Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ruby Bridges

I became an aunt when I was ten. I've been baby-crazy ever since. Around this same time, I gave up begging my mom for another sibling and began planning my own motherhood. My friends and I would draw pictures of our future families. Mine always included a husband and our ten children. I began babysitting when I was twelve. When I was in high school, I helped a woman who ran an in-home daycare when I'd get out of school in the afternoon. I was a nanny for two different families during two summer breaks from college.

When I found out I was pregnant with Katie, I began fantasizing about how wonderful motherhood would be. I was so excited to be a mom, to care for and love a person from my own body, to have someone I can teach with enthusiasm all the things in the world that interest me.

What I didn't expect until I actually had a baby is that kids teach parents just as much, if not more, than we teach them. I'm constantly amazed by the things Katie teaches me. I hear other people complain about "kids today". Each generation complains about the next generation. What a bunch of lazy, ungrateful, moody, ego-centric beasts kids are today. I disagree. I see our society evolving into a better place year after year after year. Music and fashion changes, but kids are still kids: open-minded, open-hearted, ready to make the world a better place.

Since I was a kid myself I've had a fascination with African-American history and the Civil Rights Movement. As a white kid growing up in the self-segregated suburbs of Kansas City, I had few black friends. My first experiences with black friends came from mostly TV when I was a young child and books in my teens. Sesame Street. The Electric Company. Soul Train. Good Times. The Jeffersons. The Cosby Show. Black Like Me. The Color Purple. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Most of my experiences with black people came from my own interest in their stories. Not from school. Not from my real, day-to-day life. Still, compared to most white people I knew, I felt quite knowledgeable about African-American history and The Civil Rights Movement.

Then came my daughter, who teaches me every day that just when you think you know so much, you find there is so much more to learn about life. My seven-year-old spawn brought home this drawing she made at school:

"Ruby Bridges" by Katie Carleton, age 7

"Who's that?" I asked, pointing to the brown-skinned girl in the pink dress.

"That's Ruby Bridges," Katie explained.

"Who's Ruby Bridges?" I asked. Sometimes I ask Katie questions I already know the answer to, just to see what she thinks on her own, but this time I honestly had no idea who she was talking about.

"Ruby Bridges was a girl. Is a girl. A woman. I think she's still alive today," Katie explained.

"Oh yeah. How do you know her?" I asked.

"I learned about her at school," Katie said.

I scanned my brain for any information I could retrieve on Ruby Bridges, but it kept sending me that annoying "buffering" message. I think it's time to defrag my brain.

"What did Ruby Bridges do?" I asked, feeling rather frustrated with my ignorance.

"She was a girl. A six year old girl. And she was very brave..." Katie began.

"Oh! Was she one of the first black kids to go to an all-white school?" I guessed. 

"Yes!" Katie exclaimed like I'd won the game-show prize.

"Oh, cool." I picked up Katie's drawing and studied it some more.

Katie pointed to the white men in the drawing and said, "Those are the marshals who had to walk her to school so she wouldn't get killed!"

I dropped the drawing on the table and clasped my hands over my mouth. "Oh my gosh!" My voice was muffled, so I uncovered my mouth. "That is horrible! Why would anyone want to kill her?"

This, I already knew the answer to, but I wanted to see how much Katie had been taught already at school.

"I don't know!" Katie exclaimed. 

But she did know. She pointed to the background of the drawing, the peachy-white blob with black squiggly lines and two squares that say "witie oney" and "kill RB!"

"Those are the mobs of white people in the background," Katie explained. "Those are their signs that say, white only and Kill Ruby Bridges."

At first I didn't know what to say. I was thinking to myself, Wow, Katie's too young to know about these horrors. But then I realized Katie's a year older than Ruby Bridges herself when those marshals had to protect her from the angry white mob. I said, "Can you imagine how horrible that would be to have grown-ups threatening you for just trying to go to school?"

"I know!" Katie said. "She was very brave."

"Yes, very. Wouldn't that be crazy if the black kids at your school weren't allowed to go to your school just because they're black?" I asked.

We still live in the suburbs of Kansas City, but they are not the same suburbs of Kansas City I grew up in. When I was Katie's age, all the kids on my block were white, and probably 95% of the kids at school were white. The others were Asian. I had one friend in sixth grade whose mom is white and dad is black. This biracial girl was the closest thing to being my first, real life black friend. 

Katie's suburbs are different. There's tons more diversity. About half the kids in her class have white skin and about half the kids have brown skin. Katie has a range of friends of many racial and ethnic backgrounds. My school never taught us about African-American history or the Civil Rights Movement when we were in second grade. I don't remember learning about it at school until ninth grade, and even then it felt progressive. This was the same year the TV news was reporting that Arizona Governor Bruce Babbit, a Democrat, ordered the state to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday by executive order and later reported the executive order was repealed as soon as his Republican successor, Evan Mecham, took office. My lily-white ass, sitting in my bedroom reading Black Like Me, felt like a radical act in 1986.

Now, in 2014, my second grader is teaching me about key figures in the Civil Rights Movement.


I've since done some research on Ruby Bridges. Here's a good introductory biographical article about her courageous life. This part blew my mind:

Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. She was from Boston and a new teacher to the school. "Mrs. Henry," as Ruby would call her even as an adult, greeted her with open arms. Ruby was the only student in Henry's class, because parents pulled or threatened to pull their children from Ruby's class and send them to other schools. For a full year, Henry and Ruby sat side-by-side at two desks working on Ruby's lessons. She was very loving and supportive of Ruby, helping her not only with her studies, but also the difficult experience of being ostracized.

Ruby Bridges was the first black girl to attend an all-white school in the South. In 1960. Not that long ago. I never learned about her in my schools growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, fifty-four years after the fact, my seven-year old daughter teaches me her great lesson.

Parents: listen to your children. They are wise, with uncluttered minds, ready to learn and to teach what they know.

Ruby Bridges, age 6, escorted from school by US Federal Marshals, November 1960
image source: Wikipedia 


"OK. Spring Break begins now," I announced as we entered the house after our walk home after school. "What's the first thing you want to do on your Spring Break?"

Katie pointed her finger to her chin and thought a moment. "I wanna watch 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2'" she said, then took it back. "No, I wanna watch 'Ruby Bridges.'"

Katie walked over and put in the DVD that I had brought home from the library the other day after she showed me her drawing of Ruby Bridges. 

I had intended on writing while Katie was watching the movie, but I became entralled by it--a great story of a brave girl and the faith and family that help her overcome the overwhelming racism and hatred inflicted upon her by white neighbors in New Orleans in 1960. I highly recommend it for parents who are looking for an inspirational film of faith and courage to watch with your kids.

Katie drew these pictures after we finished watching the movie:

"My Hero Ruby Bridges" by Katie Carleton, age 7

"I Hate Segregation!!!!!" by Katie Carleton, age 7