and seemed to be amplified by the lack of anything else being said. Elizabeth’s once pristinely white dress glared bright red across her chest. Her glassy eyes were incongruous compared to the rest of her face, which was contorted into an icy glare. Her clenched fists however, remained glued to her side as the liquid dripped off them and on the floor. Susan was the one who “spilled” the cherry coke on Elizabeth. A few moments that stretched into eternity passed before Jane could project her voice across the hallway. “Susan! Stop harassing her. You go through life with so much hate and dissatisfaction that you can’t go two seconds without bringing someone else down. And this girl has to endure even more because she looks different? Don’t ever talk to me again.”
She walked straight past Susan’s indignant look and put her hands on Elizabeth’s tense shoulders to lead her to the bathroom. Jane pushed open the door and got a wet paper towel. She began to dab the coke off the dress, even though the stubborn stain had no chance of coming out.
“I’m sorry about Susan. Actually, no I’m not. I’m sorry I haven’t been kinder to you myself.”
“There have been two students that talk to me everyday. Just talk to me. At the end of the day, two people treat me like a human being,” (In). She let the silence fill the room, and then broke it, “It’s really fine. . . you can stop trying to clean my dress.”
“Its such a shame though, its gorgeous.” She gingerly lifted the towel and fought to bring her eyes to meet Elizabeth’s. To Jane’s relief, they were soft. The expression looked foreign on her usually guarded face. Her cheeks rose enough to show a dimple that Jane had never noticed before. She had never actually seen that smile on her face before, but she would eventually come to know that smile better than her own.

Works Cited
“Eckford: Central High in 1957 ‘Was Not … a Normal Environment’.” CNN, Cable News Network, www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/05/17/eckford.transcript/.
“History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-Enactment.” United States Courts, www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board- education-re-enactment
“In Her Own Words: Elizabeth Eckford.” Facing History and Ourselves.
NIV Bible. Matthew 6:9-13. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2007. Print.

Fradin, Judith Bloom and Dennis B. Fradin. The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. Clarion Books, 2004. Print.
Walker, Paul Robert., and Terrence J. Roberts. Remember Little Rock: the Time, the People, the Stories. National Geographic, 2015. Print.
Young, William H., and Nancy K. Young. The 1950s. Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.