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50 years later, I'm still trying to integrate my school

I looked up at her. She was white. Until that day I had never seen a white teacher. She looked exactly like the people who were gathered in that angry crowd.

But she told me to take a seat, and she began to teach me. Though she looked like the people outside, she was nothing like them. She became like a best friend, or like another mother to me. We did more than just study; we played games, did art projects, learned music.

It was just the two of us for the entire year. She never missed a day, and neither did I.

I learned many things from Barbara Henry that year, but the primary lesson was the same one that Martin Luther King tried to teach all of us: Never judge people by the color of their skin.

I stayed at that school through the sixth grade. The most difficult year was second grade, when I had a teacher who had refused to teach me the first year. But every fall, more black students joined me. By the time I left, I seem to recall that William Frantz was about evenly integrated. After the first year, no one really discussed it.

The first time I saw the Rockwell painting, I was about 18 years old. A reporter who had come to the city to interview me showed me the portrait.

When I saw it, I realized that I needed to know more about what had happened and why. My experience at William Frantz wasn't something that we talked about in my family much. My mother had wanted me to be one of the first students to integrate the schools, but my father was resistant to the idea. He had fought in Korea and had seen how, even after a black soldier had been on the battlefield fighting for the same country side by side with a white solider, he was not able to go back to the same barracks or eat in the same mess hall. This disagreement led to conflicts in my parents' marriage and their eventual divorce. So in our family, the subject was dead and buried.

It was not until decades later that I fully understood how much my first-grade year shaped my entire life. And I had that realization, of all places, at William Frantz. I had not given much thought to the events of my childhood until my youngest brother passed away in 1993 and I began looking after his daughters. They happened to be students at William Frantz, and I began volunteering there as a parent liaison. At that difficult time in my life, I felt I had been brought back in touch with my past for some greater cause.

Not long after, a reporter called the school. Psychiatrist Robert Coles had written a children's book, "The Story of Ruby Bridges," and people wanted to know what had happened to the little girl in the painting. No one expected to find me back at my old school.

Since then, I have been telling my story, traveling around the country, meeting students and seeing how the history of the civil rights movement is taught. I believe children are getting an incomplete picture. We teach this important chapter in our country's history as if it were a battle of black vs. white. But there were key figures of all races fighting for civil rights. We need to teach this more complex story. Only with a fuller sense of what happened can we really move forward.

That is part of what motivates me to open a new school now.

After a great deal of work, we were able to get the William Frantz school recognized on the National Register of Historic Places in April 2005. Four months later, Hurricane Katrina struck. At first I thought that all the work had been for nothing. This school I'd fought to preserve was devastated, like so much of New Orleans. The building was badly damaged, and the roof was caving in; there was talk of just tearing the whole thing down. But thanks to our efforts and the school's place in history, we were able to preserve it.

Soon, the Recovery School District will be breaking ground to refurbish William Frantz Elementary.

I will be applying for a charter to turn it into the type of school I have been dreaming about. I hope that students can walk through the same front doors that I made my way through 50 years ago, and enter a school where history is taught in a different way, and where there is a focus on social justice and community service. I believe that a school like this, and a mission like this, will naturally breed the kind of racial diversity that we need in our schools if children are to grow up learning from and understanding one another.

I am hopeful about what the first day will bring.

Ruby Bridges lives in New Orleans and runs the Ruby Bridges Foundation, dedicated to educating children on social justice issues.


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