("Supplied Photo" to The Toronto Star, Sep 25/11)
This is Mitchell Wilson.
At the age of 11, he had already borne the pain of losing his mother to cancer three years previously. He was living as fully and as courageously as he could despite a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy, a disease most of us never have to think twice about, except perhaps during Labor Day Weekend, when our local firefighters are out in the community on street corners collecting loose change in their helmets for a cure; and the annual Jerry Lewis telethon is aired on TV, preempting end-of-summer sitcom re-runs.
An encounter with a bully in November of 2010 changed everything, literally. To help keep him mobile and strong, Mitchell would take walks outdoors as often as 6 times per day. It was during one of these walks, armed with an iPhone belonging to his dad so that he could listen to music, that another 12-year-old child swarmed him single-handed, smashing Mitchell’s face into the pavement and breaking some of his teeth, all for the sake of acquiring that very iPhone. After that incident, and following further harassment from his attacker’s friends, Mitchell’s strength and will began to deteriorate dramatically, to the point that he stopped walking. In addition to dreading a return to school three weeks ago, he had also been served with a subpoena to go to court on the 28th of September to testify against the kid who’d attacked him for his father’s iPhone. Mitchell tied a plastic bag around his head in his bedroom, where his father found him on the first day of school, suffocated.
I read parts of this story several days ago, and I have been seething in anger ever since. The trigger point, apart from the fact that I am the mother of disabled children who have also withstood their share of bullying, was learning that the Crown plans to drop the charges against Mitchell’s attacker because Mitchell is unavailable to formally identify him in court.
I’m angry because in the fall of 1978, or thereabouts (my long-term memory falling far short of what it used to be), a boy named Anthony decided to act on the taunts of our Grade 1 classmates and shoved me face-first, from behind, into a stretch of rocks and other debris during lunch recess while we were all running to the playground. I was a kid who was sensitive, awkward, shy, and walked on my toes. In the school office, I remember being given a glass of lukewarm salt water with which to gargle and rinse out the blood that had seeped into my mouth. The physical scarring from that incident is still evident on my forehead and cheeks, and I can remember that my mother took down our bathroom mirror so that I wouldn’t have to see the damage to my face. I don’t remember anything of consequence happening to Anthony. I do recall that our teacher, Mrs. Fuder, asked me what I had done to cause him to trip me. I hadn’t much cared for her prior that incident, and liked her even less after that. In the years of cruel taunts and schoolyard scraps that followed, only the location of the school and names of the bullies would change. Small wonder then that by the time I reached high school, I was a shy, anxious mess who was more than happy to blend into the background after my parents allowed me to switch from the local Catholic school board to the public board. I won’t say that it did get better in high school, because in many ways it didn’t, but I did find some solace by becoming part of the group of other “misfits” my age. Certain aspects of the social anxiety that began in my childhood still linger to this day. I am 39 years old, with an adult diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, a stress-eater par excellence, and trust issues two miles long and 10 miles wide. I have spent far too many of the last 20 years living my life motivated purely out of fear. Fear of never being truly “accepted.” Fear of spending the rest of my life alone.
So, in a sense, I know all too well what Mitchell Wilson was going through. I look at his picture at the top of this post and I just want to reach in and tousle his hair to make him laugh, give him one more moment to feel like the wonderful, handsome boy he was, before all that was taken away from him by the selfish act of another child. Now that I am striving to become a person who no longer dwells on the past, it wrenches me to be writing about Mitchell in that very same tense. He should be here. People say that the bully didn’t take Mitchell’s life. While that may be technically true, since the bully didn’t physically enter Mitchell’s bedroom armed with that plastic bag, that bully should still be made to bear some responsibility for Mitchell’s death. As should the bully’s parents, since they created that monster, be it through indifference or sheer negligence.
I took this picture on Friday with my smartphone, after going out for a bite to eat with my sister and brother-in-law and the baby (a friend’s) they are caring for; and during the entire drive home I kept trying to piece together in my mind the various excuses for sorry-ass behaviour that have apparently created a world where the bar has been set (too) low for the accountabilities of parents and children.
Mitchell Wilson deserved far, far better than society’s lowered expectations. If it takes a village to raise a child, then every single one of us must learn to do better by our children, period. As a starting point, our current notions of what is acceptable, or who is expendable, must absolutely change.