It was a typical library trip: well-meaning, part educational/part mental health boost to get us out of the house, started well but quickly disintegrated. The kids rounded up books and perused the movies (they’re old school and like to watch DVD’s) and then fought over the computers as I shooshed them and gave them the ‘mom glare’ from across the way. The toddler dumped out a puzzle box. The oldest lamented that all the good series are always harder to find as you read further into them.
Somewhere along the way I wandered through the non-fiction and grabbed a few books. Two were on the topic of Ruby Bridges, a name I had heard but couldn’t place. The other was Walter Dean Meyers’ Now is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom, a book I regularly check out and try to read a bit farther each time. These books made it to the bag and the check out and ended up on our three level library shelf at home. And there they sat.
A week later I picked up “The Story of Ruby Bridges” and read it to Tess, my five year old. Ruby Bridges was a first grade student who was part of the integration of public schools in New Orleans in 1960. She was African-American, and part of a group of four students who were allowed to attend white schools that year (ordered by a judge, protected by U.S Marshals…it’s intense and complicated and I don’t mean to minimize it with that brief summary). Her story is amazing (her courage) and shameful (the mobs who protested and yelled at her) and encouraging (the beginning of equality) and disheartening (what is wrong with the world???) I read of Ruby’s story, of how she prayed for her oppressors, and then I closed the book with tears in my eyes.
A few days later, Tessa asked to read it again. So we did. And again and again.
I think there’s a tendency to gloss over the parts of our history that we aren’t proud of, or to try to explain them in a way that justifies the actions. I don’t want to offer that narrative to my kids. I believe you can love a country that has faults, just as you can love a person with faults. But I also believe that many people are confused about the state of our country because they refuse to acknowledge the complexity and the evil that is present in our history. This was 1960. A child was trying to walk into school. People were threatening her life. This is not a moment in history that we should ignore, justify, or be proud of. It’s a moment we should truthfully acknowledge.
But back to Tessa. We’ve read this book several times, and I think it resonated with her because she is five (just one year younger than Ruby) and because Ruby looked like someone she would want to befriend. That’s Tessa’s way, really, making friends wherever we go. At Burger King play place or the library or waiting around at her brother’s soccer game, Tessa’s eyes roam the room to find a new friend.
At the same time, we’ve been reading a chapter book called Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. This is the modern day story of a young girl living in Florida who is trying to adjust to a new city, make sense of her mother’s absence, and forge friendships with a unique group of people, all who are dealing with their own sorrow. The theme of the book is truly lovely, that the world is not an easy place to be, that pain makes some of us difficult to love, but that people are worth being loved in the midst of it.
Hang with me- this connects, I promise.
At one point in the book, a character introduces the main character, Opal, to a candy (the Littmus Lozenge) that has a mysterious ingredient: sorrow. When you eat this candy, it gives you a feeling that hails back to an ache in you. To some the candy tastes like loved ones leaving, to another it tastes like being in jail. To Opal and her father, the candy reminds them of her mom. It’s an interesting idea, and a literary tool that helps to delve into what these characters are really carrying.
Back to our house. Last night, while doing absolutely nothing after dinner, Tessa turned to me and said, “Mom, I think the Littmus Lozenge would taste like how people treated Ruby Bridges.”
Oh, friends, this is what I want for my kids. I want to them to hear many voices in the story of history. I want them to hurt with people who were wronged (not just people who were wronged who look like them). I want them to internalize some of it, to feel for others, to develop empathy and a deep understanding. I want them to think of the oppressed as real people, as first graders with pigtails, as dads with kids, as neighbors and sons and friends and moms doing laundry.
Sometimes I worry about how to prepare kids to navigate a world that is rapidly changing. How can I prepare them for a landscape that is shifting all around us? How do you give them a map and teach them by it when it will seem outdated by the time they’re on their own? But this I know, that true compassion, true love based on the value of every human being worthy of respect and made in the image of God, that is not a passing trend but a truth that will see them through.
So we’re aiming for that round here. Some days it seems impossible (how will they ever love the world when they can’t even get along with their siblings?) But steady on, we go. I’ll keep checking out books and offering others’ voices and choking up as I read stories that sadden and stir and inspire. We’ll sit in the midst of this brokenness, not hiding from it or explaining it away, but honoring the courage of those who went before us. And hopefully their courage will be contagious and our love will be equal to the challenges ahead.
Steady on, friends.
*Book note: The books I mentioned were: Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges (an incredible collection of actual photographs and primary sources) and The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, Illustrated by George Ford (a solid but kid-friendly account, which also includes many quotes from actual people in the story.)