A Visit to McKinley Elementary

Although the DC area has recently had its share of snow days (read school closings) I managed to pay a visit to my granddaughrer's class at McKinley Elementary School in Arlington, on one of the very few days when the school stuck to a normal schedule. Ms. Braeuer, the second-grade teacher, had invited me to come discuss Harriet Tubman.

We talked about Harriet, the conductor on the Underground Railroad. (Early introduction to the concept of metaphor.)

We talked about Harriet, the Civil War army nurse, spy, and chef. (Her pie-making was legendary. Her record was fifty pies in an evening.)

We talked about Harriet, the powerful orator and advocate for civil rights and women’s suffrage. (She counted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as friends.)

We talked about Harriet, the caretaker for the aged. (She ran a home for senior citizens on her property in Auburn, New York.)

And we talked about making brave choices, taking risks, and putting others first.

That led to what it means to leave a mark—and to make a difference. I asked who were African Americans who might have been influenced by Harriet.

The children were quick to respond: “Martin Luther King.” “Jackie Robinson.” “Rosa Parks.”

I added Ruby Bridges to the list. I had just seen the painting “The Problem We All Live With” at the George Washington University Museum. The traveling exhibit, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, is titled “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms" and is curated by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett and James J. Kimble. The painting captures a pivotal moment in American history after a federal court had ordered Louisiana to desegregate its schools. That was 1960. The painting is a portrait of Ruby Bridges, who at the age of six was the first African American to attend William Frantz Elementary, an all-white public school in New Orleans. The other parents (all white) took their children out. For one year, Ruby was the only child in the entire school to attend class.

Ruby's face—its innocence coupled with determination—takes your breath away.

Her is hair pulled back in a white bow, and she is wearing a white dress, white socks and shoes. The deputy U.S. marshals are portrayed only from the neck down. A red tomato is splattered on the wall behind her.

President Obama asked to have the painting hang outside the Oval Office in the White House. In 2011, he invited Ruby Bridges, then in her 50s, to view the painting. Laurie Moffat, the Norman Rockwell Museum director who was with them, recalls the president saying to Ruby, “I look at this and I know that I owe a lot to you and your parents—that I wouldn’t be standing here if this incident hadn’t happened first.”

Ruby Bridges answered, “We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”

We are standing now on Harriet’s shoulders.