After Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by an Oklahoma police officer, the school where his daughter is enrolled decided that it needed to address the tragedy head on — and let its students know how much each of their lives matter.
The school created three small discussion groups organized by grades, and the teacher who facilitated these difficult conversations shared her experience because she is convinced that if you put yourself in the shoes of a child of color in Tulsa right now, "you will have a clearer understanding of the crisis we're facing and why we say Black Lives Matter."
Rebecca Lee first faced the fifth graders and was greeted by wide-eyed faces waiting to hear what she had to say. They all read a news article together, and then she asked what their thoughts were.
They answer with questions. Why did they have to kill him? Why were they afraid of him? Why does [our student] have to live life without a father? What will she do at father daughter dances? Who will walk her down the aisle? Why did no one help him after he was shot? Hasn't this happened before? Can we write her cards? Can we protest?
As the questions roll, so do the tears. Students cry softly as they speak. Others weep openly. I watch 10 year olds pass tissues to each other, to me, to our principal as he joins our circle. One girl closes our group by sharing: "I wish white people could give us a chance. We can all come together and get along. We can all be united." Let me tell you, these 10 year olds are more articulate about this than I am.
We agree to love one another, to take care of one another. I tell each of them that I am white and I love them and they matter to me.
When the next group entered, the sixth graders were either red-eyed or withdrawn. Lee addressed the class, which included Crutcher's daughter.
I fight the urge to fill the dead air with my voice. A few quiet words are whispered about sadness and unfairness, but the rest of the time is spent wiping eyes and hugging one another. It becomes clear that no one else is in a place to speak. I give them the space to process silently. Then I tell them, "We have different skin colors. I love you. You matter. You are worthy. You are human. You are valuable." Shoulders shake harder around the circle. I realize that this is the first time all year I have affirmed my love for them.
The last group of students, the 13- and 14-year-olds, were hardened and angry as they sat down. Some refused to hold the article, and others spoke matter-of-factly about their feelings.
"What made him 'a big bad dude?" a boy asks. "Was it his height? His size..." I look at the boys in my circle, all former students of mine. They have grown inches since their first day in my class. Their voices have deepened. Their shoulders broadened. They all nod their heads in agreement at the student's last guess — "The color of his skin?"
Lee shared her heart-wrenching story because she realizes that Crutcher's death doesn't just affect the students at her school.
"We are creating an identity crisis in all of our black and brown students — Do I matter? Am I to be feared? Should I live in fear? Am I human? We are shaping their worldview with blood and bullets, hashtags and viral videos," Lee wrote. "I ask that you put yourself in the shoes of black and brown children growing up in a world where they see videos of their classmate's father shot and bleeding in the street."