Keeper of the Flame

updated 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

I THOUGHT IT WAS MARDI GRAS," SAYS RUBY BRIDGES HALL, remembering wryly the November morning in 1960 when she was led into New Orleans' William Frantz Elementary School for her first day of first grade. All around her were contorted white faces, many chanting "Two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate!" which she innocently thought was a harmless rhyme. Says Hall, now 41: "I had no idea it was all about me."

With a ribbon in her hair and a peanut-butter sandwich in her lunchbox, Ruby Nelle Bridges walked unwittingly into history. By court order, she had been chosen as one of four black students—all girls—to integrate the New Orleans public school system. For months, in the company of armed federal marshals, she faced not just an angry white mob but an empty classroom: All the other children had been removed from school by their parents, who were either outraged or intimidated by the volatile climate. Poised and serene, Ruby became a national celebrity, a symbol of grace under fire immortalized in one of Norman Rockwell's most powerful paintings.

Inevitably, Hall soon faded into obscurity, growing up into a happily married, middle-class mother of four sons. But for years, she was nagged by a belief that her past had marked her for a more meaningful calling. "You just can't let that die," she says of her childhood. "It happened for a reason."

Only recently has Hall found her mission—fittingly, at William Frantz Elementary School, which is now 100-percent black and serves New Orleans' impoverished Ninth Ward. Since school opened this fall, Hall has worked there as a parent liaison, trying to get mothers and fathers more involved in their children's education. In 1994 she established the Ruby Bridges Educational Foundation to assist needy students and improve school facilities. Her financial angel is Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatry professor and author Robert Coles, 66, with whom she shares a special bond.

As an Air Force psychiatrist stationed in Biloxi, Miss., Coles was caught in a traffic jam caused by the angry mob outside Frantz Elementary. Fighting through the crowd, he was deeply moved when he saw Ruby, and he vowed to get to know her. Coles, still in the Air Force, spent the next three years as the girl's counselor, discussing her ordeal and at times asking her to express her feelings by drawing pictures. Those sessions inspired his life's work—and several books—dealing with children in crisis. Now he has helped secure grants to fund Hall's $20,000 salary and supports her foundation with royalties from his recent children's book, The Story of Ruby Bridges. "Ruby had enormous dignity and courage," says Coles, recalling her as a 6-year-old. "Now she's trying to help a new generation who face different struggles."

Hall's recent good works were born of heartbreak. Two years ago her brother Milton, 30, a crack addict with four daughters, was gunned down outside his home in New Orleans' squalid Florida Public Housing Development, where Hall had lived as an adolescent. "It was the strangest thing, seeing these people I grew up with standing around his body," she says. "Nobody knew anything, nobody saw anything. It hit me so hard. We were raised to take care of each other. That sense of community is just gone."

When Hall was growing up, her neighborhood was a close-knit enclave of modest houses. She was the oldest of eight children born to Abon Bridges, a gas station attendant, and his wife, Lucile—who volunteered her as a candidate to integrate the city's schools. When Ruby was chosen, her father protested—and he later lost his job because of his daughter's prominence. But her mother insisted that she go—and went with her to school that first day. "I thought I was early," Hall recalls, "because there was nobody there except the teacher waiting for me."

"She was this adorable little cherub," says that teacher, Barbara Henry, 64, who had been imported from Boston because the Frantz faculty refused to instruct a black child. Now a school secretary in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Henry still remembers how Bridges "never seemed lonely or cried. She has always had a sense of purpose. I think that's what carried her through."

Gradually, children began coming back to school. Hall started hearing mysterious voices coming from behind a door in the back of the class coat-room, piquing her curiosity. "Then one day my teach let me through that door," she says, revealing a white kindergarten class. "It was like Disney World," Hall says, "with a dollhouse and all these things on the walls." Ruby's isolation, however, continued. "One little boy told me, 'My Mom said I can't play with you,' " Hall remembers. "I realized it was because I was black. That's what this was all about."

Hard times followed. When Hall was 12, her parents split up; at 17 she became pregnant with her first son and was forced to enroll in the city's school for expectant mothers. Four years later, she married Malcolm Hall, now 40, who processes checks for a local bank, and began a career as a travel agent. "My life started to broaden," she says. And yet she felt an emptiness. "I began praying, 'Lord, whatever it is you want me to do, you're just going to have to show me.' When my brother was murdered, I was ready."

Hall had her epiphany while taking care of Milton's orphaned daughters for several months. "These kids had such dreams," she says. "They couldn't just go to school and hang out in the projects." Hall took action, calling on friends for help and lining up piano and ballet teachers for her nieces. Word of her networking spread, and she was offered the new liaison job at a local middle school—unpaid. Needing income, Hall contacted Coles—with whom she had kept in touch—for help in raising money to fund a salary. In August, she shifted to Frantz.

Now, promoting Coles's book around the country, Hall is often asked to comment on the nation's racial rifts. When asked if integration has failed, she recalls that when her son Shaun, 15, said he wanted to be an astronaut, she enrolled him at New Orleans' high school for science and math. Integration, believes Hall, made that possible. "It gave everybody an equal opportunity," she says. "It's just purely up to us to make it work."

RON RIDENOUR in New Orleans

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