Monday, April 29, 2013


Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of Marathon Monday, as most Bostonians, whether here or abroad, did, I answered the many inquiries of concerned friends and relatives from my home state of Massachusetts. No, I didn’t run this year, thankfully, and, no, I didn’t know anyone hurt or injured at the finish line during the attacks. 

I’d just finished explaining this to my girlfriend’s roommate in Chinatown, as I hit the sidewalk for the 4, 5 Subway at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop in New York City, when, poof, there it was in my inbox.

“One of the kids who was in my class last year who was your biggest fan…he was the 8-yr-old who died at the marathon today.”

The text was from a friend of mine, Martin’s second grade teacher last year in Dorchester.

I met Martin almost exactly a year earlier, when I was walking from Boston, MA to Sanford, FL. The march was modeled after James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear, when he set out alone from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS to protest segregation and other forms of racism.

He was injured by a shotgun blast on his march, and strangers from all over the country took over to finish for him, sleeping in tents and being fed by generous locals along the march route.

Martin's class was studying nonviolent resistance through the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and my friend had been researching whether anyone was doing nonviolent protest actions today. She’d heard about the march – to protest the failure of local authorities to arrest George Zimmerman – from a friend.

We met in Government Center, she enthusiastically explained the unit her class was studying, and we marched the first four-mile leg to Upham’s Corner together. A no-brainer, I agreed to stop by and speak to her students on my second leg the following day.

I woke up to an immaculate spring day and walked to class with a toothbrush and bagged lunch. Upon my arrival, this perfectly diverse class of ahimsakas – a Gandhian term for activists committed to "doing no harm" – was electric and bursting with enthusiasm.

“Where are you going to stay?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can help me?”


“What will you eat?”

“Hopefully whatever I can find.”

“What if you don’t find anything?”

“Then I’m going to be hungry.”


“But I don’t think people will let me starve, do you?”

“No, people are good.”

“Why are you doing it?”

“Because of Trayvon Martin. Do you know who that is?”

Hands shot up.

They began discussing the case, eagerly sharing their opinions and relating the case to their own personal experiences with violence in Boston.

After a moment, I stopped them.

“Please raise your hand if you know someone that has been hurt or killed by violence.”

Hands shot up. After a moment, every single child had a hand in the air.

One by one, the youngsters began sharing their stories. Some had relatives who had been shot and killed, others stabbed, many in jail. These were second graders. In America.

Martin began to relate his story.

“One time, there was this big fight on the street, and this group of people was really loud, and it was really scary, and-”

He paused.

He looked around at his classmates. His little mind switched gears and he chose his words very carefully.

“Someone got hurt really bad and I just think we all need to stop hurting each other.”

“So class, how do we use our experiences with violence as motivation to do good things?” one of the teachers asked.

Hands shot up again.

“We can do ahimsa!” one chimed

“We can make signs!” 

“We can march!”

I turned to the instructors.

“Do you think they are old enough to march with me a little bit today?”

The students began frantically looking around and whispering.

“I don’t know class, what do you think? Do you want to march with Mr. Constantino today?”

Martin’s hand shot up, as did several others, “OOOH OOOH OOOH I want to!”


The place became a whirling vortex of poster board, markers and signs. 

“We need more caring people in the world.”

I snapped a photo.

“We need ahimsa.”

I snapped another.

“Use your words instead of guns.”

And then I came to Martin’s sign. It was on light blue poster board, framed by two hearts and two peace signs.

“No more hurting people, peace.”

I snapped a photo.

After we marched together, Martin and his class headed back to the school to calculate my route and average speed in math class, to study the places where I would stop for geography and history, and to reach out to colleges, universities and shelters to try and help me find places to spend the night.

Sadly, I only met Martin twice, once on this day, and once when I reported back to the class on my journey after Zimmerman was arrested. 

As the days and now weeks have passed since his killing, one thing has nagged me to the point of disregarding all of the reasons – it’s too soon; it’s not my place; his family is still mourning – why not to write about him.

In September 2012, Maya Angelou appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and explained that the reason why we don’t defend our brothers and sisters when they are being harmed is because we lack courage.

“Whoever is being assailed, that’s you, nitwit…”

I mention this because I can't get over this image of Martin against the backdrop of Ms. Angelou's words. There he is, leading the way with his classmates, second graders intuiting each and every one, word for word: Trayvon Martin is us

Martin was not only smart enough to look at violence against an unarmed teenager and know it was wrong, but he was courageous enough to fire his hand into the air like a rocket when he was asked if he wanted to do something about it, right then and there.

In 1966, when James Meredith was shot on his march to Jackson, strangers from all over the country converged as one and took his place until he was released from the hospital and able to rejoin them on the road into Jackson. 

I’d like to ask that in the coming weeks and months, as we come to terms with Martin's loss, we do the same for him, not by convening a march to Mississippi, although he would have probably loved that idea, but by convening together around acts of courage in our daily lives.

I wonder if we might try and honor Martin's example by trying to be more like him. When we see someone being harmed, we step up, right here and now, without regard for reasons why not. When we hear about violence in any of its awful forms, we stand up and say, nope, not today, not while there's life and breath in this body.

Let's give freely to the charitable initiatives that have been created in the name of the victims (here and here), but let's also remember that Martin would have gone several -- or several hundred, if my experience with him in class was any indication -- steps further, and that if we truly wish to honor his example with our own lives, we can draw inspiration from his courage and do the same. 

[This post was updated on May 1, 2013 at 22:41 EST]


Melissa Rickards said...

Bobby, this story is amazing!!! Thank you for sharing! Something about little Martin tugs at my heart, especially that photo. You did a great thing! Jon & I are honored to know you :)

Anonymous said...

Kind of a shame, a second grade teacher using her classroom to promote leftist ideology. Second graders are studying nonviolent protest? What American history have they learned so far? Constitution? Bill of Rights?

I only hope that we are NOT all Trayvon Martin, a high school kid with divorced parents who was on suspension from school, and who smashed Zimemrman's head against the sidewalk.

The Gramscian march through the institutions apparently starts in Grade 2.

May Martin Richards young soul rest in peace.

Deb said...

That little kid was clearly smarter than most adults. Thanks for posting this story.

Anonymous said...

I am moved by this story & so heartbroken over the death of such a precious kind-spirited boy. I have a soon to be 8 year old & it crushed my heart when I learned that his life was taken by evil! But I know in my heart that he's not suffering & is in heaven the good Lord above. God had other plans for Martin & what a wonderful day it will be when his family reunites with him!

Anonymous said...

continue...Martin's words will forever hold a strong message to this entire nation & I pray it changes the way people treat each other. He reminds me of my son, who is the same age & full of life, always thinking of others. Rest in peace dear one & my thoughts & prayers will always be with the family!

Betsy Sawyer said...

Hey Bobby,

My name is Betsy Sawyer, I'm a teacher in MA. I would love to include Martin's poster and pic in my students peace project, wonder if you could help? From the moment I saw his face and poster, I have felt connected to him. Wondering if you'd take a look at my students peace project and write to them to be included in their Big Book too? You can do this online at
In peace and with respect for your work. Betsy

Michele said...

Thanks for the background story about Martin's poster. Martin was clearly emotionally mature beyond his years. He just believed that people should respect one another and not hurt each other. He also had the courage to stand up for people and to be inclusive of others. Only if more people were like Martin our world would be a better place.

I like many people am saddened by Martin's death by an act of senseless and selfish violence. Martin you will always be in my heart and your family in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

Nonviolent protest is "leftist ideology"? I am not sure how anyone could take issue with the values promoted by nonviolence (respect for all life, compassion, truth, etc.) And I guarantee the kids know what war is... do you take issue with their learning about violent protest, too? I think that if more kids learned about the power of nonviolent protests, and learned how powerful and persuasive one can be WITHOUT causing harm, the world would move much closer to civilization (and fewer bombings in the name of good would occur). I applaud the bravery of the teacher for exposing her students to such a civilizing and moral way of thought.

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