When twelve-year-old Tamir Rice died on November 23rd, 2014, I was struck with grief. He looked so much like one of my beloved students. This is how I imagine his next day in class would have been.
Today was November 24th, 2014. There was a dusting of snow on the ground and I almost slipped in front of the school with my giant bag of papers and coffee in hand. Thanksgiving is just three days away! Yes, I’m counting down the days. My special ed reading class was abuzz. It’s hard enough to get them to settle down and with the break right around the corner, all of our minds are on vacation.
Every year the kids write essays on what they’re thankful for and I’m always blown away. Shonda wrote two pages in competition with her crush Kareem. Deshawn wrote about his plans for the Turkey (he loves food). Samira took her time and wrote in her neatest handwriting that she was glad her grandma was finally out of the hospital. I’m thankful for not having to deal with a broken copy machine for a few days.
But it was Tamir Rice’s one line “essay” that caught my eye. I looked up to see his cherubic face smiling at me. His pencil was forever tapping on the desk and he was humming—again. The warm sunlight cast beams on his honey-colored face. He’s big and tall for a twelve-year-old. It’s only when he opens his mouth you realize he’s just a little boy. The rest of the class settled in to work on their second drafts but I could tell Tamir was going to dig his heels in today.
“Tamir! What’s this? You wrote just one line: I’m glad to be alive. Where’s the rest of it?” I lower my glasses.
“But Ms. Malik! I AM glad, though,” he smiled in protest.
“Tamir. We’ve had this talk before. Come on. You’ve got to write at least two paragraphs. Explain what you’re thankful for.”
As sweet as his face was, he knew how to drive me up the walls. Just last week his mother and I sat him down and spent an hour pouring our hearts out to him. He’s capable of so much more but these days all he wants to do is hang around the Rec Center after school and get into mischief.
“Ms. Malik, I’m not kiddin’. I’m glad to be alive,” he repeats as if that’s going to change my mind. “Yo Tamir. Tell her about yesterday,” chimes in his best bud Tyrce. With homework papers in my hand, I walk over to his desk, and pull out a chair.
“What did you do now, Tamir?” I give him ‘the look’ and smiled at him. He smiled back.
“Nothing Ms. Malik. Tony gave me his BB gun, you know, the plastic one that his dad got at Wal-Mart.”
“The one your mother told you to give back to him?” I asked, arching my eyebrow.
“Yeah, I gave it back to him yesterday after I was done playin’ with it,” he leaned his chair back, balancing it on the two back legs and put his hands up like he didn’t do anything wrong. There was that mischievous grin again.
Samira was sitting right behind him. “Don’t lean your chair on me,” she smiled sweetly at him, pretending to be mad. Romance is in the air in room 301.
“You was playin’ until the po-po rolled up,” Tyrce muttered under this breath.
“The cops came? Why?” My heart skipped a beat.
“Nothing Ms. Malik. I was just on the swing set playin’ with the gun,” he threw a warning glance at Tyrce.
“Pointin’ like you was shootin’ at stuff. Told you not to do that; last time we got in trouble.” Tyrce said.
“You just scared,” Tamir was about to push more buttons. I could feel the tension rising already but I knew Tyrce loved his best friend.
“Tamir, why would you do that?” My eyes bulged. These are not days and times for a kid like him to play cops and robbers.
“I was just playin’ though. Then out of nowhere these cops pull up, skidding up at me. I got scared for a minute and my sister came runnin’. The cops said put your hands up and I did. He asked me if I had a gun. I told him it was a fake. He took it out of my waist and looked at the orange tip at the bottom. Man, I was so scared!”
“What happened then?” I asked him, leaning closer.
“Nothing. The cop said not to go around pointin’ at people. Some dude at the bus stop called 911 on me cuz he thought I was shootin’ for real!” he laughed nervously.
“You bein’ all gangsta,” laughed Tyrce.
“Tamir. How many times have I told you not to play around like that? You probably gave your mother a heart attack,” I said.
“What’s wrong with playin’ Miss Malik? Why can’t I play with a toy gun? It’s not like it’s real and I wasn’t hurtin’ nobody,” he asked in all seriousness.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. I remembered my own brother and I playing cops and robbers in our backyard with toy guns. I couldn’t tell Tamir that a big, tall, black boy pointing a gun playfully at his sister or the cars in the lot could have gotten him killed. In his innocence, he doesn’t know just how lucky he got yesterday.
“Alright. Time to get back to work, Tamir. You still have to tell me what you’re thankful for.”
Photo Credit: Flickr/Protest Home