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The power of Black Lives Matter at this West Seattle school

Teachers at schools across Seattle wore Black Lives Matter shirts to class Wednesday. They also gave lessons about race and equity – and talked with students about what their shirts mean.

Seattle Public Schools officials wouldn't let reporters into its buildings during the events, but Highline School District, just south of Seattle, did.

At White Center Heights Elementary, where about 9 out of 10 students are kids of color, teachers greeted students with a huge "Black Lives Matter" banner as the children arrived at school. Kids posed in front of it with big smiles on their faces.

As the school day began, teacher Ryan Reilly, who organized his school's event, read his first-graders the bell hooks' book "Skin Again."

"The skin I'm in is just a covering," Reilly read. "It cannot tell my story."

Yesterday the class had discussed what they’d heard said about their skin color.

"I was really touched by what you shared with me, and with the class, in terms of what people had said," Reilly told his students. He read from the list they'd compiled.

"You have nasty black skin."

"Oh, you are black, so you are the color of poop." Somebody said that outside someone’s apartment.

"How do these things make us feel?” Reilly asked. "Sad," the first-graders replied in a chorus. Reilly asked his students why people might say such hurtful things about someone else's skin. 

"Because they just don’t like your outside, but they’re not looking on the inside," one student offered.

"Or maybe they’ve been bullied by someone else," suggested another child.

Down the hall, teacher Sally Wilma’s fifth- and sixth-graders practiced the Socratic method in a conversation about police brutality.

"Sometimes I’m thinking: 'Why are police officers around if they’re going to do something that’s not necessary?” a boy asked.

A girl quickly disagreed. "Police officers - we need them, but they shouldn’t be killing black people. They react so fast. I agree, if there’s something in a black person’s hand, then they just react that it’s a gun and they don’t really know what it is."

Other students wanted to know why people are called “black” or “white” when their skin is brown or pink.

And: Why did white people enslave black people to begin with?

Every time one student finished speaking, Wilma could hardly keep up as hands shot up all over the classroom – kids eager to answer each other’s questions.

Finally, Wilma drew the conversation to a close in order to move to the day's next subject. But first, she praised her class.

"I’m so proud of you all that you’re thinking this way, and that you’re willing to do something about it," she said. "I think there was a generation that was very complacent and didn’t. And I’m glad there’s activism."

Wilma promised her students that this wouldn’t be the last day they saw their teachers in Black Lives Matter shirts. She said this will be a long conversation that is just getting started.

Year started with KUOW: 2008