Not Your lesson

After a teacher made me watch the video of the killing of Tamir Rice, I realized I had to raise my voice against injustice.

by Kayla Ruano-Lumpris

Sufiyan Huseen, iStock

One afternoon at the beginning of 8th grade, I was sitting in the room where Model United Nations (we called it MUN) met after school. Under the guise of open and inclusive debate, students played the roles of ambassadors. We talked about every political topic under the sun: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the immigration policies of the Obama administration, and police brutality in the United States, among others.  

Sometimes there was yelling and crying, and occasionally a silence heavy with more meaning than any words could ever have. There was rarely accountability when people said hurtful things. 

Whenever we had these emotional moments, I stared intently at my shoes. As a perfectionist who didn’t like revealing my imperfect feelings, I carefully crafted a hard exterior. On top of that, being one of the few Black and Latina people in predominantly White schools all my life made me feel like an outsider and, thus, even more afraid of expressing my opinions, particularly those on race related topics. 

That day, it was late and getting dark outside, and only the MUN advisor, four other girls, and I remained in the room. I was friends, or at least acquaintances, with these girls, but I kept a wall up around them. The room was big, but all of us sat clustered together near the projector at the front of the room.  

We were talking about the 2014 murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy shot by a White policeman immediately upon arriving on the scene. The officer claimed he thought Tamir’s BB gun was an actual firearm. In the officer’s eyes, Tamir was not a young boy—one who had barely lived his life—but a grown, dangerous man.  

My advisor was shocked when I told him that I had never seen the video of the shooting, as though it were a rite of passage for a young Black person to see one of their own people brutally killed.  

“You really need to see this,” my advisor, a tall White man, insisted as he cued up the video on the projector. I felt it wasn’t necessary for me to view the video. I already felt connected to Tamir and his family. Their reality could have easily been mine. 

The other girls scooted closer to the projector. Only one of them was Black. I don’t know how she felt about being made to view the video, but neither of us said anything.  

I had a bad feeling, but it was hard to disagree with our advisor. He had a deep, confident voice that made everything sound important. Everyone in MUN competed for his approval, and he encouraged it. The person I was then, desperate to be liked, particularly by authority figures, felt I had no choice but to watch the video. Who was I to argue with someone so enlightened? 

Watching and Weeping 

So, there I was, waiting as the teacher casually cued up a video of a child being killed as though we were about to watch The Weather Channel. 

All of us girls crowded around the screen. The first thing I saw was the blurred figure of a boy walking with something in his hand, an object I already knew was a toy gun. The shooting happens so quickly you can blink and miss it. I froze.  

Watching someone take a human life was shocking. The officer pulls the trigger without even hesitating, and I still wonder how someone could do that. I felt myself about to cry, but these were people I didn’t know well and I felt uncomfortable. I blinked furiously and bit my cheek hard, until the taste of metal and blood distracted me from the tears. 

My advisor then announced that he wanted to listen to the audio (the video was silent). He barely gave me time to process what I had just watched. Nevertheless, I didn’t know how to say no. 

For me, hearing it was the worst part: the dispatch, the gunshot, the police commentary, all of it, each little piece of the story chipping away at the tough exterior I had placed around my sensitive heart. 

When I heard 12 years of life ending in two seconds, my vision turned blurry as my eyes welled up with salty tears. What hurt the most was hearing the officers walk over to Tamir’s body and claim that they just shot an 18-year-old man—as if he were old enough to vote and drive and get drafted, not a 12-year-old kid whose life had barely started.  

My tough exterior shattered, and the emotions I had been holding back flooded out of my eyes and stained my face wet with tears. My hands shook erratically as the audio replayed in my head over and over, the gunshots still ringing in my ears. It was a humbling, hopeless feeling to realize my life can be taken away so easily. 

Raising My Voice 

As embarrassed as I was, it was almost relieving to feel so much at once. I had mostly lived my life with a quiet intensity, rarely stating my thoughts and opinions. I thought I could keep my sadness, rage, and frustration bottled up inside, but I was a volcano just waiting to erupt.  

My sniffles and quiet sobs disrupted the uncomfortable stillness. I felt alone and isolated even with these people near me. They made me feel pitied, and I was filled with resentment and jealousy. My innocence was stripped away from me so early in my life. Why should they get to keep theirs?  

As I began to collect myself, I glanced at the faces of my advisor and peers. My advisor smiled in a way I could only interpret as condescending. Did he see me as some naive student, now enlightened because of what we just watched? Why else would he use my pain as a lesson for all? 

The eyes of my White classmates shifted from my gaze to various parts of the room as they saw the pain on my face. They were clearly uncomfortable. At that moment, I started to realize that I could spend the rest of my life being subject to the opinions of people like them, who made me feel separate and lesser, or I could be bold and force people to hear what I have to say. 

After we watched the video, I had an argument with one of my White peers. She didn’t feel that the officers should be held fully accountable for their actions. 

“Seeing the video of his death motivated me to become another voice within a movement fighting for Black people to be respected and treated as human beings.”

“They were trying to do their job,” she argued.  

“At the expense of a child’s life?” I said, aggravated.  

“People said he was pointing a gun!”  

“And a police officer should know the difference between a BB gun and a real one!”  

Our exchange got more heated as the other girls watched with their eyes wide. Our advisor stood there quietly, remaining frustratingly neutral. Hot tears rolled onto my cheeks while the other girl’s pale face looked cold, other than a flush of slight irritation. The other Black girl didn’t say much, besides an occasional chime of agreement with me. Does she still think about this too? 

I was finally using my voice, so I didn’t let up, not until I saw the moon glistening through the open windows and knew I should head home. I was still angry at my classmate, my advisor, and the world. Everyone else’s visible emotions quickly faded as they grabbed their backpacks and headed towards the door.  

The other girls all hugged each other before they left. My advisor gave me a pointed look and gestured towards the girl I had argued with, as though I should pretend that her words hadn’t hurt me. Her lips curled up in a small smile as she stared at me, waiting for me to give up. I reluctantly sent her a tight-lipped smile, gave her a quick, awkward hug, and headed swiftly towards the door. My moment of boldness was short-lived. 

Channeling My Anger Into Activism 

I became closer with all of those girls and was friends with them for a couple of years, but something shifted that day. Sometimes, I wish it never happened, and it shouldn’t have, but the strong emotions ignited a fire within me.  

I became involved with the equity team at my predominantly White school and helped craft our Black History Month celebration. I organized an equity summit at school to discuss the unfair New York City school admissions process we were all benefitting from.  

Somehow, a day marred by hurt, pain, and anger revealed so much to me about my life, humanity, and the world. I saw how afraid the cops were of Tamir’s brown skin and nappy hair. His Blackness was a threat to our White supremacist society. Seeing the video of his death motivated me to become another voice within a movement fighting for Black people to be respected and treated as human beings. 

Sometimes, I wonder if anyone else thinks back on that day. Do they remember that moment like I do, or has it become a blur among many MUN experiences? Do they remember how I wept for Tamir, or how none of them tried to comfort me afterwards? Was the display of my terrifying reality simply a lesson for them, our conversation an intellectual experiment? Do they know that their words and actions left scars on my tender heart?  

When I look back on what happened, it still hurts. Black trauma shouldn’t have to be channeled into something positive. Experiencing racism isn’t inspiring, and that bad memory is still just that. My pain is not a lesson for all, and neither is the murder of Tamir Rice. 

Discussion Questions

  1. How does the teacher’s attempt to remain neutral impact Kayla? What should the teacher have done differently?
  2. How does Kayla reflect on her experience towards the end of the story, and what do you think she asks for anyone reading?
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