- ESSAYIST: Brandon Love.
It was just supposed to be a college essay. A brief sketch of personality, life ambitions and victories.
But the essay that Central High School senior Brandon Love wrote for Vanderbilt University (better known to many, now, as “A Tale of Two Centrals”) has gotten some serious play.
The essay was first printed in the April newsletter of a Texas-based organization called the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). The non-profit had been in Little Rock months before, working with students from Central and Parkview Magnet High School, including Brandon, and speaking to community members about the legendary civil rights cases Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka and Mendez v. Westminster. Its goal was to create community dialogue and action. And it did.
A few weeks ago, Brandon walked into school and was informed by a teacher that the essay had been sent — from a specially created e-mail address, falsely listed under the name of Central Principal Nancy Rousseau — to every e-mail account in the district. All Brandon could think was “wow.”
“It was never intended for everyone to read,” Brandon said. “When I wrote it, I was more or less just trying to display my strengths or weaknesses.”
But people did read it.
And although the piece is eloquent and engaging, the reasons why may have less to do with Brandon himself than the time in which it has been published — the 50th anniversary of the 1957 desegregation of Central, which has coincided with the district’s release from federal supervision and the furor surrounding the Little Rock School Board’s political divide along color lines over the future of Superintendent Roy G. Brooks’ employment.
Brandon’s essay tackled the race issue. He wrote about being a border walker — a black student who crossed the “imaginary line” drawn by Advanced Placement classes. He wrote frankly about how this made him feel, and he painted a Central scene in which race is still very much on the minds of many.
School Board member Larry Berkley read the essay several weeks ago, when it was first plastered in electronic mailboxes throughout the district.
“I know it takes courage to speak out like that,” he said. “And I’m glad he spoke out. We need to know what’s going on in the minds of these kids.”
But Berkley was also dismayed.
“There are many people in this community who have tried to get us to move past race,” he said, expressing exasperation over the fact that it continues, he said, to be a “primary issue.”
The record, he said, does show that Central has made efforts to integrate black students into AP classes. In a letter responding to Brandon’s essay, Rousseau and Guidance Department Chair Leslie Kearney cite numbers.
There were 274 black students in AP classes during the 2004-05 school year, they wrote. In 2006-07, the number jumped by 30 percent to 357. The guidance office has been offering a program for the past two years that’s designed to get black students into pre-AP and AP classes.
“The stereotypes and innuendoes that Brandon Love has encountered are obviously real,” they wrote in the letter. But the school, they said, is making an institutional attempt to address the inequalities and break down what has been an acknowledged dividing line.
So what if everyone did, in the midst of this milestone year, stop talking about race? What kinds of stories would the community fail to hear?
Perhaps this is the same question that the anonymous e-mailer, who stumbled across Brandon’s essay, was asking.
Dr. Bradley Scott, director of the South Central Collaborative for Equity branch of IDRA, wrote an epilogue to Brandon’s piece, testifying to his fair-mindedness and sharp intellect. In spite of the fact that Brandon is young, Scott wanted to make sure that people took him seriously.
“The students I met with in Little Rock were very much aware of the fact that they were in a rich and highly charged educational environment,” said Scott. But, he added, every school district needs work. And student perspectives are valuable tools that aren’t often taken into consideration.
“Kids do have a sense of their own destiny and their own life experience. For them, those perspectives are as real as anything else that exists. So they should be weighed into the whole balance,” said Scott.
Brandon acknowledged that, among Central students, perspectives vary widely. He’s had fellow students approach him, tell him his essay was well-written and then refute all the claims he makes.
“The essay he wrote was from his perspective,” Brandon’s father, Marvin Love, said. “No one could see that, or feel that, but him.”
But, Brandon said, if he could, “I would allow students who don’t see Central the way I see it to put on my shoes. I guess most white students, being white, don’t see things the way I do. It’s different when you walk into a room and you’re the only black student.”
Kate Trotter is a freshman at Central this year. She’s in AP classes, and she’s serving as a student senator. She said that her pre-AP classes are, for the most part, racially mixed. But she’s had a small taste of what Brandon’s talking about — in reverse.
There’s one hallway at Central, she said, where it seems like black students gather. Walking through it, she said, “I feel like a little drop of white.”
She senses strain and pressure at Central. “When I’m talking about another race, it always seems sort of awkward.”
And the only times she’s really felt it ease up is when people acknowledge it. Two of her teachers — in her civics and communications classes — encourage students to talk openly about racial issues and pressures.
But, she said, “A lot of the time, we don’t really talk about it.”
Brandon agreed. This is particularly true in his AP classes, where he’s a notable minority. “I think a lot of the time people are afraid to step on toes. People are afraid that they aren’t being politically correct.”
Or perhaps some are hoping that, when compared with the tension 50 years ago, the climate has eased up enough to stop making an issue.
“I’m 55 years old. Throughout the early part of my life, I constantly felt under the shadow of the Little Rock crisis,” said Kate’s father, Scott Trotter. “I think there’s a lot of pride about progress in Little Rock.”
But he said the uproar about race on the school board, in particular, is throwing that into question. It’s got people talking, thinking and is giving people in town “a reason to pick up the newspaper.”
Brandon, raised to the crest of a controversial wave, is afraid that people may use his essay as a weapon. And that’s exactly what he doesn’t want.
“Instead of everyone turning it into something bad, I think it should be something ... for people to look at and say, ‘Yeah, 50 years is great to celebrate. But it’s not over.’ ”