I praise an ordinary woman,
greyblonde and stocky, nearing
forty, who stood as part of
a snarling crowd outside
Central High School in Little Rock
on September fifth, 1957.
She watched as eight
black teenagers (all chosen
for excellent grades)
got out of a Chevy wagon.
She watched them approach
the ring of Guardsmen
ordered to turn them away, saw
the crewcuts, the loose slung rifles
the fingers more used to basketballs
drumming on billy sticks.
When the eight faltered
and finally turned back
she might have helped scream them away.
And then she saw the latecomer ninth
walk into the spit of Nigger go home
a girl named Elizabeth Eckford
in crinolines and a pressed white blouse
fifteen, too shy to bolt
the only black person in sight.
And suddenly this unknown
woman, her face ambushed by pity,
stepped out from the mob
and touched Elizabeth Eckford's shoulder.
Made of herself a shield and wedge,
shamed her own to give way
and brought the girl out, through the bitter swell
roaring and closing
JUDITH YARNALL teaches writing and literature at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont.