Pause

I want go back
To Rexdale and say
They stopped a parade for you
The noise they made for you
The way they stayed for you
Your life matters

by Heather Emme

I’m still in surgical recovery, so posts continue to be brief and scattered. This is the first time I’ve posted one of my twitter poems to #verseday. I felt this was worth repeating. To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

 

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Boys on Bikes

(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.

We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.

Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.

When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.

Once someone walked in.

There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.

Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.

So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.

There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.

So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.

Two men on bikes did not back away.

I’ll hold on to that.

In Answer To Your Question

*trigger warning for sexual assault and general unpleasantness*

There is an article in the Toronto Star newspaper about a radio host. It alleges that he has assaulted or harassed quite a few women. Since there hasn’t been a trial or even a full vetting of all the information, I can’t say whether this is true. However, one of the questions asked, even by fair-minded people, is why these women haven’t gone to the police with their allegations.

There is a good chance that they have chosen not to because, at some time in their lives, they’ve met someone like me. In getting to know me, they may have heard about my experiences (I am not alone, but these are mine) with reporting sexual assault to the police.

I went to the police when I was still a teenager. Since I was an avid diarist, I even know the exact day I went to the police station to make my report. It was January 19th, 1995.

Before making the report, I took a three hour bath. I remember refilling with hot water more than once, but there are things that cannot be cleaned away. Even though I was living in Malton at the time, I was required to return to Rexdale to make my report. To make the report, I needed to go to the police station closest to where the crime occurred. I needed to get on a bus and return to a place I had literally fled in fear.

To make matters almost comically worse, the person I was making the report about got on the same bus as me. He didn’t see me. I hid behind other people and almost passed out. It was like having the whole electric system in my body go haywire. It was like I had been shocked. The fear and panic, it consumed me.

At 23 Division in Rexdale, I got off the bus. I wrote in my diary that I was glad he didn’t see me. “It freaked me out,” teenaged me wrote, in shaky script.

Back on his home turf, fresh from seeing him, I was escorted by a large and intimidating male officer back to a small room, where I was sat across from an officer I will call J. J was 23 Division’s youth crimes officer. In my diary, I noted that he was very tall. I wrote down what he wore. I did not make note of the fact that an officer who deals with young offenders may be the worst person to talk to a teenaged victim, as they see young people as innately suspect. I did not note that putting a young victim alone in a closed off room with a strange and intimidating man, one who possesses a great deal of societal power, would not lend itself to feelings of safety or understanding. I did not have that perspective at the time.

On his wall was a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s If. I read it over while I waited for him to speak. I wondered if he chose it because the police station was on Kipling Avenue. And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! I did not suppose the message was for me.

Officer J unceremoniously dropped a tape recorder on the desk between us and asked me to tell him, in as much detail as possible, what had happened.

I opened my mouth and could not speak. I was afraid to cry and be dismissed. I was afraid I would scream. I was a little afraid that the man who did it to me had seen me on the bus and would come to my home that night and kill me dead.

For whatever reason, there were no words, except a whispered, “Can I write it out?”

J was not pleased with my request. He sighed and brought me paper.

I detailed it as best I could. It took more than an hour. The whole time I was writing, every threat my assailant had made echoed, telling me to stop. I felt trapped and wanted to undo it all. I wanted to tear up the paper and run. I wanted to melt into the chair, into nothing.

“What will you do?” I managed, after I was done writing.

“It’s up to you. You’ll have to press charges.”

Press charges? What did that mean? Did it mean that I, a high school student living in one room, would have to hire a lawyer? Did it mean I would have to see him? Face him? Did it mean he would be served papers or arrested? Would he be in jail or free to come after me? I was incapable of asking these questions, and Officer J offered no guidance or information.

“I…I can’t do that.”

He looked at me like I’d wasted his time. Perhaps I had. My high school guidance counsellor had set up the meeting for me. I had been too afraid to call. Too afraid to initiate. Now I was too afraid to actively pursue it.

“Listen. Just go home. Try to be a good girl. Call me if you change your mind.”

And it was done.

I went home that night to my room. I noted in my diary that it was freezing and that the woman who owned the building was singing hymns all night. She turned off the heat to save money and sang hymns to save my soul.

That night I had a nightmare that I was sitting on my bed with a friend when a man in a uniform came in and shot them 8 times. Their body landed on me, trapping me to the bed while they twitched and eventually died on top of me.

No charges were ever pressed.

Now ask me again why women don’t go to the police.

Hello Trolls, Welcome To Rexdale

Thank you National Post. Just thank you.

Thank you National Post. Just thank you.

Imagine my relief when one of Toronto’s major newspapers ran a story called Fatal Toronto shootings a reminder what the real election issues should be. It was everything I’d been saying, just with more eloquence, more backing, a bigger readership and a platform that I could only dream of. I was so happy I actually got kind of teary. SOMEONE CARES. Someone is listening! Our kids warrant consideration and votes and column space on a page!

Then I broke the cardinal rule of the Internet. I read the comments. I mean ALL the comments. And they were horrible.

Now, everyone who has half a brain knows you don’t feed the trolls, but in this case, I think I may have to, because perhaps a lot of Torontonians are trolls without knowing. While they would never go on a forum and espouse the views of the trolls on the National Post article, somewhere in the back of their brain is a vague sense that the vitriol spewed by the trolls might be a little bit true. So here, just this once, I throw on my armour, hop under the bridge and feed the trolls.

Picture 26

You will notice that this clever fellow has 50 up-votes and no down-votes, so it’s a fair guess that folks agree with this sentiment. Can I say, right off the bat, that starting a statement with “Racism aside” is painful? I mean, lord, when we are talking about Rexdale, we can NEVER leave racism aside. I was once pulled over with my then boyfriend, who was searched by the cops (I wasn’t.) Afterward, they asked me if my “mother knew I was out with a boy like that.”

In case you aren’t quite sure what the cop was talking about, in regards to a boy like that, I provide this helpful chart:

Oh.

Oh.

There are examples from school, work and everyday life to back this up as well. You can’t talk about Rexdale and leave racism aside. It won’t work.

But on to your next point, high birth rates (because more Canadians is a bad thing? Or is it that you don’t consider them Canadians?)

My mom was an immigrant. She came from Germany in the 50s. She came from a family with five kids. As a first generation Canadian on my mom’s side, I had two siblings. Being an immigrant didn’t determine how many kids my mom had. Her health, her ability to care for us and her own choices did.

My own experiences aside, the actual statistic for immigrant birth rates is 20% higher than the national average. And since the national average is 1.7 kids per household, that means a whopping total of 2.04 kids per household. Oh yeah. That’s gonna ruin us. And would you like to know how many generations it takes for that number to equalize with the national norm? One. Oh, and the real kicker? The number of children we need per household to maintain the national population? 2. So if you take it down to the actual numbers…you’re still wrong.

And even if you weren’t, I don’t think this is really about how many kids immigrants have. It’s about xenophobia and tribalism and good old fashioned human fear of the unknown.

Which brings me to your third point – that immigrants don’t want to integrate. Let’s start by saying that that’s a mighty big brush to paint a huge group of people with and finish with this awesome graph that shows literacy among first generation Canadians:

immi1

I mean, sure this isn’t representative of the entire immigrant experience, but it’s a micro picture of the learning curve and it’s an impressive curve. This does not, to me, say that kids aren’t trying to learn, fit in or better themselves. It says just the opposite.

On to the next troll:
Picture 28

I’m going to skip the low hanging fruit that a person complaining about uneducated people can’t spell bringing…but this is still an easy one. Statistics bear out that immigrants are less likely to use EI, social assistance or subsidized housing. Less likely. And, on average, over a lifetime, immigrant households put $40,000 more into the social pot than the national average. That’s it. What you are saying is patently false. Saying it out loud doesn’t make it true and it isn’t. Next?

Picture 29

Oh. Well you’re just a horrible racist. Or a full-on troll. Either way, it should still be noted that s/he has 11 up-votes, so s/he’s not alone.

What it comes down to is that these voices are not uncommon and the kids living in these neighbourhoods are not clueless. We knew all this stuff. We knew that people hated us or ignored us or blamed us for things we couldn’t possibly be logically blamed for. If you think these opinions are helping – you’re really, really out of touch.

I guess that’s it, isn’t it? Folks are out of touch with neighbourhoods like Rexdale.

And they’re happy about it.

#saverexdale

School should not be a place of fear.

School should not be a place of fear.

Two more dead humans, one just 15 years old. Two human lives that do not exist anymore. Let’s count their value. Will they get one day of news coverage? Two? Will we remember them once some distraction comes along? Will this be the impetus for change? Will we rush to place after-school programs and counseling and job help and better access to education and health care in Rexdale? Will we look at these children and say, “Sorry for the neglect. It was me, it wasn’t you. I will do better…”?

#saverexdale

I’ve written to all three Mayoral candidates to see what they have to say about Rexdale and the recent violence. I will post their responses as I get them.

#saverexdale

In the meantime, I have been investigating charities that help in this neighbourhood so you can do good without leaving your computer. See how easy I’m making this? But seriously. We need to be angry. We need people to be so tired of watching kids die that we interrupt pretty society and force them to see the reality.

#saverexdale

My inspiration, from St. Louis:

NACI and the Knife

Yesterday I posted my straight up gut feelings about the situation at North Albion Collegiate Institute and in Rexdale. I realized, while writing it (over and over) that I had more than one story to tell, more than one idea fighting for precedence in my head. This is the second part of that blog, the part where I tell you about the time, in my first year of high school at NACI, that a knife was pulled on me.

The sense memories tied to this image are overwhelming for me.

The sense memories tied to this image are overwhelming for me.

I was a very awkward ninth grader. Still just under five feet tall, I was also deeply dorky. I was religious and could kindly be described as pudgy. I preferred the imagined world of LM Montgomery to the real world. If I could have escaped on the Starship Enterprise, I would have. I look back at my ninth grade picture and see someone so insecure that I wonder that she even made it through the foreboding front doors. Still, school wasn’t an option, so I went.

In the end, school was something of a haven for me, because it wasn’t my home. I learn in a way that compliments our current school’s system. Even while floundering due to personal challenges, I excelled at school. I didn’t make friends easily, but I was sociable and smart and I always found people to click with.

There were, as one would expect, people I didn’t get on with. One girl – a pretty, girl with perfect skin and teeth and a doting boyfriend, disliked me almost immediately. It wasn’t anything particularly egregious on either of our parts, we just found ourselves thrown into competing roles in shared interests like the newspaper or the steel band. She saw me as a usurper, I saw her as inflexible. We didn’t mesh (her teeth are scribbled out in my year book.)

What would be a mere annoyance in adult life was, not unexpectedly, drama in high school. One day, perhaps in an attempt to impress her, her boyfriend chased me through the school and out the back door. He was holding a knife.

It was genuinely frightening. He was twice my size and he had a razor’s edge personality that could slip from sweet to scary in a hairsbreadth. I ran like my life depended it on it. It may well have.

If one of my friends hadn’t said “He has a knife!” when he was still a good distance from me, if I hadn’t been a pretty fair runner, if he had been angrier or I had been the type to turn and confront rather than run and hide, my story might have ended like the one so recently in the news.

It didn’t. I went home. I didn’t tell anyone (parents or teachers or anyone in authority) what had happened. We avoided each other the rest of the year.

Then the next year, he and I had drama class together, and we became friends. A boy who had chased me with a knife became, while not a close companion, certainly someone I would sit beside on the bus and chat with. I found out that his father was not in his life in a way he wanted. I found out that he was often angry and he hated himself for it. I found out that he and the girl had not lasted, and that he felt like an idiot for chasing me through NACI with a knife.

I found out that he was a person.

This, I think, is the real tragedy of what has happened. There is no chance for the students lost that day (the one who lost his life and the one whose life will never be the same.) One moment that could have ended so many ways ended the worst way imaginable. Now we will never know who those young men could have been. They will be names thrown around when people want tougher laws or more busts. They may be names used to get services brought to a neighbourhood that sorely needs it. Still, they will no longer be just themselves. They are now tied together forever by a horrible second that cannot be undone.

These Are Our Children

This is yet another attempt to write this blog post. Perhaps what I really need is to write several. One to talk about what growing up in Rexdale is like – the moments between the violence that no one sees, the moments that rarely catch our national attention. One to talk about the case of Hamid Aminzada and what it means for Toronto, for Rexdale and for North Albion Collegiate Institute. One to talk about what these should mean for how we vote, how we behave and how we can choose to support neighbourhoods like Rexdale. 

Right now I’m just frustrated. I’m frustrated because the stories, the responses, the lies and the bullshit haven’t changed in the 20 years since I was a high schooler at North Albion (and Kipling and Thistletown and SEE School – I went to a lot of schools.) We lost a student then too. A fight over a basketball game took him. And just like now, people were quick to toss out theories, accusations and generalizations and just as quick to stop talking about it.

I notice it took all of one day for this stabbing to stop trending on Facebook and Twitter. This life that is now gone was worth one day of our enamored attentions and then it was gone. Poof. Washed away by a rude guy on the TTC and still another Mayoral pissing contest.

I am itching to find a way to enact actual change. After 20 years, it’s pretty clear that blaming the usual suspects (immigration, parents, drug culture, the kids themselves) isn’t helping. The racism and anti-immigration vitriol that follows these events is peppered in between the well meaning but ultimately meaningless RIPs and hand-wringing of the pretty and privileged.

What needs to change? For one, our attention span. There’s no quick fix, no ice bucket challenge, that will mend Rexdale. It’s been Rexdale since I was there and it will keep being Rexdale until something drastic changes. Programs like LOVe that used to operate out of NACI before that ended two years ago were a good place to start, but these programs generally fight on for a while before interest or funding or both disappear. After all, it costs a lot to help a few kids. And we don’t value Rexdale’s kids. Their lives are worth exactly one day of our attention.

We need to declare a state of emergency. We need to rally the troops and fight the enemies that are killing our kids, not just in body, but in spirit. We need to counter the hundreds of voices that tell them they do not matter (don’t think that they do not see how poorly they are treated in comparison to their counterparts.) We need to make them a priority. We need to be willing to spend and commit and fail and try again, like you do when an emergency threatens your own child.

How do we do this? I’m going to think on it. I’m going to talk to some people on the ground floor. I’m going to see if there are more things that I can do. I walked away from Rexdale and didn’t look back. It wasn’t a place I was fond of, but it was filled with people I love. Maybe the time has come for me to look back, to look forward and to see if I can do for the children there what was not done for me. Some of this will be by supporting organizations already doing good work there. Some of this will be through contact with different levels of government. Maybe something new. I will look. And what I find, I will share with you.

I wanted better then. I know that NACI is full of students who want better now. It’s our obligation, as people who believe in good, to give it to them.

*Please, don’t indulge in comments that focus on arguments or blame, even though I am feeling a lot of that myself. Fill it with ideas, no matter how radical, silly or unlikely, to bring change to Rexdale. Share the names of groups doing good work there. Share stories. Share sadness. Share possibility.*