What a Six-Year-Old Taught Her Psychiatrist About Dissolving the Power of Hate

July 14th, 2017

It never occurred to psychiatrist Robert Coles that a poor, black six-year-old girl might know more about coping effectively with stress than he did. When he watched Ruby Bridges on the television news, flanked by burly federal marshals, passing through a shouting mob on her way to and from elementary school, he assumed that she needed psychological help and that he could give it to her.

It was the fall of 1960. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that public schools must allow black and white students to attend classes together, instead of segregating them as they were doing. Six years later, a federal judge pressured schools in New Orleans to follow the new rules and allow black students to attend the formerly all-white schools. So six-year-old Ruby Bridges started classes at William T. Frantz School.

The neighborhood erupted in angry demonstrations. All the other parents boycotted the school, refusing to allow their children to attend.

Every day Ruby attended class all by herself. And every day a mob gathered outside the school, screaming curses, spitting at the little girl, shaking their fists, and threatening to kill her. The local police refused to protect her, so the federal government provided marshals to escort Ruby to and from class every day.

Robert Coles had studied stress in children who had polio at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He had presented a paper with his conclusions to the American Psychiatric Association. When Coles saw Ruby’s daily ordeal, he wanted to study her response to stress, too. He thought he could write another paper and possibly do a good deed as well, helping her cope. So Coles contacted Ruby’s parents through the NAACP and started visiting her family twice a week, looking for symptoms of turmoil.

But Ruby seemed to be sleeping fine. Her appetite was normal. And she played well with friends in the neighborhood when she came home from school. Her first grade teacher said the little girl didn’t seem upset at school either. “I don’t understand this child,” she said. “Ruby seems so happy. She comes here so cheerfully.”

“Well, I’m a little puzzled myself,” Coles said, “but I think that sometimes people under tremendous stress gird themselves mightily , and it can take time to find out just how upset they are.”

His explanation seemed less and less convincing, though, when he watched the way Ruby and her parents carried on as the weeks and months passed.

“Here was a girl who was six years old,” Coles wrote later, “whose parents were extremely poor, were illiterate so that they did not even know how to sign their names. They were going through tremendous strain, day after day, and they did not seem to be complaining, parents or child.

“What a contrast with the well-to-do middle-class people I had seen in Boston whose children, for one reason or another – all of them white, by the way – were having all sorts of difficulties. Now, how do you explain that? I would ask myself. And I did not know how to explain that.”

Then one day Ruby’s first grade teacher told Coles that she had seen Ruby stop to talk to the people in the mob on her way to class. Later, Coles asked Ruby about it. “I wasn’t talking to them,” Ruby said. “I was just saying a prayer for them.”

“Why?” Coles asked, astonished.

“Because they need praying for, she said. “Because I should.”

Coles kept asking questions, but the only explanation Ruby gave was, “Because I should.”

Ruby’s parents overheard the conversation and explained that they told their daughter it was important for her to pray for the people in the mob. Ruby prayed for them every night as part of her bed time routine.

Later Coles learned that Ruby’s Sunday School teacher taught her the same thing, and that the pastor of her church prayed for the people in the mob every Sunday. Publicly. “I don’t understand why this girl should be praying for those people,” Coles told his wife. “She’s got enough to bear without that.”

“That’s you speaking,” his wife said. “Maybe she feels differently.”

Then his wife developed an imaginary scenario of Coles trying to go into the Harvard Faculty Club through a shouting mob. “What would you do?”

The two of them agreed that Coles would definitely not pray for the people. First, he would call the police. (Ruby couldn’t call the police. They sided with the mob.) Then he would get a lawyer. (Ruby had no means to get a lawyer.)

“The third thing I would do would be to turn immediately on this crowd with language and knowledge,” Coles said. “Who are these people, anyway? They are sick. They are marginal, sociologically, economically, psycho-socially, socio-culturally, and psycho-historically.” (Ruby had no big words like these to turn on the mob.)

After that discussion, Coles asked Ruby again why she should pray for the people who cursed her every day. “Well, especially it should be me,” she said, “because if you’re going through what they’re doing to you, you’re the one who should be praying for them.”

Then Ruby explained that her pastor had told her that when Jesus was beaten and crucified, he had prayed for the people mistreating him: “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

In the end, Coles concluded, “The great paradox that Christ reminded us about is that sometimes those who are lonely and hurt and vulnerable – meek to use the word – are touched by grace and can show the most extraordinary kind of dignity, and in that sense, inherit not only the next world, but even at times moments of this one. We who have so much knowledge and money and power look on confused…”

Today’s prayer: “Lord, I need what Ruby and her parents had. I choose to forgive, but I need Your power to do it.” Amen.

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