Opinion: What Ruby Bridges taught me about teaching (2024)

Over my 20-year education career, I have shared the story of Ruby Bridges countless times, always emphasizing her bravery. So when I sat down with Bridges herself last month, as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Commemoration Event at Yale, I expected the conversation to be about her bravery.

Instead, we talked about the fight between good vs. evil.

Opinion: What Ruby Bridges taught me about teaching (1)

Of course, we did. Because Bridges herself doesn’t call herself brave, she called herself a child.

She transported us to the mind of the 6-year-old who became the first Black child to attend an all-white integrated public school. On her walk-in, she experienced yelling, slurs, and a massive energy of hatred from white parents protesting integration. Their reasons weren’t clear to her, but she felt how excited and passionate they were; she thought it was a Mardi Gras parade.

What protected me was the innocence of a child,” Bridges said. The narratives of Black History Month and the Civil Rights Movement commend our heroes for climbing into the behemoth of structural racism and pulling down beams or knocking out walls. We absolutely should commend that.

But in the case of Bridges, she was learning to see racism and knocking it down at the same time, giving us an excellent perspective into how we can talk to children today about race. This burgeoning advocate learned what kind of Goliath she was up against while collecting her stones. How she has committed herself to talking down the giant is uniquely suited for children and educators.

Bridges said later that day a white boy repeated a word he heard from his mother — the n word — saying she told him not to play with Bridges. That, she said, was her introduction to racism, through a fellow 6-year-old who had been taught hate based on skin color by his mother. For Bridges, school taught her what racism is, and from her straightforward 6-year-old mind, saw it simply: racism is hate, and hate is evil.

Not until I heard Bridges’ example of how education is passed down did I remember that young children see things simply. They usually do what their parents ask them, like the boy. They feel emotions before they understand the significance of words or colors, like Bridges. Other educators and I should take this innocence as a model to approach these complex conversations plainly, and ask “Why is it like this?”

In my years as a teacher, school administrator, district leadership, as a father of two, and as the Director of Educational Strategy at the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, I’ve long thought about the best way to talk about hate.

I can pass down the history, the content, or the theory and none of it would neutralize the landscape that Black children walk into today, where even the slightest mention of race gets defenses up and drives the possibility for civil conversation down.

Bridges made clear in her story that racism is learned and a major site of that education is at school. If we want to stop teaching our children to engage in hateful behavior, we need to teach them the skills and give them the space to talk about hate in a civil way.

As a human race, dealing with whatever form hate is in, we need to be able to critique information, understand our emotional reactions to it, see what forces in it are pushing us to engage in hateful behavior, and then act! Teaching our children to do this and assess their emotions is essential to creating complex civil conversations in the future that lead to actions.

Gut reactions and strong emotions close our ears, minds, and hearts. But our children come to the world with ears, minds, and hearts open. They want to have conversations, they recognize and wonder at differences. What this Civil Rights hero has particular insight too, that few others do, is that even when children don’t understand race and politics, they know intuitively what good and evil feel like.

The civil rights work continues at this juncture in a child’s education. Let’s give them the tools to sit with differences, teach them that disagreement does not mean it’s a bad conversation, and even painful conversations are worth having.

If Bridges learned in the schoolyard that her skin color was the object of hate, surely playgrounds of the present can be used to teach that difference is the object of love.

We must take this opportunity to teach them to see differences as human beauty, and unlike many adults in this world right now, teach them to see difference not as a threat or invalidation, but as a site of discovery, curiosity, and respect.

William (Billy) Johnson is the Director of Educational Strategy, William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund.

Opinion: What Ruby Bridges taught me about teaching (2024)

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