Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Little children, local heroes

Ruby Bridges, moral lives of children, Robert Coles, Barton Elementary School

If you asked the twins the worst thing about me, they’d say “she doesn’t remember our birthday.”

Like so much child mythology, of course, this isn’t true. But one year, 1997, I was attending a conference in Boston on their birthday, meeting one of my heroes. I’d sent treats to school. Their dad was with them. Grandma hosted a fine birthday party, with duck and schaum torte (I swear to you, their favorite meal even then). But to this day, every spring, they roll their eyes and look pitifully at me and ask if I’m going to stick around for the event.

The hero I met was Robert Coles, child psychiatrist and the author of The Moral Lives of Children. For years, he and his wife had studied children in crises, exploring the effects of the events of their lives, their fragility and their strengths.

Coles talked that day about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who, flanked by armed United States marshals, integrated Franz Elementary School in New Orleans for the first time.

And now, a group of Milwaukee first graders are helping the world remember Bridges. With the aid of other heroes-- their former teacher Laura Floryance, Representative Gwen Moore, and Senator Russ Feingold -- the  Barton Elementary school class managed to get Congress to do the unthinkable: agree on something. This month, they passed a resolution recognizing Bridge’s courage on November 14, 1960.

I’m surprised that Bridges has been forgotten. But then, I imagine people are still reading books like the ones Coles wrote and trying to find ways to raise children like Ruby Bridges. God knows we talk enough about the ones who aren’t.

What Coles found about children is that they learn mainly by observing what goes on around them. The Bridges family was poor but solid. Church was a big part of their lives because the parents wanted their children to “be near God’s spirit.” And they were blessed with a minister who became Ruby’s role model.

He preached and, more important, showed responsibility in a way that convinced a 6-year-old she could do this very scary thing, walk the gauntlet of cursing, spitting, hating adults, because it would make things better for other children.

He also preached and, more important, modeled forgiveness. Every day, Ruby Bridges prayed not just for herself and her family, but for those around her. If they hated so much, it was because they didn’t know any better, she believed.

Coles thinks service of the kind the Bridges family offered, the kind Floryance and her students continued, is a natural moral impulse. Even infants cry in sympathy when they hear another baby cry. "Unfortunately, a lot of us lose it through education, in the family, and maybe even in the schools,” he wrote.  “We learn to elbow our way to the top, ignoring people to the right and left of us all the time -- this in the name of education. We become people who, as Walker Percy put it, get all 'A's' but flunk ordinary living."

As Ruby’s mother said, “There’s a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what’s good and what’s not good. There are a lot of people who always worry about whether they’re doing right or doing wrong. (Then there are people who) just put their lives on the line for what’s right, and they may not be the ones who talk a lot or argue a lot or worry a lot; they just do a lot.”

Here’s to the doers of good. May we all learn to walk in Ruby's Shoes.


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