Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ruby Bridges: Walking out of a Norman Rockwell painting to teach kids about racism

Today, New Orleans will host the city's first-ever children's book festival, sponsored by a woman who became the first black child to attend a previously all-white New Orleans school, 50 years ago, when she was just 6 years old.

Her name is Ruby Bridges, but, because her image is better known than her name, she sometimes brings along the world's most unusual nametag to her speaking engagements: A copy of a Norman Rockwell painting commemorating her walk into the school, surrounded by white federal marshals.  From her foundation's website, here's a glimspe of what her schooldays were like:
Every morning a group of forty or more women, known as the “cheerleaders”, shouted obscene, racist threats at Ruby as she entered Frantz Elementary. Ruby received instruction in isolation from her teacher, Mrs. Barbara Henry. Even to use the restroom, she had to be escorted by the marshals, and Ruby ate lunch alone in the classroom every day.
This weekend, Studio 360 looked at Bridges and her story through the eyes of noted child psychiatrist and Harvard professor Robert Coles, who had the unusual opportunity to interview Bridges at the very time she was taking those historic steps.  That experience led him to practice field observations of children in their real-life situations, rather than through private therapy, and it's one of the stories recounted in his book Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection which looks at how stories like Bridges' help develop our moral character.  Here's the interview in which Coles describes meeting Bridges and how she reacted--as a 6-year-old--to the bizarre experience:


It's not the first time Coles has helped to tell Bridges' story.  He collaborated with Bridges to tell the story he observed in a children's book,The Story Of Ruby Bridges. Later, Bridges wrote another children's book, Ruby Bridges Goes To School: My True Story (Scholastic Reader Level 2) which features historic news photographs of her experience, as well as Through My Eyes, an autobiography for older children.

The Coles-Bridges collaboration helped her to create the Ruby Bridges Foundation, dedicated to stopping the use of children to spread racism.  It has propelled Bridges into a career in public speaking, as she addresses school and community organizations, and works to help rebuild schools and services for children in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina.  This article from the Harvard Divinity School, "Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk," fills in the details of what happened to Bridges and the work of her foundation.   You can find out more about Ruby Bridges at her website, or the website of her foundation.

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