She's a living legend and the namesake of their school.
But Rosa Parks, mother of the modern-day civil rights movement, remained a distant figure from history for most students at Baltimore's Rosa Parks-St. Ambrose Catholic School. She was a lesson they had to learn, someone their teachers and parents held up as a role model.
Until yesterday, when the tiny, 81-year-old woman paid a visit to fifth-graders in Baltimore -- without ever leaving Detroit.
Call it the '60s civil rights movement meets the '90s information superhighway.
Using a video computer conference, fifth-graders in Baltimore were able to ask Mrs. Parks questions about her life and the civil rights movement while she was sitting in a conference room in Detroit. For the fifth-graders, the conversation made history come alive.
"It was fun to get to know how she really feels about things," said 10-year-old Laura Williams.
"I felt a little nervous," admitted 10-year-old Rochelle Vincent.
They were born 39 years after Mrs. Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white person in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, setting off a bus boycott that lasted for 381 days.
Sure, the students had heard that story. They knew that her stand ignited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in turn, sparked thousands to march against segregation and Jim Crow laws.
They also knew that Mrs. Parks experienced violence firsthand in August when a man broke into her home, robbed and assaulted her -- an incident that appalled the entire nation. Mrs. Parks gave a description to police, who distributed a sketch of the man. A few days after the attack, he was captured by neighbors who tackled and held him until police arrived.
"That was sad," said student Monique Peters, 8, about the attack.
The students also knew that their school, located on Park Heights Avenue, was named after the civil rights legend in 1972 when four Catholic schools combined due to declining enrollment.
"We try to teach the values of Rosa Parks," says principal Joanne Rojas, explaining the selection of the name. "The values are courage and perseverance. The courage to stand alone and not follow the crowd."
The students knew Mrs. Parks, but they didn't really know her. Now, they feel as if they do.
With computers and other equipment purchased with a $35,000 grant from the MCI Foundation and a desktop video screen on loan from the company, the students hopped onto the information superhighway for their conversation with Mrs. Parks. They enjoyed the ride and also demonstrated just how valuable the superhighway can be to classrooms throughout the country.
The state, in fact, wants to extend a fiber-optic network to some 300 colleges, high schools and other schools in the state. It would give many classrooms in Maryland the capability of staging similar video conferences, if the schools can find the money to purchase the equipment.
Face to face
Yesterday, Mrs. Parks' small figure filled the 52-inch screen in the computer room at Rosa Parks-St. Ambrose.
Retired since 1988 from her job with Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, Mrs. Parks works with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development as a motivational speaker to young people around the country. (Raymond is her deceased husband.)
Wearing glasses, she looked to be in good health and excited to be speaking to the children, who sat on the floor in a semicircle.
In Detroit, Mrs. Parks could see the students through a similar hookup. She called the uniform-clad students "a fine looking group of young people."
Rep. Kweisi Mfume introduced Mrs. Parks, describing her as "the Power Ranger" of her time.
"It's hard to believe that one woman could do so very, very much," said Mr. Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
One by one, he introduced 10 of the children to Mrs. Parks. The students sat down in front of a computer so Mrs. Parks could see them on her screen at an MCI office in Detroit.
The students asked Mrs. Parks about her life back then and what she thinks about things today.
"How does it feel to have a school named after you?" asked Nicole Whitley.
Mrs. Parks said she is honored. She hopes her name "inspires young people to do their very best."
"How has society changed since you refused to give up your seat on the bus?" asked Brent Hale. Segregation, Mrs. Parks said, is no longer tolerated in this country.
"How do you feel when you hear about all of the violence in our cities and throughout our country?" questioned Laura Williams.
"It is very sad that we have so much violence in our cities and in the country," answered Mrs. Parks. People, she said, should adopt a different spirit and treat others like they want to be treated.
Making it happen
The students had been preparing for their encounter with Mrs. Parks since the beginning of the school year.
"The idea kind of evolved," Ms. Rojas said. "MCI wanted us to experience the new technology."
And it was "a natural" for students at a school named Rosa Parks to seek out their namesake, she says.
The fifth-graders read a book about her life, researched articles about her using on-line services and asked anyone in cyberspace who knew Mrs. Parks to contact them with their personal reminiscences.
Before the big day, the students sent out messages on the Internet about their coming conference. In return, they received an e-mail message from Vice President Al Gore yesterday.
"As you look back, you should recognize today's significance. bTC Rosa Parks is partially responsible for today's demonstration to be possible," the vice president e-mailed the students. "Her courage on a bus in 1955 started a movement that would enable students of all backgrounds to have equal opportunities for education."