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A group of protesters march downtown with a sign that reads, “We demand accountability. #YearWithoutTamir.”

Demonstrators in Cleveland took to the street the day after a grand jury declined to indict Cleveland Police officer Timothy Loehmann for the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice.

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A teacher made me watch the video of Tamir Rice’s killing. What happened next still haunts me.

Black trauma doesn’t have to be channeled into some inspiring lesson.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

One afternoon at the beginning of eighth grade, I was sitting in the room where Model United Nations (we called it MUN) met after school. Students played the roles of ambassadors. We talked about the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the immigration policies of the Obama administration, and police brutality in the United States, among other topics. 

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

Headshot of a teenage girl wearing braids in her hair. She has on black glasses and a brown shirt.

Kayla Ruano-Lumpris

Courtesy photo

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 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.  

At some point, the conversation turned to 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 a firearm. In the officer’s eyes, Tamir was not a young boy, 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. 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 about what we were about to see, 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. 

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

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. Instead, I blinked furiously and bit my cheek hard, until the metallic taste blood distracted me from the tears. 

My advisor then announced that he wanted to listen to the audio (the video was silent). 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. Tamir was a 12-year-old kid.

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 could be taken away so easily. 

As embarrassed as I was, it was almost a relief 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 even with these people near me. 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 he just showed us?

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

After what we had seen and heard, 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. 

“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!”  

The other girls watched with their eyes wide. Our advisor stood there quietly, remaining frustratingly neutral. Hot tears rolled onto my cheeks. The other Black girl didn’t say much, besides an occasional chime of agreement with me. Does she still think about this too? 

Sometimes, I wish it never happened, and it shouldn’t have, but the strong emotions ignited a fire within me.

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 toward the door.  

The other girls all hugged each other before they left. My advisor gave me a pointed look and gestured toward the girl I had argued with. 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. 

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 New York City’s unfair 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 afterward? 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. 

Kayla Ruano-Lumpris is a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School. She is indigenous Guatemalan, Panamanian, and Afro-Caribbean, and currently resides in Harlem. She likes to go walking, play the double bass, read, bake, and write poems and stories.

A version of this piece was originally published by Youth Communication. It is reprinted here with permission.