Central High School comes to symbolize not just a good education but also the barriers to education that Melba and the other black students have to face. Its forbidding, fortress-like exterior represents the barriers put up by society against black people. The quest to conquer Central High School concerns more than just getting nine black children into an all-white high school: it also concerns the large scale dismantling of barriers in all aspects of American life and ensuring that black people are afforded the same opportunities as white people.
The luxury and wealth of the school also symbolize all that Melba’s people do not have. When Melba is able to observe the school around her, she sees lovely things, such as the preparations for the school play and the new textbooks. All of this is vastly different from Melba’s old high school, Horace Mann. Because the Central High students are surrounded by other white people but served in the cafeteria by black people, the school is also a microcosm of the white world, in which white people are rarely forced to confront the realities of racism. But Melba’s interactions with Central High School also represent the curiosity and spirit that make it possible for her to survive her first year there. The drive to know what goes on in the white world pushes Melba to overcome her fears.
Every year, Melba’s family chooses fabric from Grandma India’s trunk to make their special Easter clothing. This event has always been a high point of the year, and Grandma India’s trunk is filled with treasures. Though Melba’s family is not wealthy, they have real dignity in their traditions. The tradition of making the dress each year accentuates the pride that Melba’s family takes in their clothing, their religion, and their lives. But in this particular year, Melba insists on an adult dress made of adult fabric. Her mother and grandmother agree that it is time for Melba to have a lady-like dress. The dress symbolizes Melba’s difficult passage from a high-school girl to an adult warrior for justice and is a reward for her work.
When Melba wears the dress to school, one of the segregationist students sprays the dress with black ink and ruins it. Thus, the dress becomes a symbol of all that Melba cannot escape. Though Melba had hoped to use her adult dress as a kind of protection against the cruelty and solitude she experiences at Central High School, it does not work. Melba cannot escape the realities that await her every day at Central.
Journalists are omnipresent in Melba’s story. She often uses newspaper headlines to begin chapters of her book, and in the story itself, reporters frequently pepper Melba and her friends with questions. She credits them with having kept attention on the crisis at Central High School. Had newspapers not been running stories regularly, says Melba, Governor Faubus and the segregationists might have been allowed to triumph. One of the two white people who save Elizabeth Eckford is a journalist, and several black journalists are beaten by the savage crowd that surrounds Central High School on the first day of school that the Little Rock Nine attend. Journalists recognize Melba’s talent with words and encourage her to write. But what means the most to Melba is the kind of fraternity they create for themselves, in which black and white reporters work together. For journalists, finding the truth seems more important than discussing superficialities, such as the color of someone’s skin.
The journalists who visit Melba’s town give her a glimpse of something larger than Little Rock and its segregated society. By observing these people who serve truth before social convention, Melba realizes that there is a better life out there. This is the first time she understands that she could have such a future. In her rushed maturation during her time at Central High School, Melba interacts with journalists and realizes she could continue to fight for truth and justice as a career and that she could do it with words.