We all know how hard that first day of school can be for new teachers and new students. Imagine what that first day must have been like for student Ruby Bridges and teacher Barbara Henry, passing through a mob of racist protestors shouting insults and threats.
That was the reality in 1960 for both Ruby and Barbara. Ruby was six years old, and the first African-American student to help integrate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Barbara, her white teacher, was a newcomer to the city and its schools.
To the segregationists, Ruby and Barbara were the enemies. White parents pulled their children out of the school, so Ruby and Barbara worked alone for the year. Undaunted, the two relied on each other and taught each other. Ruby showed Barbara the importance of courage and perseverance; Barbara instilled in Ruby a love for reading.
Their relationship shows how a teacher and a student can each become a hero for the other.
Talking With Ruby Bridges
Q: It couldn't have been easy to be the only student to integrate a school in 1960. How were you prepared for that first day? What do you recall about it?
RUBY BRIDGES: I knew that I was going to a new school and, basically, that was it. I really wasn't aware of what was going on. It's very hard to explain to a child what racism is all about. And it was extremely hard, I'm sure, for my parents to explain to me what I was about to venture into. And therefore, they didn't. The only thing I remember my mother saying is that I was going to a new school and she would be with me. I remember arriving in front of the school and thinking that it was Mardi Gras. I mean, there were lots of people in front of the school, and they were shouting. There were policemen everywhere, and the people were barricaded. And that's exactly how it looks at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Q: How did you feel when you arrived at your classroom?
RB: I remember being escorted to the room and arriving there and seeing an empty classroom nothing but rows and rows of desks, and no students. I was accustomed to being with other kids that's what I expected school to be like. Yet, this school was different, because there were no other kids. That's what bothered me the most. I was constantly looking for them, thinking they were just in another room, or, they were in some other part of the building. And I remember the smells of the food cooking in the cafeteria, when I wasn't able to go to the cafeteria. It was too dangerous. They thought that, maybe, I was going to be poisoned and all sorts of things. People were threatening me.
Q: Did you feel nervous with Mrs. Henry because she was white?
RB: I had encountered white people before, but I had not seen a white teacher before. All of the teachers at my old [all-black] school, in kindergarten, were black. So to have her as a teacher and, to spend that much time with her alone that had not happened to me before. So I didn't know what to expect. But since I had no friends in school, it was only Mrs. Henry and myself.
Q: What was the experience like working alone with Mrs. Henry?
RB: Well, this woman taught me. She read stories to me, played games with me, did art with me just filled my day with things to learn about. I remember one thing that was important to Mrs. Henry was reading. She always read stories to me. And they always took me to a different place. By second grade, I was a great reader. I discovered much later after meeting her again 35 years later that I think I picked up a lot more, from her...even my mannerisms.
Q: What did she teach you that you didn't find in your books?
RB: I learned that she was absolutely nothing like those people outside of the school. And as time went on, I learned that, even though she looked like them, she was different. And I know now that it was because of her heart. I learned that there was no way to judge her the same way as I would judge the people outside of the school simply because she looked like them. So what I took away from that experience is that there's no way you can judge a person before you get to know them. Which is what I say to kids. It's the lesson that Dr. King tried to teach us: that we should never judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Q: Do you believe students can teach their teachers?
RB: Oh, I believe, absolutely, and not only their teachers. Kids are born innocent. And I think if they can be taught to be prejudiced, they can be taught not to be. I believe that if, through my talks at schools, if I reach the kids, they will reach more adults than I could ever reach. Whenever I'm in schools and speaking directly to kids, I can see the faces of the teachers standing around the room. They are amazed at the questions kids stand up and ask me, at the responses the kids give me. Those kids are, at that point, teaching their teachers.
Q: What should teachers do to learn from their students?
RB: Teachers need to be open to learn. They need to be open to learn from all of our children. I think, especially today, a better way of teaching them is to also be in there and learn yourself. I think the day you stop learning is the day you die. And we have to understand that.
Talking With Barbara Henry
Q: You certainly had some personal challenges going into that situation and environment. How did you do it? Did anyone prepare you?
BARBARA HENRY: I was invited, over the phone, by the superintendent of schools of New Orleans on a Saturday morning or a Friday evening to take a first grade class. I asked if it would be one of the integrated schools and he said, "Well, I'm not supposed to tell you, but it is. Would that make any difference to you?" I was stunned then, and still am somewhat incredulous, at that question. I could not imagine that any teacher would need to have that question asked of her. But later I realized why that wasn't so unrealistic, when I found out the woman who was to have been Ruby's teacher resigned rather than face teaching a black child. And I had no preparation whatsoever, other than the conversation with the superintendent. Then, when I got there, there was no one, ever, from the school department to talk to me or offer any kind of support. And certainly not the principal. So I was as much alone as Ruby was in her capacity. But, of course, not on the same level.
Q: What was it like walking into the building that day?
BH: I was not escorted to the front door. I had to walk to the front door all by myself and that was pretty scary. I had to make my way through that mob of people and give my name to the policeman to let me through. It was incredibly threatening.
Q: Was there a point where you just felt "this is too much for me"?
BH: No. In part because I was so irate when I got inside that school. I mean, I was stunned by the magnitude of the demonstrators. But I was especially stunned by the racism inside the school by the faculty, excluding me from their world, and never even greeting Ruby, not once. That made me more angry than anything. So I was determined: I was coming back, no matter what.
Q: What did the classroom look like when you arrived?
BH: I had four bare walls when I came in. The teacher who left took everything down from the walls. So I had a stark brown-and-black room blackboards and brown wood. Ruby and I worked together to decorate it with some of Ruby's work and my own material. We put it together as a real classroom.
Q: What did you think of Ruby?
BH: I was stunned by the beauty of this little child. I was stunned by the contrast between her littleness and her fragileness and beauty coming in amidst these towering giants [the U.S. marshals].
Q: What was Ruby like as a child?
BH: Ruby was an extraordinary little girl. She was a child who exuded, I think, courage. To think that every day she would come to class knowing that she would not have any children to play with, to be with, to talk to, and yet continually she came to school happily, and interested to learn whatever could be offered to her. I think she was a child with an incredible sense of self in that she was strong enough to counter all the obstacles that were put in her way. And each day she would enter class, after having gone through a tumultuous entrance into the school where she was confronted by an incredible number of agitators and protestors. And yet she would come into the school every day with the most wonderful smile on her face, very calmly, quietly, come over, greet me her eyes just dazzling with a sense of wonder.
Q: How did this experience affect your life?
BH: My experience with Ruby was life-altering. It has made me much more understanding and compassionate of children who might be in difficult situations or face unusual challenges. And it also, perhaps more than anything, has been a source of courage for me. Whenever I am faced with something difficult, I'll think if Ruby could do what she did, I guess I can do what is expected of me at this particular moment. It also has made me an ardent proponent of diversity, in making sure children see the importance of meeting people who are different from themselves.
Q: How did the experience change you as a teacher?
BH: Well, it certainly showed me the heights to which children can rise. It certainly increased my awareness of how much you can expect from children and why we should never have low expectations of them. It also changed me as a person. I was shocked to find educated people or supposedly educated people to be so racist. And to be so narrow-minded, and to be so ignorant, really, of humanity, and what people really represent.
Q: How do you think you were a role model for Ruby?
BH: Well, I think I certainly taught her that not all white people would be like the people she saw outside of school. That, certainly, white people, could be interested in her, and could love her, as well as her own people. So I hope that I taught her that. And I think I taught her that she had a friend in me. A friend in a white person. And she felt comfortable and good with me. Which I think, really, was the reason she was able to come to school every day.
Q: Do you believe it's possible for students to teach their teachers?
BH: I think children constantly teach teachers by exposing their inner selves. Because children are so pure and so honest, and so simple. So I think children constantly are teaching teachers lessons of character, honesty, and integrity.
Q: What should teachers do so they can learn from children?
BH: As a teacher you should try to remember that you're there as a coach as a helper all the time, not as a didactic teacher to the child. And I think, in that respect, you can see the total child. I think teachers have to create a sense of community, and a sense of respect for the varieties of lives from which children come. I think you never should tell a child that you expect them to do something untoward. I think you have to motivate them that you expect them to be the models that you really hope they will be. And I think, by setting high standards, children rise to that.
Q: What would you like students and teachers to learn from your unique and difficult situation in 1960?
BH: Children learn from what they see. And if they see the teacher as a compassionate, caring person to every child in the classroom, I think they can take that signal from you, of the worth of every individual. And then I think you constantly have to present to children biographies and models of people who exemplify the nobility of character, and the idea of respect. And you have to present to them the struggles that have gone on in the world before them to realize the opportunities that they have just to go to a school, and the struggles some people have had simply to get an education. You have to be...a model of respect and understanding. And then you have to be a person who offers a child an opportunity for enlarging his world, and seeing the world from different points of view, and in different settings.