The New Student
(by Frédéric Colas)
This remarkable story has roots in Massachusetts. Growing up in West Roxbury, Barbara attended the Girl's Latin school and then high school where she joined a diverse student body. After college, she became a teacher and went on to teach the children of Air Force personnel for two years in Europe.
Upon returning to the US, Barbara and her husband lived in New Orleans. They had only been there two months when she received a call from the school superintendant offering her a teaching job. A local school was embroiled in a controversy about a new student being admitted to the school. Her kindergarten teacher had refused to teach her and had resigned from the school, leaving one post to be filled. However, no one was willing to take the position. That is, no one until Barbara.
She made teaching this little girl her mission and the two never missed a day at school. Such was the outrage/controversy surrounding the new little girl that not a single parent allowed their child to be in the same class. For a whole year, Barbara and the little girl were alone in the classroom. In order to protect Barbara, her name was kept secret. But as a Northerner in a Southern school, she was an outsider, and as she recalls it, there was quiet hostility within the walls of the school. It was a stark contrast to the chaos the little girl faced outside the school. Every morning the little girl had to be escorted safely to school because of the angry parents shouting outside of the school. The controversy had negative repercussions on her parents. They had to change jobs. A child psychiatrist offered help. For those in the country who did not have a TV set and couldn't picture the daily scene, a painting was made for Look Magazine of the little girl being escorted to school. Yet amid all this sound and fury, the two carried on and the little girl graduated.
Today this little girl is no longer surrounded by controversy, but admiration for her composure, bravery and moral resilience in the face of bigotry. Her name is forever linked to and, inseparable from those early school days in our collective memory. Yet few people know or remember how instrumental her teacher was in that landmark moment in the civil rights movement. She was one of many unspoken heroes whose anonymous actions helped our nation change when change was hard.
Of course this story would not be complete if we did not add that:
- The year was 1960: six years after Brown vs. Education had outlawed segregation in US schools.
- The school was the newly integrated William Frantz Public School.
- The painting was Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Must Live with."
- The girl in the painting was Ruby Bridges. She was six years old.
- The teacher was Mrs. Barbara Henry