Timmy Fletcher was five years old. He lived with his family in a small town in Ontario.
He was bright. Charming too, in that confident way of young children who are loved by those around them. He zipped around in his wheelchair, beaming.
Timmy had one big wish: to go to school, like the other kids.
A new law allowed children with disabilities to attend their local schools. But the school and Timmy’s teacher didn’t think they could handle a paraplegic child.
I empathized with the teacher’s concerns. But the law was clear. And so I went to the school and kept asking: Why won’t you let Timmy into school?
I was one of two journalists who wouldn’t let up.
When the school finally changed course and Timmy went to school, my cameraman and I were there.
Timmy was back on the news that evening, a big smile on his face.
Journalism came alive for me when I realized the power of “Why?”
“Why” and “why not” are powerful questions, especially when posed on the local evening news. Traffic lights get installed at a busy intersection; care improves in a senior citizens’ home; regulations are changed or followed.
Asking “why” can actually change lives.
One of my last stories as a TV news reporter was about the lack of female firefighters in Toronto and most of Canada.
Asking “why” led me to two women at City Hall – Mary Bruce and Pat Henderson. They ran the Equity office.
They would love to see a woman firefighter, they said. What’s more, the fire chief did too. But all candidates failed the physical test.
Hmmm… I thought.
“With weight training, could a woman ever become strong enough to be a firefighter?” I asked the woman who ran my weight-training gym.
“Don’t see why not,” she replied.
“Is there an applicant who has come close?” I asked Mary and Pat. “Could you ask the chief?”
Before I knew it, the three of us were having lunch with Diane Oland, a smart woman who had repeatedly aced the written firefighting test. Diane was physically strong, but not strong enough.
“I know a woman,” I told my weight trainer. “She wants to be a firefighter. Could you train her?”
“I’ll do better,” she replied quickly. “My husband runs our other gym nearby and he used to be a firefighter in the UK. I’ll call him.”
My trainer’s husband felt he could get Diane ready to retake the test within 6 months or less — if she really wanted it. She did.
“We’ll all support you,” pledged Pat, Mary and I.
So she did, he did and we did.
The day Diane aced the test, I wasn’t just a journalist. I was undoubtedly one of her supporters.
I always tried to keep my own emotions out of my stories. But “why” and “why not” are dangerous questions. Sometimes, after asking them, your sense of justice gets seriously triggered and before you know it, you’re invested in the outcome.
Someone called my TV news station. A cameraman and I rushed to the scene.
The landlady showed us the disheveled room. “I kept screaming that they had the wrong man! They got the wrong room. They wouldn’t listen to me!”
It’s been three decades, and I ‘ve never forgotten him.
This was a case where “Why” and “Why not” were simply not enough.
That afternoon, Ronald, a Black man, lay on his bed in the rooming house where he lived, reading his Bible. Ronald Jackson was a practicing Christian.
A group of strange men burst in and attacked him.
Ronald did what any reasonable person would do: protest; fight back; try to save himself.
But by the time the plainclothes policemen stopped attacking Ronald, he had been badly beaten.
Meanwhile, the guy the police were really after made a swift escape.
My cameraman and I saw Ronald ourselves – his white undershirt stained with blood, his skin bruised. He looked dazed. But he did not get an apology. He got arrested instead.
A lawyer who saw my report on the evening news offered to represent Ronald, and he got his day in court. Or should have.
Just before the court date, Ronald’s lawyer told me, police officers in Toronto shipped Ronald off to Montreal, supposedly because of an old traffic ticket. He was in jail there when his case came up.
I had lost touch with this case, and only learned the above years later when I called the lawyer to ask how it had all turned out. He bluntly added: “He’s not the same man you met. He’s gone crazy.”
I could have wept.
(Ronald Jackson is not his real name.)
35 thoughts on “Change What You Can”
Cynthia, you have done so much good over the years! I cried reading Ronald’s story, and the injustice of it. You did what you could.
Thanks for saying that, Lavinia. I moved up through the ranks of network television, and thought he was okay – it seemed such a clear-cut case.
I’ve learned over the years that one has to make the best decision one can, based on what one knows at the time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, revealing all the many unknowns and what one should have or could have done, but it does no good to berate oneself over it. I have many of those hindsight memories. We learn and go forward.
Oh, gosh! Perhaps we can’t change everything, but we can keep asking “why?” and “why not?” Those who are journalists, and those who are not. Thanks, Cynthia, for all that you have done and continue to do.
I like that – those who are journalists, and those who are not”. It takes all us and we must not become complacent.
Yes, yes, yes!
Such a moving read, Cynthia. My heart soared at Diane’s story and cried at Ronald’s. Everyone has a story to tell, some have happy endings and others are just heartbreaking.
This was a very moving piece. It is women like you that ask those questions who make big changes in the world. The systemic racism that is so prevalent in the world seems to be a never ending battle. That also includes gender bias. Your story about “Ronald Jackson” is being played out again and again all over the world. I wonder if it will ever, ever end. Keep making the change with your books. It starts with children. Hugs.
Thank you, Marlene. And for the encouragement, and the reminder that I still am doing something to make change. Bless you.
Continue to do the good work my cuz
Kudos Cynthia on caring enough to get involved and help make a difference. Well done with Diane, hard to accept with Ronald.
That’s right, Brad. Hard to accept.
You have seen so much. The happiness of seeing a child in a wheelchair being able to go to school. Diane’s success in becoming a firefighter. The awful injustice of Ronald being treated as he was only because he was black. You have made the difference in some lives and yet are haunted to this day by the outcome of Ronald’s story. Some things are so hard to change.
Absolutely, Fran. And I know I should just get over it, but it still occasionally brings me to tears. I started out this post writing about him. I added the others to remind myself that we can’t change everything, but we should make the effort to change what we can.
It must be great to know that you have made such a difference.
It’s good, Andrea. Helping a person to realize their ambition when the odds are against them is a gift to that person and the one helping them as well.
Good journalism–and just speaking up and following through–can make such a difference. I am sorry about Mr. Jackson. It is a loss, isn’t it, even when you weigh it against the successes.
Thank you for this important reminder of what journalism is all about. It’s not about ratings; it’s about people’s lives. I was so sorry to read about what happened to Ronald.
We have you to thank for the changes you’ve brought about, Cynthia! Journalism is more than a job. You’ve brought justice to the attention of the audience who would not otherwise know or pay attention to. ❤
Such a thought-provoking post. “Why?” is a key question for psychotherapists, too
Such a sad story about Ronald! Unthinkable that such miscarriage of justice happen.
It just breaks my heart to read this.
Powerful, Cynthia. And sad. In my life as an advocate on environmental and health issues, I often relied on the power of the press. It often meant a more even playing field and gave us a chance to achieve change. Your story of the black man is a tragic one that has been repeated over and over and over. Thank you for this powerful example. Black lives matter. –Curt
This IS very sad, but you’ve made such a difference in many lives, Cynthia!
This makes such glorious and then such painful reading. Your role has been the reduction of injustice and giving a chance for others to fulfil their lives. I understand that it must still hurt so much that you could change Ronald’s unfair fate, but telling us is another way to make sure that we are all alert and aware and helps to stop them in future.
Bless you, Hilary. I very much appreciate this.
What a difference journalism makes in our world! Thank you for sharing your inspiring stories, Cynthia.
Love this. Very powerful and I was left feeling very angry about Ronald and yet hugely uplifted about the lady firefighter and the lad in his wheelchair. A weird mix of emotions. We have come so far and yet we have so much further to go.
Beautiful heart-stirring vignettes of your experience as a journalist, Cynthia.
Thanks, Kev. There are so many of these experiences that I rarely write about them. A bit overwhelming.
I can but imagine.
It is wonderful how journalism can bring about awareness and necessary change. It must have been so rewarding for you!
Heartbreaking about the miscarriage of justice, and how it continues to this day…
I love that people like you are out there, Cynthia. It’s just about doing what’s right, what’s decent–and persistence. Changing the world one situation at a time . . .
Wow. What a rewarding tale for the little boy and the female firefighter. And what a terribly tragic one for Ronald Jackson. But so importantly, you were there to help change the paths of these people’s lives. Sadly, and it’s always a painful lesson I learned in the humane/rescue field, we can’t save every one. It doesn’t take away from what great things you achieved, Cynthia. Kudos to you.