Too often students can’t relate to literary or historical figures they read about in books. If only such a figure could come to a school and speak directly to the students.
Well, Terrence Roberts did just that during Hoover High School’s Human Rights Assembly this week. Who is Terrence Roberts?
He is one of the famous Little Rock Nine, a group of teenagers in Little Rock, Ark. who attended the all-white Central High School in September 1957 as a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that abolished segregation in public schools.
When then-Gov. Orval Faubus had the Arkansas National Guard prevent the students from entering the school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine students from classroom to classroom.
That action continued into October.
Hundreds of adults shouted racial epithets and insults at the students who stoically ignored the abuse, though Roberts said that it was “one year of sheer hell.”
Then, in 1958, Faubus supported a voter-approved referendum that closed all Little Rock high schools.
If he was going to be forced to integrate, he would rather not have even whites attend school.
Imagine an elected official depriving all young people of an education? Yet, that is what Arkansas voters wanted as they reelected him to an unprecedented six terms.
Since then, Roberts has earned three college degrees including a doctorate degree in psychology.
At 77, he exudes more vigor than some students.
President Bill Clinton awarded all members of the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medals in 1999.
Along with Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, and Carlotta Walls are still living; Jefferson Thomas died in 2010.
In preparing for his visit, I tried to paint a picture for my students about what it must have been like to be a 15-year-old barred from school, then to have federal troops serve as escorts just to get to class.
I think about the students who loiter around campus, in no rush to get to class, taking their education for granted, and comparing it to the experience of the Little Rock Nine.
Remarkable, the courage it took those unintentional civil-right warriors just to go to school. That’s how much they wanted to learn.
Roberts told the audience that when his first-grade teacher said that students have to take responsibility of their own learning, that’s when he “established the Terry Roberts Learning Academy in 1947,” dedicating his life to shrinking what he calls the “storehouse of ignorance” all people have.
“If you know what happened in the past, you can understand what’s going on today,” he said.
He closed his speech by encouraging students to read “one book a week from now on.”
It can be frustrating when young people are, well, young, and you struggle getting them to absorb the magnitude that Roberts visited their school, a real civil-rights pioneer, not an entry from Wikipedia.
I know I will remember his visit. I felt privileged to shake his hand, honored to meet him.
He was someone who I studied about in my U.S. history class, and he is someone who I teach about when we cover civil rights issues when studying Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Right behind my desk on a book shelf is “Don’t Know Much About History,” with an entry about the Little Rock Nine.
Now, right in front of me, was Terrence Roberts himself.
I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew that I had met him. Here’s hoping a few students did the same.
Brian Crosby is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of “Smart Kids, Bad Schools” and “The $100,000 Teacher.” He can be reached at www.brian-crosby.com.