The West Wing and A Picture of Ruby Bridges

My girls and I recently returned home from a trip to Washington, D.C. where we visited my sister and her fiancé. Having our excursion on the calendar for a few months, I had plenty of time to ponder all that I wanted to see with in our allotted days. If you have ever been to our nation’s capital, you can appreciate the scheduling puzzle it presents.

As I filled the spots with tangible tours, I left one space open for the possibility of a west wing tour at The White House provided by an inside connection through my sister’s fiancé. It was going to be a game time decision, so I tried not to get my hopes up. I was very excited at the opportunity even though I have never been confused for someone who has had any interest in politics or government.

My longing to see the West Wing went beyond mere bragging rights. I feel as though my mind has been renewed in the last few years in its ability to grasp, comprehend, and process information. For too many years, my brain did not work properly which left me out of the beautiful world of learning and discovery. After studying American History for two years with my children, anything concrete to go with my book learning felt sacred.

We met our guide on a rainy Saturday afternoon and he graciously confirmed that there was room on the tour for all three of us. There was a possibility of only having two spots, so I was prepared to send my girls off for a tour of a lifetime. My good fortune still did not register when the guard handed me my ‘official’ badge, and we entered through a back gate reserved solely for the West Wing.

There would be no pictures once we entered the building, so our guide kindly snapped this of us with the President of the United States Seal behind us.
(Don’t judge. It was rainy and 60*:)

We first got to stick our head into the White House dining hall which is staffed by the Navy. As I looked around having passed by the President’s personal elevator and back door into where he eats lunch, I still had a difficult time grasping the reality of where I was. Usually my Saturdays are filled with soccer games and college football.

We walked down the hallway and headed upstairs. All along the walls were recent pictures of the President, his family, and staff taken by the White House photographer. Some were official in nature, but others were very pedestrian and personal.

My oldest and I were standing before a picture of the President taking a jump shot over one of his staff members. His shirt was pulled up exposing his navel. I leaned and whispered to my girl, “How many people do you think can say they have seen the President’s belly button?” She turned around and said, “I was thinking the EXACT same thing.”

We walked along looking at the other photographs. There was talk in our small tour of names and job titles that I did not recognize. I was beginning to feel very out-of-place in my ignorance when we came to a photo I could connect with.

The President and his wife were standing together in a field at dusk. The lighting was amazing as they looked down at something. The mood in the image was very still and quiet.  Our guide motioned others to the picture and said that it was recently taken at the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania.

We moved outside to the Rose Garden. This was when I officially began to ‘freak out,’ because I could recognize things from watching outdoor press conferences on TV. Our guide pointed to the different spots around the yard. For instance, he said, “That’s where the helicopter lands.” Or he pointed to a swing set and said, “That’s where the girls play right outside the Oval Office window.”

It has always interested me a bit that my girls are the same age as the President’s, but this put an entirely different spin on how different lives could be but also share undeniable similarities. The Obama family’s personal sacrifice became more real as I walked around where they lived life.

We went inside for the moment I had been waiting for but as the tour walked toward the Oval Office, I stopped dead in my tracks. In the adjacent room hung a picture by Normal Rockwell.

“That’s Ruby Bridges,” I said.

Our guide came over to me. “Yes, The President loves this picture. It’s on loan from the Gallery.”

I learned about her story years ago while student teaching. I remember introducing my 2nd grade class to the very brave 6-year-old girl who was the first African-American to integrate into a white elementary school in New Orleans. People were so outraged that they refused to send their children to school and the staff would not teach her. So, for a year, the system brought in a teacher from Boston who taught Ruby as if the entire classroom was full.

I shared what I knew of her story and our guide responded by telling us that the President had just brought Ruby into the West Wing to meet her and see the picture that he chose to inspire him each day. He then pointed out how the tomato at the bottom of the painting was shaped like a snail. It was to represent how change is very slow. Also, he showed us how the smashed tomato markings on the wall were painted in the form of an eagle flapping its wings to symbolize victory and courage.

You can see the video of their time together here. It’s VERY cool.

I am so thankful to have had this little glimpse into the life of the President. I saw that though we disagree on some issues, he is still a man, a husband, and a father. I also love that we both share the same appreciation and admiration for a little girl who had big courage.  I often tell my girls about how she would stop on the corner on her way to school and pray for all of the people who hated her. What a great picture for us all.

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