By Neals J. Chitan
In four weeks, the Greater Toronto Area has experienced the tragic shooting death of three 15-year-old black boys and a 9-year-old, totalling 54 black productive years down the drain.
Neals J. Chitan is the Grenadian-born president of Motiv-8 For Change International -- a Toronto based High Impact Social Skill Agency that is specially dedicated to the social empowerment of individuals, families and communities
Turning 54 this year, as a black father and an international high impact social skill speaker, I reflect on the powerful impact my work has had on hundreds of thousands of individuals on three continents and wonder how could we have saved this combined 54 wasted years, now buried in graves across Toronto. How could we have invested these lost 54 years so that like me, they too could have made an impact on their world?
I was asked to be the organ player at 15-year-old Tyson Bailey’s funeral. And so, I went early to the Toronto Central SDA Church and claimed my seat behind the instrument just before the casket carrying the black Adidas track suit clad football player was wheeled in.
With my fingers on the ivories, I used my music to try to comfort the thick crowd of hundreds of relatives, family, students, friends and teachers who braved the cold chill of the weather to attend an even more chilling occasion -- the funeral service of a boy that was only a decade and a half old.
I looked as his mother collapsed into the open casket and sank on the chest of dead son bringing tears to my fatherly eyes, which dropped unto the keys and made the music even more poignant. Dressed in matching black Adidas outfit, his sister hugged him and tried relentlessly to coax a reply from him, but to no avail.
As the funeral service proceeded, I listened to the tributes as his high school principal took to the microphone followed by his football coach, friends and teachers, all speaking movingly about the great person Tyson was. However, he was dead and could not be inspired by their great oration and words of encouragement and compliments.
It seems that as humans, when death hits, as we reminisce on the lives of those who have passed, we tend to forget the bad mistakes, habits and life they made and unintentionally move to canonize them into the realm of sainthood. The evil is forgotten and we celebrate their goodness. And of course, that speaks to our ability as humans to forgive while considering what we see as the “bottom line.” However, forgiveness then is basically futile, and great compliments mean nothing, for when the casket closes, no more change is possible.
Then I thought of the compliments and vote of confidence of Mr James, my Grade 7 teacher back in the St Andrew’s Methodist School in Grenville, Grenada, when after giving this talkative class-disturbing boy a chance to do an oral presentation before my class, he looks at me in the eye and whispered rather convincingly, “Neals, one day you will be a great speaker.” I am so glad he told me then!
Two weeks after, I stood again in another church gazing at the face of another 15-year-old black boy St Aubyn Rodney. He, I knew for a while when he was thirteen. I remembered him at a middle school where I ran “Project Stop ‘n’ Think” – our internationally recognized crime reduction program.
As I stared at his face, which seemed aged because of the trauma of the bullets on his young body, my thoughts raced through my head. I remembered his infectious smile with dimples that would charm the most unsuspecting principal. He argued so vehemently when he thought he was right and stood up for others when they were taken advantage of.
This boy I had liked very much! Despite the so-called “At-Risk” behavioural label he had earned himself, I had liked him and I had to let him know what I thought of him. So, calling him to my desk on day, I put my both hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, “St Aubyn, I believe you can become a great defence lawyer one day.” He flashed me that ear to ear smile and said, “You really think so?” “Yes, sir!” I exclaimed.
Unfortunately, at the end of that school year I was called to another school and lost contact with him, and now I am standing over his casket. I looked at the funeral service printed program and quickly saw that there was an open floor tribute slot. “This time I am going to give a tribute, but it will be different,” I said to myself. Of course, regrets for losing such a young life, regrets for the pain his mother feels, but I am happy to say I have told this young man what I thought of him and the awesome success I thought he could achieve, and for that I have no regrets.
So as I mounted the podium, I shared with the audience some of the inspirational moments I had with St Aubyn, some of the moments of rebellion and defiance he experienced, but I proudly shared some of my hopes and dreams for him.
I then challenged teachers, parents and guardians to put their arms around our boys and give them words of commendations, compliments and praises when they can hear them, when they can be inspired and challenged to change rather than waiting when the casket lid is closed and it is forever too late.
You may just change a life and prevent another black boy from premature death, so why not join me and “Tell Them Now”?