The Worst First Day : Bullied While Desegregating Central High
Lamp Press (Apr 15, 2018)
Softcover $19.99 (138pp)
Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5
The Worst First Day is an accessible history of segregation and racism that encourages critical thinking.
In 1957, the simple act of going to high school transformed Elizabeth Eckford into a nationally recognized figure. She and her cohort, deemed the “Little Rock Nine,” would become a staple of the civil rights era, with their resilience in the face of trauma captured in timeless photographs. The Worst First Day tells Elizabeth’s story—specifically, about what she faced as one of the first African American students to attend an all-white Arkansas public school in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
“My junior year of high school was more of a military operation than an education”: this single line encompasses the harrowing journey that Eckford—and the other members of the Little Rock Nine—set upon in the name of racial justice in education. Many know Eckford from the famous photograph, but The Worst First Day adds more nuance and emotion to her story. Eckford, along with contributors Eurydice Stanley, Grace Stanley, and artist Rachel Gibson, transforms the well-known event into an effective teaching moment about the evils of discrimination and the strength of those who take the high road despite such oppression.
The Little Rock Nine were met with death threats, attempted physical violence, and unstable, racist mobs who protested their enrollment. The situation was so dire that President Eisenhower had to call in the army to protect the well being of the black students. Eckford shares her experiences and adds astounding details to the events, like the fact that a white student jumped out of a second story window to avoid learning in an integrated classroom.
Eckford and her fellow contributors take a very daunting topic and work to make it accessible to a younger audience. Eckford’s narrative comes in rhyming, poetic stanzas, like those of a children’s book. There is some dissonance: the subject matter is certainly not commonly associated with children’s literature. This is apparent when Eckford delves into the subject of Emmett Till’s tragic lynching using the same rhyming language; the effect is off-putting. Some of the rhymes and lyricality of The Worst First Day are clever and flow well, whereas other rhymes are clunky and complicated, such as a passage that rhymes “capabilities” and “utilities.”
Illustrator Rachel Gibson fills several pages with clear, skillful art rendering important scenes from Eckford’s narrative. Gibson’s cover is a striking depiction of Eckford, stoic and surrounded by monstrous voices of hate. Numerous photographs from Eckford’s life are also included; some are still printed in history textbooks, and others offer a behind-the-scenes look into an astonishing woman’s life.
At its best, the text has the potential to create incredible learning opportunities, including for students who face stressful instances of bullying today. Though the circumstances might be quite different now than they were in 1957, Eckford’s advice proved true for her, and might for others as well.
A crucial text for a world in which bullying and racial discrimination still run rampant, The Worst First Day is an accessible history of segregation and racism that encourages critical thinking.
A debut illustrated memoir—written for younger generations—offers details of the brutality that the black students who desegregated an Arkansas high school faced.
Eckford was nervous and excited beginning her first day at the prestigious all-white Central High in Little Rock. She was one of the nine black students (the Little Rock Nine) chosen to desegregate the school in 1957. Her story details the horror of that day, laying bare the raw hatred spewed at blacks and the political calculations of Gov. Orval Faubus. He had announced on TV: “Blood will run through the streets if negroes attempt to attend Central High,” and then activated the National Guard to prevent the black students from entering the school. Lacking a telephone, Eckford’s family wasn’t alerted to the plan for the Nine to approach the school as a group, escorted by black and white ministers. Fifteen-year-old Eckford arrived alone. Blocked from going into the school, she returned to the bus stop through the hate-filled segregationists screaming racial epithets and yelling: “Lynch her, lynch her!” While the Nine eventually attended classes under the protection of the 101st Airborne Division ordered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to ensure their safety, the viciousness of the white students continued throughout the school year: “We routinely endured items being thrown at us and being burned by cigarettes.” The engrossing narrative includes a description of the Supreme Court ruling that prompted school integration (Brown v. the Board of Education) and the people who made it happen, along with period photographs and drawings. Eckford’s potent and timely story is intended for a young audience unfamiliar with the details of school desegregation as experienced by their grandparents. The prose is simple and to the point, written from the perspective of a young teen: Navigating “between the soldiers and the angry crowd,” she thought: “Why is this happening? Can’t anyone help?” “If I were your daughter…would you protect me then?” Eurydice Stanley and Grace Stanley provide strong closing essays advocating continued vigilance against contemporary injustices.
A powerful recollection of the horrors encountered—and the battles won—in the fight for integration, and an urgent call to oppose today’s social and political oppression.