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The Unstoppable Ruby Bridges

The inspiring true story of a 6-year-old girl who became an American hero

By Spencer Kayden
From the February 2017 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will explore the theme of courage in a historical-fiction play.

Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
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Theme

One big idea in this play is that it takes courage to make changes. As you read, look for how Ruby had courage.

Prologue

Historian 1: Our play takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960.

Historian 2: Throughout the South at that time, Black people were kept separate from White people.

H1: Black children weren’t allowed to attend White schools.

H2: This was unfair because the White schools had better conditions. They had more teachers, bigger classrooms, and newer supplies.

H1: Some people wanted children of all races to go to school together. They thought the schools should be integrated.

H2: But many White parents wanted things to stay the same. They planned to protest at White schools to stop Black students from entering.

H1: In this fight for fairness, one brave girl led the way.

Paul Slade/Paris Match via Getty Images

A STEP FORWARD

Ruby with her parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges. Ruby’s dad was worried about sending her to an all-White school, but her mom convinced him it would be an important step forward—not just for Ruby, but for all Black children.

Scene 1 

Narrator 1: Ruby is in the small bedroom she shares with her younger siblings.

Ruby: Let’s play school. I’m the teacher!

Michael: You always get to be the teacher.

Ruby: I’m the oldest.

Narrator 2: Ruby finds a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil. She writes the alphabet.

Ruby: I’ll point to a letter, and you tell me what it is.

Joana: A, B, C

Ruby: Good.

Michael: D, F

Ruby: Try again.

Michael: E!

Ruby: Yes! E for excellent!

N1: There is a knock at the front door. Ruby’s parents answer.

Sheila: Hello, I’m Sheila. I’d like to talk to you about Ruby.

Mr. Bridges: Is something wrong?

Sheila: Not at all. This past spring, Ruby was one of more than 100 Black kindergartners to take a placement test.

Mrs. Bridges: Yes.

Sheila: Only six students passed that test. Ruby was one of them.

Mr. Bridges: What does that mean?

Sheila: She can attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, which is a better school and closer to your home.

Mr. Bridges: Isn’t that the White school? Those folks don’t want us there.

Sheila: Sir, a judge has ruled that keeping Black children in separate schools is illegal. They deserve the same rights as White children.

Mr. Bridges: I heard the governor on the news. He said he’d go to jail before he’d allow Black kids in a White school.

Sheila: He may feel that way, but school segregation is ending. And your daughter could be one of the first Black children to help that happen.

Mr. Bridges: There will be a lot of angry people outside that school. You want my little girl to walk past a shouting mob just to get to class?

Sheila: Sir, we can only get rid of discrimination if there are people willing to stand up for what’s right.

Mr. Bridges: It’s one thing to ask me to fight for equal rights, but Ruby is only 6 years old!

Sheila: We will make sure nothing happens to her.

Mrs. Bridges: We’ll talk it over and let you know.

Sheila: Just think of it—Ruby would be a hero for Black children throughout the South.

Scene 2

N2: One night weeks later, Mrs. Bridges is tucking Ruby in.

Ruby: Good night, Mama.

Mrs. Bridges: Good night.

Ruby: Why are you in your work clothes?

Mrs. Bridges: I’ve got a job tonight. While you are sleeping, I’ll be cleaning that big hotel downtown.

Ruby: I wish you didn’t have to go.

Mrs. Bridges: Me too, sweetie, me too.

N1: Mrs. Bridges turns out the light and joins Mr. Bridges in the kitchen.

Mrs. Bridges: I can’t stop thinking about that William Frantz Elementary. It sure looks nice—big and clean.

Mr. Bridges: I don’t think we should send Ruby to a school where she’s not wanted.

Mrs. Bridges: The school she’s at now is crumbling. The kids are crammed in dirty rooms. There aren’t enough desks. The books are falling apart.

Mr. Bridges: You think having shiny new books is going to change her life?

Mrs. Bridges: A better education will lead to better jobs.

N2: Mr. Bridges sighs heavily.

Mrs. Bridges: Remember where I was the day before Ruby was born? I was in the fields with a 90-pound bag of cotton on my back.

Mr. Bridges: No one ever promised us an easy life.

Mrs. Bridges: I’m not talking about easy, I’m talking about opportunities. This could mean a better life for our kids.

Scene 3

N1: One Sunday night that fall, Mrs. Bridges has news for Ruby.

Mrs. Bridges: Ruby, you’ll be starting a new school tomorrow.

Ruby: What about my friends?

Mrs. Bridges: You’ll make new friends, honey.

N2: In the morning, Mrs. Bridges ties a pretty bow in Ruby’s hair.

Mrs. Bridges: Are you ready?

N1: Ruby nervously tugs at the stiff collar of her dress.

Mrs. Bridges: Now, Ruby, there might be a lot of people outside the school, but you don’t need to be afraid. I’ll be with you.

N2: There is a knock at the door. The Bridges are surprised to see four White men in suits and yellow armbands. Ruby hides behind her father.

Mr. Bridges: Yes?

Marshal 1: We are here to take Ruby to school, sir.

Mr. Bridges: Where is Sheila?

Marshal 2: We’re U.S. Marshals. The judge thought it would be safer if we protected your daughter.

N1: Ruby’s father turns to her mother.

Mr. Bridges: What if the crowd tries to hurt her? It’s not too late to change our minds.

N2: Mrs. Bridges has a pained look on her face.

Marshal 1: We will stay with Ruby all day, ma’am. We will keep her safe.

Mrs. Bridges: All right. Let’s go ahead.

AP photo

RUBY THE BRAVE

Ruby marching down the school steps with U.S. Marshals. Her courage made news around the country, inspiring hundreds of Americans to send her encouraging letters, toys, books, and clothes

Scene 4

N1: The marshal who is driving grips the steering wheel tightly.

Marshal 2: Mrs. Bridges, let us get out of the car first, then you go. We will surround you and your daughter.

Marshal 1: We want you to look straight ahead and not turn back.

Mrs. Bridges: Yes, sir.

N2: Mrs. Bridges squeezes Ruby’s hand.

Mrs. Bridges: You got that, Ruby?

Ruby: Yes, Mama. Look straight ahead and not back.

N1: They pull up in front of the school. There are policemen everywhere.

N2: A huge crowd is gathered behind barricades.

Ruby: Why are those people waving and shouting? Is this a parade?

Mrs. Bridges: No, sweetie. It’s not a parade.

N1: When they step out of the car, the shouts grow even louder.

N2: The crowd is yelling at Ruby to go home.

N1: Ruby walks between the marshals. Her eyes point straight ahead.

N2: As Ruby enters the school, a White parent sees her and gasps.

N1: The parent storms out the door, holding her son by the wrist.

N2: Other White parents stream through the halls and take their children home.

N1: They do not want their children in school with a Black child.

Bettmann/Getty Images (angry crowd); Bettmann/Getty Images (Daisy & Yolanda)

THE CRUEL CROWD

Angry crowds gathered outside the school each day to protest Ruby’s arrival. They also taunted the few White parents who continued sending their children to school, like Daisy Gabrielle (right, with her daughter Yolanda and a police protector).

Scene 5

N2: Ruby is brought into her classroom. There are no other kids, just a sea of empty desks and chairs.

Ruby (quietly): Are we too early?

N1: A woman comes over and greets them warmly.

Mrs. Henry: You are right on time. I’m Mrs. Henry, your teacher.

Ruby: Hello.

Mrs. Henry: Ruby, why don’t you sit at this desk in the front, and I’ll sit right next to you. Do you like books?

Ruby: Yes, ma’am.

N2: She hands Ruby a beautiful picture book. They spend the day reading, drawing, and singing songs.

H2: At the end of that first day, the crowd outside is even larger and louder. There are reporters and cameras filming.

N1: The crowd keeps shouting at Ruby to go home and stay home.

N2: The marshals bring Ruby home. The police have set up more barricades on Ruby’s block. She and her siblings jump rope outside.

Michael: How was school?

Ruby: OK, I guess.

Joana: How many friends do you have?

Ruby: None. I’m the only one in the class.

Michael: Why?

N1: Ruby stares at the policeman standing guard at the end of her street.

Ruby: I don’t know.

Paul SLADE/Paris Match via Getty Images

LONELY FOR FRIENDS

Ruby loved going to school with Mrs. Henry, but she was lonely for other kids. As soon as she got home, she would run outside to play with friends from her neighborhood.

Scene 6

H1: Ruby spends the next few months alone in class with Mrs. Henry. She is lonely.

N1: Ruby goes to sharpen her pencil and looks out the window at the empty playground.

Ruby: Where are all the kids?

Mrs. Henry: It’s hard to explain. Some people just aren’t ready for change.

Ruby: Will I ever have any friends to play with?

Mrs. Henry: Ruby, the other children will come back to school eventually.

Ruby: When?

Mrs. Henry: I don’t know, dear. But they’ll come.

H2: As the school year goes on, more and more White children return to school.

H1: At first, they are kept away from Ruby. But Mrs. Henry insists they spend time in her class.

N2: Ruby approaches a White boy excitedly and says hi.

Ruby: Want to draw pictures with me?

N1: The boy says he can’t. His mom doesn’t want him to play with her.

N2: Ruby’s eyes grow wide. Suddenly, she understands everything—the angry crowds, the marshals, her empty classroom.

N1: After school, Ruby talks to her mother.

Ruby: All this fuss has been about the color of my skin?

Mrs. Bridges: That’s right.

N2: Ruby thinks for a moment.

Ruby: Am I really that different from White people?

Mrs. Bridges: No, sweet girl. We are all just human beings. And slowly, things are starting to change. You are helping that happen.

Ruby: How?

Mrs. Bridges: By being the smart, brave girl who marches up the steps to William Frantz Elementary every morning. You are showing the world that you deserve to be there.

Ruby: I just want to learn and have friends.

Mrs. Bridges: You will, Ruby. I promise you will.

Epilogue

H2: Schools in New Orleans gradually became more integrated.

H1: When Ruby started second grade, there were other Black students in her school.

H2: She had friends of different races.

H1: But the fight for equality continues even today.

H2: Ruby is now a grown woman with children and grandchildren of her own.

H1: She travels to schools around the country telling her story.

H2: She will never stop working to end racism and make sure that all children are given the chance to succeed. 

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More About the Story

Skills

theme, fluency, domain-specific vocabulary, text features, summarizing, plot, key detail, inference, cause and effect, main idea, synthesizing, interpreting text, opinion writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

This play has two purposes: to relate an important event in the civil rights movement, and to highlight how the courage of one girl made a change.

Structure

The play is mainly chronological, with a prologue to provide background and context and an epilogue to provide further information.

Language

The play includes some terms related to the civil rights movement that might be unfamiliar, such as segregation and integration.

Knowledge Demands 

Some familiarity with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s will be helpful.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Domain-Specific Vocabulary  (15 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • The highlighted vocabulary in this play has to do with the civil rights movement. Play our vocabulary slideshow to introduce terms and to build background about Ruby Bridges’s world. 
  • Distribute our vocabulary activity sheet to reinforce learning and give students a chance to practice using new words. 
  • Highlighted terms: civil rights (in character box), integrated, protest, illegal, segregation, discrimination, equal rights, equality, racism 

Set a Purpose for Reading/ Preview Text Features (10 minutes)

  •  Call on a student to read the Up Close box on page 21. 
  • Put students in groups to preview the text features. Ask them to think about the Up Close prompt—how Ruby showed courage—as they look at the photos and captions. 
  • Ask groups to predict how Ruby will be brave in the play, based on the pictures.

2. Reading the Play

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)

Assign parts and read the play aloud as a class. After reading, ask students to answer the close-reading questions in groups. Then regroup to discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes)

  • Reread the prologue. In what ways did people in the South disagree about the schools children should attend? (summarizing) Some people thought children of all races should go to school together, instead of having separate schools for white students and black students. Others wanted children to stay in separate—and unequal—schools. 
  • In Scene 1, how does Mr. Bridges react to the news that Ruby could go to William Frantz Elementary? Why? (plot) Mr. Bridges is concerned because he knows some people will not want an African-American girl in the white school. He is afraid that angry people might hurt Ruby. 
  • Why does Sheila think Ruby should attend William Frantz? (key detail) Sheila thinks Ruby could help make schools better for African-American children all over the South. 
  • What details in Scenes 1 and 2 tell you that Ruby’s family doesn’t have a lot of money? How does this affect Mrs. Bridges? (inference/ cause and effect) Details include: Ruby shares a small bedroom with her siblings; she writes with “a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil”; Mrs. Bridges has to work late at night cleaning hotel rooms; she was working in a cotton field the night before Ruby was born. Mrs. Bridges wants her children to have better jobs and more opportunities, so she is in favor of Ruby going to a better school. 
  • Reread Scene 4 and look at the photos and captions on page 23. What made Ruby’s going to school an act of bravery? (main idea) To go to school, Ruby had to pass by huge crowds of angry people shouting at her and saying they didn’t want her there. She had to be protected by U.S. marshals so the crowd wouldn’t hurt her. Yet she walked straight into school. 
  • In Scene 5, how does Ruby feel about being the only student in her class? How do you know? (inference) Ruby feels confused. When Michael asks her why she’s the only one there, she replies, “I don’t know.” 
  • What does Ruby realize in Scene 6 when she talks to Sam? How do you think she feels? (plot) Ruby realizes that the reason no other children have been in her class and mobs have been at the school is because she is African-American. She probably feels hurt, sad, and confused. 
  • Both Mrs. Bridges and Mrs. Henry assure Ruby that people will change. How does the epilogue show you that they were right? (synthesizing) The epilogue explains that children of different races came back to school when Ruby was in second grade. Schools in New Orleans became more integrated.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • In Scene 6, Mrs. Bridges tells Ruby, “We are all just human beings.” Explain what she means. (interpreting text) She means that people are basically the same, no matter what color skin they have. It’s what’s inside us that makes us who we are. 
  • Think about the title of this play. How was Ruby Bridges “unstoppable”? (main idea) Many people tried to stop Ruby from going to a school where she had a right to go. They yelled angry and mean comments at her, and they made her arrival at school so unsafe she had to be protected by U.S. marshals. They made her feel lonely and confused by keeping their children out of school, so Ruby was the only child in her class. But despite all these obstacles, Ruby kept going to school and learning. That’s how she was unstoppable. 

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Theme

  • Have students complete the theme activity to help them respond to the writing prompt on page 25.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Gather your struggling readers in a small group to read the play together with them. Pause at the end of each scene to review what happened. Then ask students to predict what they think will happen next. 

For Advanced Readers

Have students do research to find out about the Little Rock Nine, the nine African American students who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957. Ask students to compare and contrast the Little Rock students’ experience with that of Ruby Bridges.

For ELL Students

Be sure to use our vocabulary slideshow to introduce words and historical background that your English language learners might not know. Pause to discuss each term and what is going on in the images.

For Choice Time

Make copies of the activities in our Core Skills Workout: theme, character, and setting. After reading the play together as a class, give students an opportunity to choose one, two, or all three of the activities to complete on their own.