Opinion: Ms. Bridges’ brave act in 1960 changed me
Ruby Bridges is considered the youngest hero of the civil rights movement. Her story is presented in an iconic Norman Rockwell painting of a small black girl in a starched white dress flanked by four huge marshals, a racist slur graffiti’d on the brick wall beside her. In 1960, when she was 6 years old, Ruby Bridges became the first black student to attend the William Franz Public School in New Orleans.
Each morning as she arrived at school, Ruby faced taunts and threats of every imaginable kind. One woman displayed a black doll in a coffin. Another screamed that she would poison Ruby’s lunch. Parents removed their children from school the day Ruby entered, so she was the only student in her first-grade class. Because of threats, she ate lunch alone in her classroom. It was a lonely year, but Ruby formed a close relationship with her teacher, Barbara Henry. Working together, they helped open the doors to an integrated future at William Franz.
In the spring of 2006 Ruby Bridges spent two days at Lincoln Community School meeting with our students. It was her first trip to Vermont, but our agreement stipulated we would not publicize her visit in any way. Ms. Bridges is clear about her mission: to work directly with children, helping them start their lives without the prejudices of the previous generation, and bypassing any media hoopla.
Ruby Bridges is an animated presenter. She began with a short news clip from 1960, in which we saw and heard the jeering crowds she faced each morning outside her school. This was followed by an intensivecivics lesson in which students were asked to define the meaning of a law, then consider what can be done about an unfair law. As a two-hour dialogue unfolded, each student had the opportunity to wrestle with some aspect of this challenge. They were encouraged each step of the way.
Ms. Bridges involved students at a visceral level. She invited them to picture a close friend, then told them they were not allowed to play together. She selected a student volunteer to advocate for integration while she role-played former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie H. Davis, a stern segregationist. In a no-nonsense demeanor, Ms. Bridges portrayed Davis’ response to the Supreme Court’s order demanding integration of all public schools. “I’ll fight you every step of the way,” she barked, then smiled, placing her arm around our trembling student’s shoulder.
Students were engaged in a chilling pantomime of the historic entrance exams designed for black children. Ms. Bridges had students sit up straight and take a test to see who was “smart enough” to enter an integrated first grade, then whispered into the mic the secret that their test was fixed so hardly anyone would pass.
“From where I stand, I see the children’s faces so clearly,” she told me later. “They get so upset, that I always invite them to share their feelings, then tell them afterwards we just need to let go of it and move on.”
With honesty and insight and compassion, Ruby Bridges helped our students begin to develop empathy though understanding.
We were unprepared for Ms. Bridges’ final story. Less than a year prior to her visit, just weeks before hurricane Katrina destroyed her home,Ruby Bridges’ oldest son was fatally wounded by what appeared to be a random shooting, and was left to die on a street corner. No suspect was ever arrested. Ms. Bridges made the courageous decision to share this personal horrific story with our 10- to 12-year-old students as her presentation drew to a close. In stunned silence, we held her pain.
She ended with this remark:
“We need to give each other a chance, and here’s why: You never know when you may need someone’s help, and when you do, it won’t matter what they look like.”
Each child left with a personal connection to the real Ruby Bridges and her message. Our time together carried us beyond the previous four-month unit of study, which focused on the events documented in Ms. Bridges’ memoir, “Through My Eyes.” Afterward, one child wrote, “I think Ruby can change the world. She thinks children are the ones who can do it. I think she is right because she changed me.”
I was changed by Ruby Bridges, too. My photo of her, standing in the New Haven River behind our school, hung in my classroom for the rest of my career. Whenever I needed inspiration, I glanced at her smiling face — a face that still shows the open heart she brought into William Franz Public School 55 years ago but also carries the wisdom that we cannot live in a world without loving kindness and acceptance of otherness.
“Yes, it’s about opportunity, but it’s also about bringing people of different races and backgrounds together,” Ruby Bridges reminds us, knowing full well the difficulty of this basic human task.
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