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Teacher guides students through the toughest woodworking project — a classmate's coffin


This story originally aired on January 19, 2019.   

In the basement of Franklin High School in South Seattle there is a sprawling room full of lathes, band saws and sanding equipment. In one of the room’s closets, tree stumps wait to be turned into polished bowls, guitar stands and bookcases.

Before he was gunned down last year on June 2 in Martha Washington Park, 17-year-old Ryan Dela Cruz made things in this wood shop.


Graduation was just a few weeks away. Dela Cruz's plan after high school was to join the Marines. Seattle police believed the shooting was a random act of gun violence. No arrests have been made.


Mike Lawson was Dela Cruz’s wood shop teacher. “He’s just a really straight up kid. And I don’t mean that as being derogatory to the kids I butt heads with,” Lawson said.


On a Friday morning in January, Lawson helped a freshman make a small box. Putting the hinges on was a little tricky.


“If you did this, it would look like it was made by a high school shop student that wasn’t trying very hard," Lawson told the student. "So what we’re trying to do is make it look like it really should.”


Lawson is very direct with students, which can be off-putting to some of the kids. He said that in this classroom, with all of the equipment that could potentially cut fingers off or fling wood chips into eyes, he has to be clear and firm. This style does not bother 18-year-old Zion Malette. His relationship with Lawson started out a little rocky. Today, Lawson is one of Malette’s favorite teachers.


“He’s a good mentor too. I use to late to class all the time and he helped me get my grade up," Malette said. "He has a good vibe to him. He’s a good guy."


Malette was Lawson’s student last spring when Dela Cruz was killed. A few days after Dela Cruz’s death, Franklin HIgh School students held a protest against gun violence.


But, the school also responded to the tragedy in a much more personal way. An announcement was made over the school’s PA system that woodshop teacher Lawson would be constructing the coffin in which Dela Cruz would be laid to rest. Lawson said anyone who wanted to help was welcome to join him in the workshop after school.


At the time, Malette was one of the students who was butting heads with Lawson. Malette was skipping class. But it was Malette and these other students who didn’t seem interested in shop class during regular school hours who were the ones who showed up, day after day, on their own time, to build Dela Cruz’s coffin.


Going into this project, Lawson didn’t have the best impression of these students, and he was humbled to have his assumptions proven wrong.


"It was interesting that this terrible situation, that was totally out of the blue, that no one expected, was the linchpin that kind of brought this whole group together. I never would have said I would have spent my afternoons and nights after school for two weeks with that group of students. But it was really nice to be proven wrong of your impression of someone,” Lawson said.


Malette helped put the stain on the wooden coffin and worked on the interior. He said the experience, “...filled a hole, that when I saw people come together, that made it easier and it made it OK, to where we started to accept what happened.”


This was the fifth coffin that Lawson made for someone from the Franklin High School community. With the help of students, over the 25 years he’s been teaching at the school, Lawson has built two coffins for school staff members and three for students.


“Student coffins are the hardest, because they shouldn’t happen,” Lawson said.


As Lawson and Malette sat together at a table in the large empty workshop, Malette thanked Lawson for all that he’s done. Lawson, ever the teacher, in his direct but thoughtful way, reminded Malette that what they did for Dela Cruz’s family last June was a selfless act. He told Malette that this is something he hopes the students will remember and will do in the future as they they make their way out in the world.


“Whatever it is, whether it’s carpentry or woodworking, whatever it is. Anything that you can do to be altruistic, to selflessly give to others, so there’s nothing in it for you.” Lawson said.

Lawson added that, “I don’t know if you even realize it at the time, but you were kind of channeling a lot of that anxiety that you were feeling into putting something out that spoke to the fact that you cared about Ryan and his family. That’s pretty cool. When you can do that, always take advantage of those situations.”


Before delivering the coffin to Dela Cruz’s family, teachers and students wrote messages to Ryan inside. When Lawson was asked what he wrote, he didn’t exactly remember and then said, “I probably wrote, ‘I love you Ryan.’”

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.