Ways of Seeing: Ruby Bridges’ words still resonate
I met Ruby Bridges fourteen years ago when she visited the school where I taught. Readers may recall my previous article about her visit and its lasting impact. It was an honor to host Ms. Bridges, the first Black student to integrate the William Franz Public Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, when she was only six years old. She has been called the youngest hero of the Civil Rights Movement.
The final story she shared with my preadolescent students remains vivid. Less than a year prior to her visit to Vermont, right around the time hurricane Katrina ravaged her city, Ruby Bridges’ son was fatally injured while caught in crossfire as an innocent bystander. He had lain on the side of a busy road and bled to death. Not one person pulled over to help him. Ms. Bridges made the courageous decision to share this horrific personal story as her formal presentation drew to a close. She ended with this remark:
“One day you may need help. And when someone offers it, you will not care what color they are. You will just be happy they are there.”
Many students were in tears. Afterwards, when they reflected on their time with Ruby Bridges, this stood out as the most significant aspect of her presentation.
As I reflected on Ms. Bridges’ closing words, a memory surfaced.
Years ago, shortly after graduating from college, I was driving home from a late-night holiday party in a steady rain. My sister, a friend and I sang along with the radio as we coasted along a winding road. Coming around yet another curve, we were suddenly caught in a flash flood that immersed our car in water. The headlights and engine shorted out.
In the back seat, my friend couldn’t see what was going on, so she opened the door for a clearer view. Water gushed in. She managed to quickly close the door, but by then our feet were soaked. We were stalled with no lights in the middle of a dark road. I opened the window and crawled on top of the car, assessing our situation.
Then I saw him. A young man trudging through the water was heading in our direction, pushing against the wind. As he approached our car, I called out in the calmest voice I could muster,
“Excuse me, sir, can you give us a hand?”
I actually said that. As if he were out for a stroll and not there slogging through a flooded field to help us. The young man didn’t say anything I could hear. He just leaned his body hard against the hood of my car, arms outstretched, and started pushing. In a few minutes we were out of the water. He was completely soaked.
Once we were on relatively dry land, my sister and I tried to give the young man some money. He laughed a little to himself and shook his head.
“I can’t do that,” he said, explaining that he lived in an apartment close by and we were among a number of folks who had ended up in the flooded river that night. Apparently, he’d assisted all of them. It was only then I noticed in the dark: he was a young Black man.
Ruby Bridges was right. We needed help and were grateful to receive it from whoever rose to the task. But this kind young man offered yet another gift by shifting some of the deep-rooted biases shaping our reaction to a Black man approaching three white women, alone on a dark night. He gave us his humanity, expecting nothing in return; it was a lasting gift that helped reset an ugly stereotype.
Ruby Bridges shared her pain to teach my students a lesson many of us are taking generations to absorb. At the most basic level, we need each other for our very survival — for help on the side of the road, to develop a vaccine for the latest pandemic, to acknowledge and appreciate our existence. To discount another person, to consider them less worthy of life, of freedom, of all the opportunity we value for ourselves, is not only wrong, it ultimately makes each of us more vulnerable.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.
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