By Bob Skolnik
For the last six weeks, eighth-graders at L.J. Hauser Junior High School have been studying the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, when nine black students enrolled at the previously all-white Arkansas school amidst angry crowds, harassment and violence.
What made the subject something more than just words on a page, however, was a virtual visit by one of those very students, made possible through a connection with Riverside resident Jamie Brand, the father of a Hauser eighth-grader.
Brand is a friend of Ernest Green, a member of the Little Rock Nine and the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central in 1958.
A financial advisor, Brand has known Green since 2003, when they both worked for Lehman Brothers. Now the 76-year-old Green is a client of Brand's.
"I thought that connecting the students directly with Mr. Green, who was really at the center of the integration of schools in America in the late 50s would be a very powerful learning experience for them," Brand said.
On the morning of March 7, the two first-period social studies classes at Hauser squeezed into teacher Matt Muto's classroom and interviewed Green by speakerphone. The nearly 23-minute phone call was recorded and played for other eighth-graders at Hauser in their social studies classes later in the day.
"I think they all found it to be very powerful and inspirational I think," Muto said of the students. "Mr. Green did a really nice job of answering the questions at hand, but then also he offered them words of wisdom and advice. It was really neat."
Jamie Brand's daughter, Alli, who got to ask the first question, was impressed that her dad knew Green and with Green himself.
"It was really cool to just actually see his thoughts on what happened to him," said Alli, who asked Green what it was like to grow up in the segregated south. "He related segregation when he was in high school to current day events."
Green was asked questions by 13 different Hauser eighth-graders. The questions were chosen collaboratively by Muto, social studies teacher Erin McGinnis and students in response to student submissions.
The interview was done by speaker phone with no video because Green, 76, is not all that comfortable with technology like Skype, Brand said.
Green told the students that it was a difficult senior year in high school for him. He was the only black senior at the school.
For the first part of the school year Green and the other eight black students were escorted and protected by paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division as they walked through howling mobs to get to school.
For the first couple months, the soldiers also accompanied the black students inside the school during the day. But after a few months the soldiers were only stationed outside the school and left the black students unescorted inside the school building, where they were often harassed by some of the white students.
Green said that while most white students didn't harass him, they also did not speak up when others did so.
"I think the lesson that we learned out of Central is that if you see something that's wrong, speak up and don't be afraid to take a position," Green said.
Green said that the few white students who did speak up in support of him and the other eight black students were harassed and called names. Sometimes their parents' businesses were threatened.
But Green said that people must speak up when they see something wrong going on.
"I think we live in a world today that you can see not speaking up has dire consequences," Green said.
Students were spellbound listening to Green as history came to life for them.
"I think everyone was just really respectful when he was talking," Alli Brand said. "I think everyone didn't really realize how interesting it was going to be to actually talk to him, so when we started to everyone was kind of blown away."
Jamie Brand was also in the classroom for the phone conversation. He started and ended the conversation.
"I think it really put into context for these eighth-grade students for how big of an event it was in American history," Brand said. "They've read about, they've talked about it in the classroom; but to hear about it from somebody who was there was pretty impactful.
"You could hear a pin drop. They were very, very, very engaged with what he was saying."