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Kelsea Ballerini recalls seeing a high school classmate get shot dead

Country music star Kelsea Ballerini broke down in tears on CBS Mornings today as she discussed one tragic moment that shaped her: the death of a classmate by gun violence in her high school cafeteria. 

Kelsea, 28, was a sophomore at Central High School, in Knoxville, Tennessee, when her 15-year-old classmate, Ryan McDonald, was shot in the chest by a fellow student, Jamar Siler, then 15.

She’s written about the memory in her new book of poetry, Feel Your Way Through: A Book of Poetry, sharing vivid details of the experience and the impact it had on her.

Kelsea recalled how she watched him take his last breath as he died on the cafeteria floor, and how carrying that memory with her as made her afraid of loud noises and guns ever since.

Country music star Kelsea Ballerini broke down in tears as she discussed one tragic moment that shaped her: the death of a classmate by gun violence in her high school cafeteria

Kelsea, 28, was there when her 15-year-old classmate, Ryan McDonald, was shot in the chest fellow classmate Jamar Siler, then 15

'I will cry. I was worried about that,' Kelsea told CBS News' Anthony Mason this morning as her face crumpled

Kelsea, 28, was there when her 15-year-old classmate, Ryan McDonald, was shot in the chest fellow classmate Jamar Siler, then 15

Kelsea recalled how she watched him take his last breath as he died on the cafeteria floor, and how carrying that memory with her as made her afraid of loud noises and guns ever since

Kelsea recalled how she watched him take his last breath as he died on the cafeteria floor, and how carrying that memory with her as made her afraid of loud noises and guns ever since

‘I will cry. I was worried about that,’ Kelsea told CBS News’ Anthony Mason this morning as her face crumpled.

‘With this particular situation, you know, I’ve never talked about it before but as the book was forming I was realizing that if I’m gonna talk about the things that have made me me, I certainly can’t avoid this,’ she said.

‘I’ve never talked about it before,’ she added.

The tragedy made headlines at the time: Ryan, a junior who lived with his grandmother, was one of several students in the school cafeteria the morning of August 21, 2008 when Jamar shot him.

According to the AP, Ryan was bullied because he had alopecia, which left him bald.

Jamar’s motive for shooting him was unclear, though some reports said that he and Ryan had had a disagreement on the bus that morning. His defense attorney claimed he had fetal alcohol syndrome.

The star was a sophomore at Central High School, in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2008 when the tragedy happened (pictured in 2011)

The star was a sophomore at Central High School, in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2008 when the tragedy happened (pictured at her senior prom in 2010)

The star was a sophomore at Central High School, in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2008 when the tragedy happened (pictured left in 2011, right at her senior prom in 2010)

Ryan, a junior who lived with his grandmother, was one of several students in the school cafeteria the morning of August 21, 2008 when Jamar shot him

Ryan, a junior who lived with his grandmother, was one of several students in the school cafeteria the morning of August 21, 2008 when Jamar shot him

Eyewitnesses said Ryan was ‘walking and holding his chest’ before he fell over, and there was ‘blood everywhere.’

Jamar later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 

Kelsea describes watching the scene unfold that day in a poem in her book, which comes out on Tuesday.  

‘His name was Ryan, and he died on the cafeteria floor from a gunshot wound to the chest. I can’t be too sure, but I think I saw him breathe his last breath,’ she writes.

‘I’m scared of loud noises, I’m triggered by the news, I’m terrified of guns, I’m sensitive in crowds. But I’m alive.

‘And because of a boy named Ryan, I know what a gift that is.’

Speaking on television this morning, Kelsea shared what she took away from what happened: ‘I think I became very aware of [the fact that] life is short.’

Speaking on television this mormning, Kelsea shared what she took away from what happened: 'I think I became very aware of [the fact that] life is short'

Speaking on television this mormning, Kelsea shared what she took away from what happened: ‘I think I became very aware of [the fact that] life is short’

Kelsea has a book of poetry, Feel Your Way Through: A Book of Poetry

Kelsea has a book of poetry, Feel Your Way Through: A Book of Poetry

Kelsea has a book of poetry, Feel Your Way Through: A Book of Poetry 

The country star also discusssed her bad luck last year when, just as the pandemic was sweeping throught the US, she released a new album, Kelsea, on March 20, 2020

The country star also discusssed her bad luck last year when, just as the pandemic was sweeping throught the US, she released a new album, Kelsea, on March 20, 2020

The country star also discusssed her bad luck last year when, just as the pandemic was sweeping throught the US, she released a new album, Kelsea, on March 20, 2020.

They had made it to the touring stage before everything had to be called off — a moment she called ‘terrifying’ after being on the road for five years.  

‘That was just not the state of the world that it was released into,’ she said. ‘Stopping after you’ve been sprinting — that’s like, oh, how am I?’

That’s when she began writing the poetry she has since turned into her new book. In it, she tackled a lot of important subjects, including body image.

‘It’s not always easy to just feel good in your skin. It’s a journey, and I just think when you say it out loud, it takes the sting away from it,’ she said.

She tackled a lot of important subjects, including body image. 'It's not always easy to just feel good in your skin. It's a journey,' she said

She tackled a lot of important subjects, including body image. ‘It’s not always easy to just feel good in your skin. It’s a journey,’ she said

'I'm in a good place, as a woman, especially as a woman in 2021, if you feel good about yourself all the time, I would like to read your book. But I'm honest about it,' she said

‘I’m in a good place, as a woman, especially as a woman in 2021, if you feel good about yourself all the time, I would like to read your book. But I’m honest about it,’ she said

She also addressed a controvercial tweet she shared earlier this year after fellow country musician Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racist slur

She also addressed a controvercial tweet she shared earlier this year after fellow country musician Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racist slur

‘I’m in a good place, as a woman, especially as a woman in 2021, if you feel good about yourself all the time, I would like to read your book. But I’m honest about it,’ she added.

She also addressed a controvercial tweet she shared earlier this year after fellow country musician Morgan Wallen was caught on camera using a racist slur.

Her tweet read: ‘The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music.’

While her intentions were to condemn Wallen, there was plenty of backlash against her tweet from people who insisted that his use of the slur did, in fact, represent country music — and acting like racism wasn’t a problem in the community meant that it wouldn’t be addressed properly.  

‘I can acknolwedge a misstep,’ she said.  ‘I have learned that sometimes, even in the purest intentions, you should keep your mouth shut and learn. And that’s what I’m doing now.’

'I can acknolwedge a misstep,' she said. 'I have learned that sometimes, even in the purest intentions, you should keep your mouth shut and learn'

‘I can acknolwedge a misstep,’ she said. ‘I have learned that sometimes, even in the purest intentions, you should keep your mouth shut and learn’

Kelsea, who is on tour with Jonas Brothers, also noted that she thinks of herself as a writer before a musician

Kelsea, who is on tour with Jonas Brothers, also noted that she thinks of herself as a writer before a musician

‘I have had a very small corner of cancel culture around that. I’m such a peacemaker by default. I’m a chronic people pleaser. I’m an only child from a divorced family, I’m just like, everyone good? What can I do?

‘So standing up for anything is me crawling out of my skin. But it’s something that’s important to me. It’s something I’m trying to learn about, that I’m in a lot of therapy about, and something that I’m trying to do better and better and more eloquently as I get older,’ she said.

Kelsea, who is on tour with Jonas Brothers, also noted that she thinks of herself as a writer before a musician, which offers a sense of relief that she will still be doing what she loves if the fame ever goes away.

‘One day when the radio stops playing me, which it will inevitably, I still get to be a songwriter. How much peace does that bring me, just to know at the end of the day, when all the glitter fades, that’s my favorite part and I still get to do that forever,’ she said.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk