Once upon a time, I was a police reporter. I wrote stories about people who were shot, drowned, killed in car crashes, fires and freak accidents, so many that I came to think of it as the death and destruction beat.
Cynicism can be a reporter’s Kevlar. But more often it’s the inevitable side effect of overdosing on tragedy. In our digital world, it’s a common condition. We see, hear, share, like and dislike so much that it’s a feat to be truly moved – as in, beyond a click.
This may be why I’ve been so struck by recent events in my neighbourhood. Like many journalists, I’ve never been much of a joiner, not political parties or parent councils. But since last fall, I’ve been part of an eclectic group in my community helping to organize a memorial for a young man who, in a cynical age, stood out because he wasn’t.
Nathan Anthony Noel was hopeful, decent, driven. He said things like, “Every rock they throw, you gotta use as a stepping stone,” and he meant it.
It’s been eight months since we lost him – to a brain aneurysm, at the age of 24.
I say “we” because Nathan belonged to many families. He was a kindergarten teacher at Garden Avenue Public School in west Toronto, where he taught my son. For four years before that, he worked at the school in Sunnyside Garden Daycare, where he looked after my daughter. “My children,” he called them.
To see Nathan you’d never guess his vocation. For starters, he was that rare species in early childhood education – a male. He was also brawny and black, he sported diamante studs in both ears, a chin-strap beard and, even on cloudy days, designer shades.
But what truly set him apart was the crackling enthusiasm he brought to a day. When he rallied the students for soccer games before school, he didn’t just supervise, he played. He laughed loudly and often and hugged as easily as he said hello. He taught his kids how to rap about social justice, and huddled with them in hallways, treating their pint-sized problems with gravitas. After school, he hosted a mock TV show he called “Real Talk with Mr. Nathan,” fielding pressing questions from “the audience” – What’s your favourite mystical creature? What’s the weirdest thing about you?
One day someone asked, “Who’s your role model?” Half the kids named him.
Grief has its own rhythm. It strums beneath the business of ordinary days and if you’re lucky, with time, it grows fainter. If you’re blessed, maybe you find comfort in memories and stop asking the unfathomable “why?” and light on the questions that matter. With Nathan, these were obvious. On what would have been his 25th birthday, more than 1,000 people – all walks, all ages – crowded a Scarborough church for his funeral.
How had someone so young touched the lives of so many? Was there something to learn from his short life?
A study in inspiration
On a cold Sunday last fall, I visited Nathan’s parents and his older brother Isaiah. They live in a big, stylish house in Ajax, Ont. – Nathan had described it with relish around school when they moved in 2012. His parents saw it as a family home for the generations, as they describe it, large enough for their children and, one day, grandchildren, and light years from where they started.
Stephen and Janette Noel arrived in Toronto from Trinidad at 17 with a “suitcase and a dream.” They lived in rooming houses, sold recycled bottles, and when times were especially tight “ate a lot of Spam.” Janette worked in factories and her husband in gas stations and they took turns putting each other through college. Mr. Noel is now a pension officer with Service Canada. Mrs. Noel has been with the city’s social services department for 30 years.
Before moving to Ajax, they owned a townhouse in Willowdale, where their sons grew up. There were less expensive places to live, but it was a nice neighbourhood, “and when you’re raising two young black males you look for a place that’s safe,” Mrs. Noel says.