Area students heard a firsthand account of what life was like in the 1960s when Ruby Bridges told of her experiences, according to Anne Amrhein, Batesville Intermediate School and Batesville Middle School librarian.
Bridges was one of the first African American children to desegregate an American elementary school, Amrhein revealed. In November 1960, armed federal marshals escorted the 6-year-old to her first-grade classroom in New Orleans amid parent protest, name calling and physical threats. She spent that entire year alone, the only child in a classroom with her teacher, Mrs. Henry. The white parents had pulled over 500 students out of school because of her.
“Ruby spoke with students from BIS, BMS, Batesville High School and grades 3-6 from St. Louis School Jan. 14, 15 and 16. The Friday (Jan. 17) presentation for Oldenburg Academy and SLS grades 7-8 was cancelled due to inclement weather. We will try to reschedule.
“Her two-hour presentations were leveled for grade-appropriateness and designed specifically for students and staff. Each presentation was for 300 students or less and included a short video, interactive talk, slides and a question and answer period. Ruby requested no media coverage prior to or during her visit, and only students and staff were invited. This ensured a program just for the students, with no distractions,” the librarian noted.
During her talks, Amrhein said the speaker urged students to “‘give people a chance .... The most important thing is to be a good friend. No matter what they look like, what matters is what kind of friend they are.’”
She also told BHS teens, “‘You have so much on your plate today. Why would you add bullying and racism to it?’”
Amrhein said she received an e-mail from a parent after her fourth- and fifth-graders saw Bridges. It read, “Last night, the kids just talked and talked about seeing her and listening to her speak .... I haven’t seen them this excited in a long time, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your effort in creating this experience. I’ve been trying to express to them what an opportunity and honor it is to meet Ms. Bridges and have her share her story.”
In a letter to Bridges, a fourth-grader wrote, “Thank you for being a hero. You changed my life ... because if you did not do what you did I would never have met some of my friends, and then I would not be the person I am.”
Another fourth-grade student, Solomon, wrote, “I like the message ‘give others a chance.’ It inspires me to not judge. I want to read your book again! P.S., I’m the guy that hugged you and said, ‘Thank you sooooo much!’”
Another student pointed out, “‘She was amazing!’”
Amrhein reported after almost every presentation she heard students say something similar to “your words mean so much to me. I struggle with bullying and/or friendship. Now I know I’ll be OK.”
Teachers were also excited, saying, “‘It was amazing to see my history lesson from yesterday standing right there today, in front of us, living and breathing and sharing her story! .... She really made the kids think about what the Civil Rights Movement was and gave them the time to think, to think what it must have been like for her .... She was so approachable, just like she seems in her book. I can’t believe I hugged Ruby Bridges!’”
Bridges’ assistant emphasized, “‘Ruby Bridges has an important place in American history. She helps others see the injustices of judging people by the color of their skin through her books and her presentations .... (She) believes strongly in literacy and the power of education as she brings her message of tolerance, respect and appreciation of all differences. She speaks on faith, forgiveness, race and her experiences with desegregation.’”
The story of her first-grade year is featured in the Disney movie “Ruby Bridges,” her book “Through my Eyes” and in “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles. Norman Rockwell featured her in his painting “The Problem we all Live With,” which is on display at the White House. More information can be found at www.rubybridges.com.
Her visit was made possible through funding from the John W. Hillenbrand Vision Fund, Ripley County Community Foundation, Rural Alliance for the Arts, Batesville Community Education Foundation and several local benefactors.
Diane Raver can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 114.