Prior to becoming a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I needed to fulfill the requirements of an internship. One requirement was to work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist or therapist while counseling others. I chose to work at a private alternative school to fulfill those requirements.  An alternative school is basically a school for children and adolescents who are at-risk. A number of students find that, due to their special education needs or other physical and/or mental disabilities, they are more comfortable and achieve greater success at a school designed to meet their individual needs. It was at this school that I met Roy.

Roy was not your average high school student. In fact, Roy was a bit of a giant. He was a huskily built 17 year old African-American boy who stood at least six feet tall and towered over every one of the students and staff, including me.  At first sight, you could feel really intimidated by Roy. Roy was a no- nonsense type individual who let you know right away if he didn’t like something. Most of the students both liked and feared him at the same time. The school staff and I knew Roy, however, as a lovable giant teddy bear who was easily mistaken for an adult because of his size. But in truth, he was just a boy on his way to becoming a man.

Roy was also a creative person who loved rap music. He would practice for long periods of time just to get everything right in order to record a perfect song. At times, he would talk about wanting to be a rapper when he graduated high school. I would later learn that Roy confided in his friends that he wanted to join the Air Force upon graduation. He also confided in his friends other things that no 17 year old adolescent should have to even think about. You see, Roy was afraid that if he didn’t join the military and leave his neighborhood that he would be dead soon.

Roy grew up in an area of town that was notorious for high crime rates and heavy gang activity. Roy knew that people didn’t usually flourish there. He was also afraid for his little sister’s safety. He loved her greatly and wanted to protect her at all costs. He knew in order to do that he would need to get a good paying job so that he could provide for her and his mother. I believe many of the students recognized these compassionate traits in Roy even though he really didn’t let many people see that side of him. He was too busy acting tough (most likely a behavior acquired to stay alive in his notorious neighborhood). Just how tough his neighborhood was would become obvious to all on the morning that everything changed for Roy and his family.

Roy was on his way to school one January morning in 2003. He was doing what he usually did on a typical school morning: waiting for the bus along with several of his friends. Roy was teasing his peers just to get them laughing as he was most often known to do. Back at school, those students who had already arrived early were in the process of casting their votes for a new class president.

All of a sudden, a man from across the street shouted something at Roy.  From all accounts, this man was armed with a loaded shot gun and Roy was his target. Roy spotted him and began to run away from his classmates. His friends who were left to just watch in horror would later say that they believed that Roy ran to protect them. They believed he felt that if the gunman would chase after him then his friends would be out of harm’s way.

Roy didn’t make it too far. The gunman, we would later learn, mistook Roy for an adult gang member. He had been ordered to kill rival gang members. The gunman aimed the shotgun at Roy and fired. The blast was so powerful that it threw the young giant up against the wall of a building and broke Roy’s neck. The gunman ran away and left Roy there to die alone.

Roy had been elected class president that day by his classmates before the news broke that Roy had been murdered. Roy never knew that he had been elected. All that Roy would have known about that day was that it was the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was on his way to school to cast his vote for a friend for class president and to celebrate Dr. King’s life.

Every year around this time, I too remember Dr. King’s birthday. But for me, it is even more significant because I also remember Roy and celebrate his short life; the life of a gentle giant who never got the opportunity to perhaps one day become someone like Dr. King. Instead, I am left only with memories. One memory is that of sitting in Roy’s packed neighborhood church waiting for funeral services to begin. I further recall seeing six of his young friends carrying the casket of their elected class president and friend to his final resting place. I watched as most of Roy’s school was in attendance. I saw students and staff alike unable to hold back tears. And the one memory that I will never forget, is seeing rival gang members sitting in that same church paying their respects to Roy’s family for a grave mistake that was made by a novice gang member who mistakenly gunned down an innocent child on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Dr. King would have been appalled at the violence of one human being against another. I believe that Dr. King would have also been proud at how this gentle giant, in death, was able to bring people together from all walks of life and show them the devastation and senselessness of hatred and the awe inspiring power of love.

Susan J. Calloway Knowles is a Licensed Christian Marriage & Family Therapist and former practicing Family Law Attorney. She is also a Christian music Songwriter. Susan’s songs can be found at www.worshipsong.com. Her website is www.susanknowles.com.

Publication date: January 18, 2013