ESSAY

INNOCENCE BETRAYED

Seeing a trusted teacher being convicted of abuse raises a myriad of emotions

JEFF HARRIS December 20 2004
ESSAY

INNOCENCE BETRAYED

Seeing a trusted teacher being convicted of abuse raises a myriad of emotions

JEFF HARRIS December 20 2004

INNOCENCE BETRAYED

ESSAY

JEFF HARRIS

Seeing a trusted teacher being convicted of abuse raises a myriad of emotions

WHEN I WAS 12, Doug Brown took me and 33 other students on a life-changing school trip to England. He brought us to Salisbury Cathedral, where we climbed the spire; to the Greenwich meridian, where we stood with one foot in each hemisphere; and he took us kayaking on a river in the Welsh countryside. But most importantly, he instilled in me a

passion for travel and adventure. Who knew that 20 years later, I’d be sitting in a courtroom watching as Mr. Brown was found guilty of nine counts of indecent assault involving six

former students during the 1970s and early ’80s at Upper Canada College.

Brown, who will be sentenced on Dec. 15, is the first among a group of my former

private-school teachers to be tried on sexual misconduct charges. Also embroiled in this high-profile sex-abuse scandal is my music and math teacher, Herb Sommerfeld, my science teacher, Lome Cook, and my English teacher, Tony Hearn—whose estate is being sued because he has since died. The thought that I may have been taught by pedophiles is unsettling, but not shocking. When I was

a student I heard the jokes and stories swirling in the school’s corridors. But at that age, it’s tough to tell which rumours have any truth to them. And besides, I went to school in an era when, in spite of the whispers, teachers were still to be trusted.

What have stories like this done for kids, parents and the school system? Gone are the days of having full confidence when you hand your child over to authority figures. It’s a shame for the 99.9 per cent of teachers who are upstanding citizens, but now have to face suspicion. It’s also a shame for the kids, who can’t quite trust their instructors. Fortunately, I never had an inappropriate incident with any of my teachers. In fact, I credit them with only providing positive educational experiences—whether it be Mr. Sommerfeld encouraging me to learn Haydn on piano, Mr. Cook helping me to build a robot, or Mr. Hearn introducing me to the work of George Orwell.

Since the allegations became public three years ago, Mr. Brown has been placed under the media microscope. And while the stories have been devastating, many also touch on what made him so popular. He was a charismatic teacher in a school of conservative thinkers. And he wore jeans to class when

BROWN is the first

among a group of my private-school teachers to be brought to trial on sex-abuse charges

every other teacher wore a suit—something I admired as a uniform-hating 12-year-old, whose shirttails were perpetually hanging out of his grey dress pants.

Mr. Brown is also responsible for assigning me my first photography project (something I’ve since made into a career). Before our trip to England, he held a photo workshop and competition to make sure all his students would be able to capture their memories on film. A photo of my mom’s hibiscus earned me a top prize—a camera case and film. But most importantly, it provided a huge self-esteem boost, since the shelves in my room lacked the athletic trophies that most of the kids at UCC seemed to rack up.

Mr. Brown taught me about experiencing things first-hand. So, in October, I went to hear the verdict in his case. The only other

time I’d been to the Ontario Court of Justice was for a field trip in the ’80s. But this time, I wasn’t wearing a uniform and was interested in the subject.

Mr. Brown appeared, and even though two decades had passed since I’d last seen him, he looked very much the same. He still had a shiny bald head with scruffy hair at the back, but he’d upgraded his glasses from the John Lennon circular variety to a more refined rectangular style. The biggest difference is that he’s now 56, angry and unemployed. I feel a great deal of sympathy for his victims, but a small part of me feels sad for Mr. Brown. He had a zest for life and, before I learned the truth about him, was the type of guy I would have liked to have had a coffee with and shown my photography to all these years later.

Listening to Justice Harry LaForme’s verdict was like a roller-coaster ride. The case was complicated, since a great deal involved childhood memories from 25 years ago, while key witnesses such as headmaster Richard Howard had passed away and the dorm rooms where the abuse occurred no longer exist. I taught high school five years ago and can barely remember lessons or events that happened with my students. So I wondered how Mr. Brown was able to remember exact details of incidents from the 1970s. And how free from distortion were his and the plaintiffs’ recollections?

In just 55 minutes, a guilty verdict ended three years of questions. It made me think back to my days in class. When we misbehaved, Mr. Brown would require us to write an essay that he called a “Wally Walrus.” Although dreaded by students, a “Wally” at least offered an educational and progressive twist to a detention. Wally was the class mascot. The length of the piece varied from 50 words to several hundred, depending on the severity of the offence. And the story had to involve a character named Wally Walrus. Now, the man who assigned us that punishment will undergo his ownlikely jail time.

Mr. Brown’s trial was only the beginning. The cases involving Mr. Sommerfeld, Mr. Hearn and Mr. Cook will probably play out during the next couple of years, and I’ll follow the proceedings closely. It’s incredible to think that people I held in such high regard may not have been who I thought they were. Pictures from that school trip will never look the same. fül