For the Love of Hello Kitty

Michael Whealen, a brilliant and unorthodox York University faculty member, suffered a fatal heart attack in early March. Days passed before his body was discovered. Due to the delay, York did not lower its flag to half-mast until Friday the 13th–a freaky fluke that Whealen would have relished.
|

If you think this is inappropriate, you didn't know Mike Whealen

If you think this is inappropriate, you didn't know Mike Whealen

|
On Monday March 30th
, I stared at the kaleidoscopic ceiling of the chapel in Scott Religious Centre. Although the memorial service for Michael Whealen had yet to begin, it already seemed too quiet, too conventional, for a man who had been anything but. A small picture frame at the front of the room, leaning against a potted plant, served as the simple indicator that, yes, mourners had come to the right place. Like the man himself, the set-up was deceptively humble.

Whealen was a fascinating person. During his 57 years of life, the waif-like teacher with the foghorn voice had survived impossible ordeals. For instance, he narrowly escaped a fiery death in his father’s home and, after being rescued by firefighters, he was nursed back to health with experimental drugs. There was even a time during which Whealen had lived on the street. Perhaps more widely known, however, was Whealen’s uncanny love for the Japanese icon Hello Kitty, or his habit of blasting rap music from his office on quiet Friday afternoons.

Although he was the incisive son of a Harvard-educated journalist, Whealen could not boast a doctorate or a six-figure income. The childless divorcee was no stranger to the life of a vagabond, an iconoclastic existence that refused to apologize for itself.

While waiting, I wondered if I should have worn a Hello Kitty t-shirt instead of a sombre and professional outfit.

As apparent strangers trickled into the room, I wondered who each might be: A former student? A co-worker? An estranged family member? Some exchanged glances of familiarity, but most looked like they had come alone. At first it wasn’t even clear who would preside over the ceremony.

An Anglican Bishop sat in the front row, wearing his holy garbs and waiting patiently. Nearby, a gawky girl with porcelain-white skin and ink-black hair slumped forward, reading something on her lap. Near the back of the room sat a Whealen-look-alike, but with a more youthful air and the posture of a salesman.

Finally, James Robertson–a fellow staffer at York’s Centre for Academic Writing–emerged from the periphery and stood behind the podium. Right away, he acknowledged the irony of celebrating Whealen’s unorthodox life in a religious centre.

“Michael was often, well, vulgar. He questioned everything, often joking about wearing a tin-foil has so that the government couldn’t read his thoughts,” he said.

Indeed, Robertson later informed me that he used the word “vulgar” intently. The origin of the word is deeply class-based, referring to the “common people” that would routinely offend the sensibilities of the bourgeois. Whealen didn’t like hypocrisy or pretence.

“I think Michael took pleasure in being profane,” he said. Audience members nodded and smiled.

Robertson went on to admit that he’d been quite surprised to learn of Whealen’s Anglican roots–he had come from a lineage of priests–and that Bishop Arthur Brown wanted to say a few words at Michael’s memorial.

Minutes later, the elderly bishop rested his weight on the handles of his four-wheeled walker. Taking a decidedly less-ceremonious and more-conversational tone, it seemed the clergyman was no stranger to Whealen’s antics.

“Michael comes from the Hebrew Micael which means ‘resembling God’. He’s also the archangel who got Lucifer out of heaven.” He paused, then continued with a twinkle in his eye, “But I guess he would have had to get to know Lucifer quite well to manage that.” More smiles. More nods.

Whealen was full of such contradictions.

In an article for Arts & Opinion, an online magazine based in Montreal, Whealen once wrote of “danc[ing] on the razor-fine edge between life and death, sanity and madness, acuity and hallucination, historical fiction and facticity.”

In this vein, Matt Pfaff, described Whealen at the memorial as a man with the physique of Skeletor and the wit of Hunter S. Thompson. In a further allusion to Thompson–a journalist known for his cheeky disregard for authority–Pfaff referred to his email exchanges with Whealen as “The Gonzo files.”

I thought about the fact that I almost didn’t make it to the ceremony. I hadn’t recieved an email from my department. I hadn’t heard through word-of-mouth. Actually, I’d almost missed the sidebar about Whealen’s passing in our school newspaper, Excalibur. In the article, Carl Hiehn quoted Robertson in saying, “[Whealen] was a person of the people rather than a person of the academy [...] it was Whealen’s unique position as an outsider that made him accessible to those York students who also feel outside academia.”

The pale girl was suddenly summoned to the podium. She’d scooped up the paper she’d been reading and walked slowly to the front of the chapel. As she read her speech, eyes lowered, I noticed her outfit, as black as her hair, and her knee-high leather boots. She has a soft accent that I could not place.

“I failed Michael’s class” she confessed, immediately locating herself as an academic outsider. “But if it wasn’t for Michael, I may not be here today.” The room was still. She then smiled as she read an email from him “He said he’d be ready to go after seeing a black man elected president.”

It was one of Whealen’s most interesting tendencies to perpetually reflect on life and death. Somewhere in the middle of his article for Arts and Opinions, Whealen embarked on a clearly demarcated “excursus.” His words are intriguing enough as to quote him at length:

“We are stuck here on this godforsaken stage (Isaiah Berlin called Earth the “insane asylum of the universe”), and forced into these outrageous roles by [. . .] the fortuity of our birth, and the inevitability of our death. This is, I think, the bare ontology of the world [. . . that we . . .] all inhabit, and must negotiate. Dreams are dead. The landscape is littered with bones; the earth, drenched with blood.”

But Whealen wasn’t necessarily pessimistic, nor was his humour always dark. His friends described his generosity, his kindness, his playfulness. Robertson reminisced about the small Hello Kitty figurine that Whealen had placed in his office. “This is a mini cam, a vigilante that will watch you when I’m not around.” Again, the mourners smiled to themselves.

What had started as a conventional memorial began showing signs of the cheeky nuances that Whealen would have loved. Patrick O’Neill played an acoustic tribute on his guitar, including a chorus line that went, “It’s a wonder the wind don’t blow off your skin.”

Another colleague, Phyllis Rozendale, offered the attendees Godiva chocolate, a treat which Whealen used to buy en masse from a “secret supplier”. Although there were tears, there were many more grins. The Whealen-look-alike, who turned out to be his brother Bryan, looked nostalgic and contented. There was something more than mourning in the air–perhaps it was exuberance.

After the ceremony, I searched my inbox for my own email exchanges with Whealen. Ironically, our last set bore the subject line “Alive and Well.” In one of his messages, he shared this poem with me:

“The is a little-known poem by the 20th Century Boston poet Robert Lowell that, in part, goes:

Weep (It is frequent in human affairs)
Weep for the magnificence of the means
And the pathetic, shabby tragedy of the ends.”

The flag that had flown at half-mast couldn’t tell passers-by who Whealen had been. Upon questioning, most students who had known him admitted they didn’t know he had passed. He had no children, and no lavish inheritance to forward. His characteristic tremor had simply stopped one day in his downtown Toronto residence, marking a humble end to a fascinating story.

Want to read some of Whealen’s own words? Check out the addendum to this post: Whealen’s Witticisms

On Hatred and Honey Bees

 

the little bee girl

Bring the past only if you are going to build from it. ~Doménico Cieri Estrada

I still remember the first day of fifth grade. Ms. McCarthy sat with her hands folded on her lap, swaying back and forth on an old wooden rocking chair. As she spoke, I studied her carefully—skin, impossibly pale; hair, a tumble of grey and white; eyes, steel-blue rocks.

“I’m allergic to strong scents,” she stated in a menacing tone, “And I can only wear 100% cotton”. I examined her thick socks, pale-blue tights and oversized sweater, the latter draping over her thin body like a hospital gown.
In retrospect, it amazes me that I found this fragile creature so intimidating—but I believed, at the age of ten, that Ms. McCarthy was all-powerful. Her list of ailments made her untouchable. Her grin was enigmatic. And it didn’t help that I sat right in front of her, my desk in the direct view of those steel-blue eyes.

Most children, at one time or another, are convinced that their teacher is out to get them. Having always been a favourite student, I never thought my time would come. I printed my name visibly in big black letters—FABIOLA—and stuck the paper neatly to the front of my desk.

 

I’ll never know if she did it intentionally, but the first and only day that I didn’t complete my homework, Ms. McCarthy took our class on a spontaneous trip to a neighbouring park. Instead of playing on the swings or hanging from the monkey-bars, I sat beside her on a hard wooden bench. My offence: I had only written two lines in my daily journal. Ms. McCarthy felt that this was irresponsible, lazy, nothing short of shameful for a girl who was supposedly “gifted”. She said the word with such contempt. I sat there for what felt like an hour, listening to her repeat the same accusations in different words. She asked me if I thought I was smart enough to be in gifted. When I started crying, she lowered her face to mine. “Waaah! Waaah!” She mocked, squeezing her eyes shut. My cry became a choked whimper.

The truth is I had forgotten to finish my journal, but she hadn’t accepted that answer. The longer we sat there, the more I attempted to make excuses for myself. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” she chirped. I looked at her in confusion, “Oh, that’s my inner lie-detector. I don’t believe you, Fabiola.”

 

It was art class, my favourite subject, and we were painting trees. I sat on the hallway floor with the other students, giving life to my tree in broad strokes of orange, red and yellow. The trunk was a deep chocolate brown. I had always been told I had artistic talent, so I smiled to myself as I worked.

Suddenly, the socked-Birkenstocks stopped right in front of me. I looked up to see Ms. McCarthy staring back down.
“The trunk is too dark, Fabiola.” She said, kneeling down and squeezing white paint onto my brown paint. She started to mix it but then got up. “Lighten it.” She said, as she sauntered away. I proceeded to blend the colours, growing increasingly upset as the rich chocolate brown became dry and hay-like. I repainted my tree with tears in my eyes. Finally, I got up and showed it to her.

“The trunk is too light. Do it again.” She said.

I returned to my place and squeezed out some more brown paint. The paper sagged under the weight of the still-wet layers. I overheard Ms. McCarthy praising someone else’s rudimentary, cactus-like tree. I decided that art was no longer my favourite subject.

 

Ms. McCarthy had been pleasant during parent-teacher interviews. My mom gently laughed at me for being afraid of her. Though I usually went to interviews, this time I had stayed home, pacing back and forth.

“Baby, she says you’re a good student. Your grades are great! Why do you think she hates you?”

I shrugged my shoulders and went to write in my personal diary. While the journals for Ms. McCarthy were always short and forced, the journals about Ms. McCarthy were long and tear-stained. I wrote of how she’d punished me by sending me to the hallway—a first for me. In disbelied, I had watched the heavy door shut in front of me.

When a bug expert had visited our school, I had excitedly told Ms. McCarthy that Indian stick insects are all female. “Well, how do they reproduce?” She chided. When I told her I didn’t know, she proceeded to lecture me for not asking obvious questions. “Aren’t you gifted, Fabiola?” She reminded.

At Christmas time, we had to come up with slogans that promoted reading. Finding that I had a knack for it, I helped many of my peers match slogans to almost any magazine cut-out they could find. Ms. McCarthy was more positive toward me than usual, but I felt it was a fragile state of affairs. It wasn’t long before she approached me with a cut-out of the nativity scene.

“What slogan can you think of for this one?” The nerves got to me. I struggled, almost begging for an answer from baby Jesus himself.
“The best book is the Holy Book?” I mumbled, thinking this would pass at a Catholic school.
“No!” She jeered, “Obviously Fabiola—Books STABILIZE me.”

Her severity came through in subtleties—the way she would purse her lips, narrow her eyes, shake her head when I spoke. I would think of sticks and stones whenever she used the words “irresponsible”, “dishonest”, “not good enough”. When I did something right and she said nothing, and I didn’t know how to document the empty feeling.

One by one, I ripped out the pages of my diary and threw them away. Though the pages decomposed, the memories remained vivid.

 

It was almost the end of the year. We had all been assigned an insect for our final project. We would build its likeness in paper-thin wood, learn about it, draw it, and write a poem about it. During an informal work period, I was happily working on my honey bee poem—one in which I took on the voice of the Queen Bee. I declared my dominance over the drones, making sure to include several facts I’d learned. I read it over quickly. I read it over slowly. I made sure that, no matter the tempo, it would read fluidly, like honey. I put my pencil down and smiled. There was no way Ms. McCarthy wouldn’t like it. She would stop keeping me one reading level behind the two other gifted girls.

I looked up to see Ms. McCarthy perched on her rocking chair, half a room away. Suddenly, it felt like there was an ocean between us. I waded toward her, knot in my stomach, one foot in front of the other. As I approached, she peered at me through her chained reading-glasses.

“What’s this? Your poem? Done already?” I nodded, not breathing or moving. She began to read it in her head. I looked for the familiar signs of approval—but she didn’t speak. Or smile. Or nod.
Finally, she put the paper down and looked me in the eyes. I swallowed hard.

“Fabiola—what book did you copy this from?”
And with those words, she finally crushed me.

 

On the first day of Sixth grade, I saw Ms. McCarthy ushering new students into her classroom. I watched her from afar, gripping the two projects she had assigned me for the summer. She said it would help me catch up to the other gifted girls, that I would thank her later.

I had kept a daily journal, complete with drawings and perfect spelling, and had finished a project about planet Earth. I had spent the final days of summer colouring, correcting, gluing and worrying. Instead of fantasizing about sixth grade, I was still sick over fifth. This was the final project I would give to Ms. McCarthy—and I had hope that she would like it. She now stood beside the door of my old classroom, looking as gigantic as ever. The knot in my stomach re-appeared as I slowly walked towards her.

“Ms. McCarthy?” I said, my voice cracking. This was it. This was the moment I’d amaze her. She’d say my name kindly, congratulate me for working hard during a break. She would say I was responsible. Everything would be OK.
“Yes?” She turned toward me and looked down.
“Here is the project you asked me to do over the summer.”

She scooped my work up into her vein-ridden hands, scanning the covers of both booklets the way my parents looked at junk mail. She furrowed her brow as I stood there, shuffling my feet.
There was a long moment of silence before she finally said, “I’m sorry . . . what’s your name?”

The End

The spectre of Ms. McCarthy still hangs above me as a young adult. I now realize that the frail old woman is symbolic of a bigger fear: failure, despite my most genuine efforts. Seeing as we feel pain in proportion to how much we’ve experienced, what seemed a trauma in my childhood is now a life lesson. There will always be people who try to discourage and detain us; whether we are ten, forty-three or eighty, we will encounter those that will try to make us feel small. It is here that we can learn from the humble honey bee. We must keep building, despite adversity, and we may still manage to create sweetness within the wax.