From Memphis, Tennessee to Little Rock, Arkansas is a straight shot on route 40 West. Within minutes of heading out of Memphis the ‘Welcome to Arkansas’ sign greets travelers in the middle of a bridge welcoming visitors to The Natural State! It was on this road (so far in the trip) that I felt we were reliving a scene out of Thelma and Louise. Driving on the open road amidst the endless plains alongside trucks and travelers alike, we were in middle America. We’ve passed silos and farms, grains, tractors and trailers, country towns and suburban sprawls and made our way down the two-lane highway as so many have done before and millions more will after us. It could have been a scene out of any movie or a page out of history and we remembered again just how lucky we are to be able to traverse these lane ways.
After passing license plates from Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and many more, we entered Little Rock, Arkansas. Home to all things Clinton and the Little Rock Nine, Arkansas has been on the front page of history for many years. Central High School is today an active high school as well as participating in the National Parks System as an historic site. Standing on the street in front and walking up the steep staircase to the massive doors was exciting, eerie and interesting. The teacher in me stood remembering the movie clips and countless times that my students and I discussed the civil rights movement and what happened in 1957. The citizen in me felt honoured to be standing in the same spot that others courageously stood their ground fighting for a right that many others too often take for granted. And the traveler in me was proud to be able to stand there and have the experience at this very special place. And oddly enough, in our visit to Subway for lunch, the girl behind the counter told us she is a student at Central High School and often feels extremely proud be one.
Another powerhouse of Arkansas, is one who became president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. Having never been to a presidential library before, I was unsure of what to expect. What we found were very kind guides, a beautiful building set on a backdrop of natural riverfront, thousands of documents and artifacts, a replica of the Cabinet room and the Oval Office, and a twelve-minute video that chronicled the political career of Bill Clinton from a humble upbringing in Hope, Arkansas. Whether a fan of the red state or the blue it didn’t really matter here. Here visitors get to walk back in history and learn about the time of the Clinton presidency both in and outside of the United States. This impressive building holds memories, clippings and hundreds of photographs of this Arkansas native who changed the lives of many.
From two sites of history we went to one where history is being carved as we speak. From standing on the spot where teenagers oozed courage, to a building that housed eight years of information we went to one where courageous people are fighting yet another battle. A colleague of mine (from Farmingdale High School) is fighting her own battle with cancer. As a music teacher, her voice stopped you in your tracks and you had no choice but to listen. As a theater director, there are countless actors making their way in the world today who have her to thank for their high school beginnings. And as a mentor, colleague and friend, she is fierce in her loyalty, determination and heart. She is presently at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in the care of fabulous doctors helping her battle a disease and fight for her health. She has always been a force to be reckoned with and today, in our visit filled with chats, memories, smiles and laughter, I was once again reminded of her fierce determination, heart and courage.
A few months ago, in the Maldives, I met a girl from Arkansas. I do have to say, in forty years, she is the first person from Arkansas I had ever met. She works for the Center for Disease control and has lived and worked in many countries trying desperately to rid the world of infectious and deadly diseases. I knew from history that those from Arkansas were filled with strength, grit and fortitude beyond that of many others and she continued to prove it. Although we’ve been here for only a short time, that’s what I’ll take with me from our visit to Little Rock. Nine high school students displayed courage beyond their years when they fought for their right to go to school. As a citizen and political figure, Bill fought for the rights of others at home and abroad. And just as they all fought and succeeded, I know that Michelle’s courage will win…it seems that in Arkansas, there is just no other possible answer.