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John Morris, an education program administrator for the San Francisco Opera Guild, helps lead Wilkinson School students through their paces in advance of a performance at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Kyle Ludowitz/Review

The courtyard rings out with the sound of drums intertwined with the ominous beat of marching feet. Wilkinson School students were preparing for their moment in the spotlight.

On March 29, these pupils will take their place at the Herbst Theatre alongside students from 11 other schools to share the story of Ruby Bridges. 

The opportunity comes from the San Francisco Opera Guild, which, through a grant from the California Arts Council, launched a new initiative called “The Hero Project.”

“This … is new for us. It’s celebrating the year of the hero, which is a chance for us to use all of our programs and look through the lens of leadership, integrity and heroism,” said Caroline Altman who is the creative director of San Francisco Opera Guild. “This is a community effort where teaching artists are going in and students are asked to identify a hero and create a three-minute piece with music, movement, spoken word, or all three.” 

The group named Ruby Bridges as its hero because, in November 1960, at the age of 6, Bridges became the first African-American student to integrate into an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. 

“When Ruby was taking a test to see if she could get into school, they made the test in favor of the white children,” said student performer Aisalyn Ford. 

“People were telling her that she couldn’t go to this school because it was all white,” added Fern Charles, who is also a student performer.  “But she did do it, and she kept going. She even later forgave the people who were in mobs and protesting outside of her school.” 

Ford, Charles and others are currently working under the tutelage of John Morris, an education program administrator, who is serving as the project’s teaching artist. Morris is lending his background in performance, singing, movement and theater to help the students craft their piece. 

“The content really came from the students,” said Morris. “They have brief biographies of her. We used her memoir, ‘Through My Eyes,’ as an inspiration. We then looked at quotes and experts that really communicated who Ruby Bridges was.”  

Not only have the students taken a dive into the life of a monumental historical figure, they have also learned techniques such as voice projection and stage presentation. Through the use of rhythm and movement, the pupils tell the story of how Ruby, escorted by four U.S. marshals, walked into the school amid thunderous protests of an enraged community.

“She was strong throughout the entire thing,” said student performer Rosa Jones. 

“She even stopped in the middle of the crowd to pray for the people who were yelling at her,” she continued. “There was this tiny little first-grader praying for the giant mobs around her.”

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