While for most teenagers, high school involves building social skills and a community, for Melba and the other black students it is primarily about self-reliance. Not only are they entering a school in which almost every person is hostile toward them but they are also slowly losing friends from their old lives. Melba’s friends from Horace Mann begin to avoid her because they fear for their own safety and because she becomes so serious while undergoing the abuse at Central. Melba does begin to date Vince, but because he cannot understand what she is going through, they gradually drift apart. Melba is close to her family, but she learns that even they cannot protect her from the people in her school.
Melba has to face each challenge and attack by herself. Danny sees Melba through some difficult times, but eventually he disappears when the 101st Airborne is withdrawn. Though Link helps her, he does not openly declare himself her friend. While other teenagers around her travel in packs of friends, Melba is isolated and rarely allowed out in public. Grandma India gives her strength and purpose, but eventually, Grandma India dies. In the process of becoming an adult, Melba has to learn to rely more and more on herself instead of on the people around her.
The transformation from being innocent, idealistic teenagers to warriors is a recurring motif throughout Warriors Don’t Cry. Battered by the hatred and violence at Central High School, each of the Nine has to learn how to live without friends and rely solely on themselves. They also learn that they cannot rely on the protection of their parents or any of the authority figures in the school to protect them. Each of the Little Rock Nine has to learn to survive in hostile conditions. Each of them has to give up a youthful dream, whether it is seeing Elvis perform, playing on the school basketball team, or singing in the school talent show. All of the black students have to recognize that their lives are about much more than their own petty concerns: their pain contributes to some greater good. If they are unable to recognize this, they will not last very long. Because Minnijean cannot accept that it may be impossible for her to make friends and have a normal teenage life, it becomes harder and harder for her to stifle her natural emotions. She is expelled.
The story in Warriors Don’t Cry is not just about the black students’ loss of innocence. It is the story of how Little Rock lost its innocence, as well. The segregationists in Little Rock fight so hard against the integration of the schools because, in some part, integration would mean admitting they had been mistreating black people all these years. Link loses his innocence by watching not just how Melba and her friends are treated but also how his own family treats his beloved Nana Healey. Seeing them turn an ailing old woman away makes him realize he doesn’t really trust his family. It becomes difficult to reconcile the image of the parents he loves with their treatment of someone who had always loved and cared for him. The images that appear in the newspaper after Elizabeth Eckford is turned away from Central the first time, in which a tiny black girl is surrounded by a howling mob of white people, shame some white adults. The reason segregationists talk about black people “making trouble” is that the lives they live have hitherto been innocent of the suffering of the black people around them. Being forced to recognize the pain of others requires a loss of innocence, for which they’re not prepared.