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Student Pen Pals Meet Face to Face

Youths from the Valley and downtown hook up through a program designed to bring together children of different backgrounds.

November 07, 2002|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The 140 fourth- and fifth-graders had been writing to one another since school started this fall, but they didn't meet face-to-face until Wednesday. Half were from nearby Serrania Avenue School, half from downtown's 93rd Street School. They gathered in the green bowl of a Woodland Hills park.

Their matchmakers were the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance and the Ruby Bridges Foundation.

Based in New York, the foundation was established by Ruby Bridges Hall, whose name may not be familiar but whose picture is an American icon.

She was the model for the 1964 Norman Rockwell painting of an African American girl, alone in her pigtails and white dress, being escorted to school by armed marshals. Ruby was 6 when she became the first African American to integrate a Southern grade school in New Orleans in 1960.

The foundation's aim is stated on its Web site: "Racism is a grown-up disease. Let's stop using kids to spread it."

All 140 youngsters know about Ruby Bridges because she sent each one a copy of her book "Through My Eyes."

"She really signed it--in pen," said 10-year-old Shannon Russell, a Serrania fifth-grader. Shannon had read the book and said: "I didn't like the way she was treated."

Shannon's principal, Susan Babit, beamed: "I'm very proud of how sensitive you are," Babit said. "Do you remember what Dr. King said? You have to judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin."

Ellen Tellez, a fourth-grade teacher at 93rd Street, keeps her classroom supplied with books full of jokes that are funny without making fun of anyone. She said she tries to teach her children to speak out against injustice and to do it effectively.

Tellez praised the program in the park for bringing together children who might otherwise not have meet. And, she said, "they are able to share personal experiences so they see that they have all these things in common ... joys ... fears ... concerns about their families."

But the youngsters seemed more interested in soccer and pizza than the program's noble purpose. And because each child had been assigned a pen pal months ago, each had an almost-friend even before the meeting in the park.

The Serrania students made autograph books for their pen pals, welcomed them with a big banner and gave each a Mickey Mouse pen.

Ten-year-olds Kevin Esqueda and Kyle DiBiase sat next to each other on the grass, eating pizza. They had known each other for less than an hour, but they were already finishing each other's sentences.

When asked what they liked about the program, Kevin began, "People learn about us," and Kyle continued, "and you make friends."

They had already established their shared enthusiasm for spaghetti. But Kevin is a hamburger man. "Hot dogs for me," said Kyle.

Judy Deutsch, a counselor at 93rd Street, said the program eliminates barriers and "opens new vistas" for both groups of students.

"Many of our children see drug deals going down every morning and prostitutes on the streets, but you see them out here, and you don't know who's who," Deutsch said.

Suburbia also has its perils: "That's real," the urban teachers warned, pointing to a sign in the park that reads: "Caution--rattlesnakes."

Betsy Hammond, executive director of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, said the organization hopes to learn from the pilot program, tweak it and replicate it elsewhere. Schools in West Los Angeles and Pacific Palisades are also participating.

"It's one thing to say what you're going to do, and it's another to see them living it out," Hammond said. "It touches your heart."

As the adults talked about their vision for a world where character trumps class or color, a boy's voice rang out: "When do we get to play on our own?"

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