'A Hero to Many Children': Teachers Reflect on Kobe Bryant's Legacy in Class

—AP (Kobe Bryant) and nipastock/Getty (background)
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Many teachers scrapped their lesson plans on Monday and gave their students space to talk about Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, who is considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people. He was 41.

Bryant, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers his entire 20-season career, retired from basketball in 2016. But students even as young as kindergarten knew of his legacy—and were shocked and devastated by his death.

Off the basketball court, Bryant was a strong advocate for youth sports. In a 2014 conversation with former President Bill Clinton, Bryant said kids need “to understand that there’s a certain spirit of competition that’s fun. It’s not nasty, it’s not aggressive, it’s just fun competition, and I think when you have that, kids will go out and enjoy themselves.”

In 2017, Bryant partnered with Nike and the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club to launch the Mamba League, which teaches 8- to 10-year-olds basketball techniques and the importance of teamwork, according to The Undefeated. Bryant said he wanted kids to “understand the connection the game has with life in general and convert that into being a better son, a better daughter, a better student.”

An Emotional Day

Many students across the country—as well as some teachers—came to class on Monday with a mix of emotions. Aislynn Denny, a middle school media specialist in Greensboro, N.C., told Education Week in a Twitter message that on Monday morning, a student-athlete was crying, prompting his classmates to come “together around him to comfort and support him.”

She said she told her students that “everyone had the right to be sad if they needed to be,” and that she would give them space to feel their emotions.

Many teachers said on Twitter that they showed their students Bryant’s 2015 poem, “Dear Basketball,” about his retirement from and enduring love for the sport. “And we both know, no matter what I do next / I’ll always be that kid / With the rolled up socks / Garbage can in the corner / :05 seconds on the clock / Ball in my hands,” Bryant wrote.

“This beautiful piece of writing models how to navigate difficult emotions when a season of life must come to an end,” wrote professional-development-provider Monica Elleithee on Twitter. “We can demonstrate resilience by pouring our pain onto the page.”

The poem was turned into an animated short film in 2017 that won an Oscar. Several teachers said they played the film for their students, too.

Thomas V., a high school English teacher in Illinois, said on Twitter that he asked students to write their own poem about something they loved as much as Bryant loved basketball.

And other teachers asked students to analyze and reflect on the poem, or other quotes from Bryant.

For years, kids (and adults) across the country have yelled, “Kobe!,” when shooting a basket—a ball into a net, a water bottle into a recycling bin, a sock into the laundry basket. On Monday, many teachers allowed their students to ball up pieces of paper and shout “Kobe!” as they shot them into a garbage can.

It was cathartic, teachers said on Twitter. And some added an extra layer to the game by asking students to write down negative feelings on the paper before shooting.

Complicated Legacy

Teachers also had to wrestle with how much of Bryant’s legacy to discuss with students. In 2003, Bryant was accused of rape by a 19-year-old woman. Bryant, who was 24 at the time, was charged with one count of felony assault, but the accuser decided she would not testify, and the criminal case was dropped. A civil case brought by the accuser was settled out of court in 2005.

After the criminal case was dismissed, Bryant publicly apologized to his accuser, saying that although he believed the encounter was consensual, he “recognize[d] now that she did not.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote that Bryant’s “reputation rebounded” over time, as “he gave every appearance of being a loving husband and father.”

Even so, Bryant’s death has stirred up complicated emotions among sexual assault survivors. About 10 percent of high school students were sexually assaulted in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Twitter, teachers urged their colleagues to be empathetic to students who might be struggling with how Bryant has been lionized.

For more on how to address the topic of consent and sexual assault with students, see this list of resources from Education Week.

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