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Ruby Bridges was just a little girl when armed federal marshals walked her into her New Orleans elementary school for her first day of kindergarten. She was so innocent, she thought the screams from the angry crowds were part of some sort of Mardi Gras celebration.

She spent the day in the principal’s office. All the white parents had pulled their children from school. She didn’t have a teacher until one woman volunteered and Ruby spent the entire yearasthe only child in that teacher’s class.

The image of Ruby who had the challengeof integrating a white school set squarely upon her small shoulders simply because she was smart enough to pass a challenging entrance exam was immortalized in 1964 in a painting by Norman Rockwell. His famous portrait “The Problem We All Live With,” depictedthegirlin her Sunday best, walking innocently betweenuniformedmen whose job it was to protect heras she walked into school.

Whether that child was brave, Ruby Bridges hardly remembers. But when we spoke by phone this week, it was clear that the woman surely is.

Shehas devoted her life to making sure people remember the ugly hatred that was spewed upon herduring her first year atWilliam Frantz Elementary School. On Wednesday, shewill share her story with students, staff and visitors atNiagara University as part ofthe school’sMartin Luther King Day celebrations.

She and I hada conversation I won’t soon forget. We talked about many things, including what it’s like to be the subject of a Disney movie, about meeting President Barack Obama and about her grandson who, as a child, was bullied in his nearly all black elementary school for being “too white.”

Ruby Bridges is a civil rights icon, but that role means a lifetime of standing before largeaudiences and recallingthedevastating hatred that pockmarked her childhood. It means undergoingrelentless media interviews with reporters asking pretty much the same questions over and over, and it means having tokeep the dark stories of her childhood in the forefront of her mindby telling them again and again to audiences who need to hear it.

I asked her waswhether she would give it all up to have had a normallife.

“Right now, I thinkIwould have to say ‘no,'” she said. She worked on the set for about eight weeks as a consultant while the film, “Ruby Bridges,” was made.

She recalledwalkingonto the set as they were shooting a scene where the little girl looks out the window of a car andsees the angry crowds.

“I stood there and all of a sudden,
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here comes the car,” Ruby told me,describing how she and the girl caught each other’s eyes. “This chill kind of came over me. It was like literally watching your life passing by.”

I asked her if she was angry about what was done to Ruby Bridges, the child.

“I’m not angry about it,” she said. “I’m more angry about the fact that now, as an adult, we are still doing that to children.”

Despite the challenges of her life, there are perks to being the grown Ruby Bridges. She had the chance to meet President Obama when the Norman Rockwell painting was loaned to the White House to mark the 50th anniversary of her first day of school.

There were only about 10 people in the room when the president came in and she reached out to shake his hand.

“He put his hands on his hips and said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,’ and then he put his arms around me and whispered in my ear, ‘It is such an honor to have you here,'” she said.

People in the room were tearing up at the meeting of two such significant Americans, one who was the icon of civil rights and the other the first African American president.

“It’s wasn’t just he and I meeting,” she said, “It was time and history.”

The little girl lives on through the grown Ruby Bridges.

“Most of my life is driven by that little girl,” she said. “It’salmost like she keeps saying, ‘if you just explain it to them the way that I’m telling you, they’ll get it.'”
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