Melba’s “sweet sixteen” is approaching. While entering the school, she dreams of the freedom that will be possible with that “magic age.” While she is lost in her daydreams, a boy pulls her wrist and doubles her arm behind her back. No one is present to help her. Melba kicks the boy in the crotch before he can enlist his friends to abuse her any further. When she walks up the stairs to homeroom, she is greeted by the same two boys who taunt her every day. She glares at them and whispers that she will be present “tomorrow and the next day and the next.”
Though Melba dreams of greater personal freedom, such as the ability to date, she is also maturing into a more capable and self-sufficient person. With Danny no longer around to protect her, she commits her first act of self-defense, which succeeds, and gives her the resolve to stay on at Central. She no longer feels as vulnerable as she once did.
When members of the Little Rock Nine compare notes, they find that their abuse is increasing. There are rumors of training programs to “sharpen the skills of hooligans inside the school.” Meanwhile, Minnijean wages a second battle to appear with the choral group in the Christmas program. Thelma and Melba try to talk her out of it, to no avail.
The violent resistance to Melba and the other black students is probably the result of an organized effort to intimidate them into leaving Central. Not only does this not work, but it spurs some students, particularly Minnijean, to try harder to belong.
Minnijean is the only member of the Little Rock Nine whom Melba invites to her birthday party. She excludes others so that she can feel more like her old self and less like an integrationist. She also makes Minnijean promise not to talk about Central around their friends from Horace Mann High who are Melba’s other guests. When Minnijean calls to say that she cannot attend the party after all, Melba is relieved, thinking that, without any members of the Little Rock Nine present, she can fade into her old group.
Melba tries to separate her identity at Central from who she thinks she is. Her self-image has not diverged from how she regarded herself at Horace Mann. She still thinks that she can blend into her “old group” and talk to them as though she never left her former high school, but her desire to “fade into her old group” is also a wish to forget who she has since become.
Vince is her first guest at the party. He offers Melba a gift of “tiny gold hoop earrings.” After an hour, no guests arrive. Then, Melba’s friend Marsha phones to say that she will also not be coming but will drop her gift off the next day. She says that their friend Ann is having her annual Christmas party and that everyone is going there. However, Melba knows that Ann’s party does not start before eight and wonders why people cannot stop by her house first. That is when Marsha says that everyone is afraid to go to Melba’s house and that no one is willing to die with her.
Fear of becoming targets of violence keeps Melba’s old friends at bay. For the first time, she realizes that her choice to integrate Central has not only cost her the possibility of friendship at her new school, but has alienated her from her friends at her old school. Her choice to integrate Central has made them less proud and more afraid. Melba’s sense of community is diminishing.
Melba’s feelings are doubly hurt, for no one comes to her party and no one invites her to the biggest party of the year. She recognizes that Vince also wants to go to Ann’s party and wonders if her mother and grandmother can make an exception tonight and allow her to go. Grandma India refuses, due to the white men who are parked at the end of their street, waiting for Melba to leave alone so “they can hang [her].” Melba sobs into her pillow that night, wishing that sometimes she could stop being a warrior and sometimes just be a girl.
With the exception of Vince, who only sticks around to be polite, Melba feels completely isolated from her friends. Nevertheless, she must maintain this state of isolation in the interest of remaining safe. Melba’s work toward social justice excludes her from the pleasures of being a teenage girl—a sacrifice she did not expect to have to make.
With four days to go before Christmas break, the segregationists start a drive to get the Little Rock Nine out of the school before the end of the year. Melba is exhausted but looking forward to Christmas. On Tuesday, December 17, one day before vacation, five of them go to the cafeteria for lunch, which is always hazardous. Tuesday is chili day, which Minnijean loves. As she tries to get out of line, a group of boys blocks her path. The other kids freeze, fearing she might be in trouble. The white boys push a chair in front of her. Minnijean stands patiently. The others do not intervene out of fear of starting a brawl. As the boys taunt her, Minnijean’s tray goes flying and the chili spills all over two of the boys. Everyone is stunned and silent, except for the black cafeteria workers who applaud. A school official shows up and whisks Minnijean away. By the afternoon, Melba learns that Minnijean has been suspended.
The cafeteria incident illustrates the helplessness of the Little Rock Nine in the face of mob harassment. Minnijean’s mishap, which could have been an accident or the result of a nervous reaction, is deemed an act of aggression. What is most unjust is that the white students, such as the boys who torment Minnijean, are allowed to commit constant acts of bold aggression with impunity while Minnijean’s sole transgression, which was probably unintentional, results in swift and immediate punishment. Her only sympathizers are the powerless cafeteria workers.