Thursday, November 19, 2015

That Day I Met Ruby Bridges

It's not every day that I get to meet one of my heroes.
Back in September, the mother of one of my African American friends wrote on Facebook that Ruby Bridges would be coming to speak at BYU in November. I've loved learning about the Civil Rights movement ever since I read We Were There Too!: Young People in U.S. History back in eighth grade, which is also the year I started blogging about age. My first period was history and I got in early a lot, so I'd flip through the book to pass the time. It had over nine hundred pages and only eight of them mentioned a teenager or child. At the end of each chapter was what I called the "minority half page", where they'd mention what women or racial minorities had been doing during that particular span of history.
So I went to the library and found myself a better history book. I tracked down We Were There Too on my own, but I later realized my history teacher had a copy on his shelf, right next to a book about Ruby Bridges. When he found out I was interested in minority histories he offered to loan me the first and I took the second.                    
So I marked the date of Ruby's speech in my planner and for the next few months I ran around campus telling my white friends, "Guys! Ruby Bridges is coming in November!"
And then my white friends said, "Cool. Who's that?"
Lots of people know the story once you start talking but she doesn't have name recognition.
Fast forward to today, when my friend Edie and I stood in the Line of Doom outside the art museum to get wristbands. College tip: Just because all your friends on campus don't know who a speaker is doesn't mean every white parent of an adopted black child within a twenty mile radius doesn't know. It doesn't mean that every fifth grader who did a report on Ruby Bridges doesn't know. It doesn't matter that every black law school student who already met her in fourth grade doesn't know. And they'll camp out in front of the museum. So show up early.
I hadn't thought to bring homework, so we passed the time watching people in the crowd. Especially the kids. When I was little, I had a lot of "day friends"-kids I met at the park or pool and never saw again. I've started using the term again in college to describe people I meet for a half hour in the cafeteria. I watched day friends from every ethnicity climb fences and cartwheel across the grass. Kids don't judge, I thought. Anyone your size is a good friend.
Me and Edie waiting in the Line of Doom. And we're happy about it. 
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Ruby talked a lot about friends. She was six years old when the NAACP asked her parents to let their child help integrate the first desegregated school of Louisiana. She was one of over one hundred and forty volunteers, but "the opposition", as she called them, insisted all the candidates take a test. Six girls, including Ruby, passed. They were split up. Three went to one elementary school and Ruby was supposed to have two friends, but their parents pulled them from the program out of fear.
Nobody really bothered to explain to a six year old what was going on. All her neighbors were strangely excited for her first day of class and kept saying "She passed the test!" So Ruby thought she'd tested out of twelve grades and was headed straight to college. That would explain why the building was so much bigger and nicer. And maybe it explained why she sat in class all alone with Mrs. Henry. She knew there were other children in the school (five of them, the rest had been pulled out) because she could smell food cooking in the cafeteria. It wasn't for her-she had to pack her own lunch in case of poison. Sometimes, if she stood in the coat closet, she could hear children's voices on the other side.
White students walking into Ruby's school. Images taken from her book Through My Eyes.
After many arguments with the principal, Mrs. Henry got permission to move the cabinet that blocked the coat closet's connecting door. Ruby stepped over to the other side. All the kids were white. She said. "It never crossed my mind what the kids would look like-I just wanted to make friends." She asked a boy if he would play with her. "My parents won't let me," he said. "Because you're a nigger."
At this point, a young white girl named Rebecca sitting on our row whispered, "Mom, what's 'nigger'?" Her mom explained. I'd asked Rebecca before the talk if she knew who Ruby Bridges was, and if she'd learned about her in school. I'd always thought Ruby Bridges was a Black History Month staple and every elementary school child should be able to name her alongside Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But apparently some of my college friends never learned about her or didn't remember. So I wanted to ask a kid. Rebecca said she'd learned about her "a little bit" in school but most of her knowledge came from a book.
Ruby has multiple books, but if it's the most popular one, the one I'm holding in my lap as I type, it contains that hateful word. And Rebecca stared at this Norman Rockwell painting for a solid hour before Ruby spoke.

But she'd skimmed over the word to read the story and looked past the graffiti to see the girl.
Ruby said she didn't blame the boy for his refusal. If her parents had told her not to play with a kid-Asian, Hispanic, mixed race, white-she would have obeyed. That's what kids do. That's the moment she finally realized she wasn't in college. That it was all about her. The angry mob chanting racist slogans and hoisting a coffin with a black baby doll didn't clue her in. A child did.
Protesters outside Ruby's school. I really hope that girl is smiling because there's a camera and not because her family has her holding a Klan cross. 
Ruby now travels and speaks to schools, from colleges like ours to elementary schools. She shared stories of all the children she's met, how the schools today have progressed so far, and one quote of hers stayed with me: "Racism is a grown up disease. Let's stop using our kids to spread it."
Tonight I got to shake her hand, get a book signed, babble about how she'd been one of my heroes since eighth grade, and then a museum official let me step behind the table to hug her.
It shouldn't fall to children to correct the errors of our parents. But it does. Children are the only ones of us who are truly unbiased. When I was nine, I went to a family reunion that was crashed by two black girls who lived near the park. The ate our food and played our games, so I thought I had two new cousins. More then half of the adopted kids in my neighborhood were black. Their race didn't clue me in. My mom had to explain they weren't related.
Ruby wasn't the first child to desegregate a school. She wasn't the only one in her city. But she stands as a symbol of a generation and a movement. It's partly because of her perseverance that Edie and I can go to the same school.
Childhood is the best time to learn anything, including racial tolerance. Not just to be taught but to learn. A white fifth grade girl in the row behind me said that like Rebecca, she'd learned a little bit about Ruby in school, then she'd gone and read all her books. In her talk Ruby described a school visit where she met a girl who hadn't learned the term "biggest fan" yet. "I've been your very best friend since I met you on the book", she told her.
I think adults have a responsibility to educate the rising generation. But adults have a responsibility to do many things for children, and topics fall aside. Even if you cover racial tolerance you'll be missing something else. I believe we're also responsible for our own education. Your teen years and college years are just as good of a time to find heroes. If I hadn't hit up the library for a more inclusive history book in eighth grade, I wouldn't have become passionate about teen and minority history. I wouldn't be blogging about it today. Ruby Bridges wouldn't have signed my book today.
But she did, and I plan on using it to teach my children.

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