How to teach kids empathy? Show them people in pain

Friends of Southwest High School honors student Daizsa Laye Bausby released balloons in her memory at a vigil this month.
Friends of Southwest High School honors student Daizsa Laye Bausby released balloons in her memory at a vigil this month.

Pink balloons floated up from the fountain at Mill Creek Park near the Plaza, past the trees and high against the blue sky. Jordan, my 19-year-old, raised his face toward the sun.

My eyes were on his face, searching for signs he’d found some lesson in the spectacle.

I’d dragged him to a vigil for Daizsa Laye Bausby, a bright 18-year-old, a year his junior, whose body was found almost five months ago in a south Kansas City motel, weeks before her high school graduation. Police say she was killed. But no killer has been found, and her friends, young people like Jordan, gathered at the park to remember her, honor her life and plead for justice.

Some stood in silence, some shed tears, others rambled on about lost friends, shattered dreams, hopelessness, brutal violence in their neighborhoods and feeling that there’s little urgency when the broken body is young, poor and black.

I wanted Jordan to witness the pain, trauma and struggle of some young people who, but for the grace of God, and a tenacious mom, of course, could have been him. I wanted him to, for a moment, live in another world. To get close in some way and find true empathy for lives he’s only read about online and in the pages of magazine articles telling the world why all lives matter.

The killing of Daizsa Bausby in March remained unsolved for months. Friends and family rallied in August to keep her memory alive.

You see, it has always been important to me as a mom to expose my boys to as many sides of life as I can. I want them to be full people: inquisitive, honest and compassionate young men. I’ll always be shaping, parenting, even though they are young men.

So to round out the vigil in the park, the next day I dragged Jordan to another urban youth event: the scholarship lunch for the Kansas City Boys and Girls choirs.

These kids were accepting college scholarships, not mourning the mysterious murder of a friend. They were talking about their futures, not lamenting dreams deferred.

But when I asked Jordan to tell me what he’d seen at each event he said: “The two things didn’t feel so far removed from one another. I know they were not exactly the same kids, but they showed the same determination and ability. These are the same kids, just not in the same situation.”

The more I thought about it, I realized he was right. Both groups were made up of strong, bright, impressive young people doing what they could to make a difference, whether it was lifting the community through music or rallying the community to find justice for a murdered friend.

I was so glad Jordan could see that. And I was glad he reminded me to do as I’ve always taught him to do: look deeper.

Even better, Jordan said he identified with the young people at both gatherings and may never forget having attended both events. The lunch made him eager to get back to college and work extra hard. He even sent Facebook friend requests to several of the scholarship winners. Kids he’d never even met. He got their names from the program they handed out.

He felt a little out of place at the vigil, “because I didn’t know the girl,” Jordan said. But he was moved by her power to touch people, even in death.

“Yeah, I was affected just by being there,” he said.

And as for why afterward he stared so long at the sky: “I was rooting for the balloons,” he said. “I’m glad they all made it past the trees.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc