Sunday, October 10, 2010

A tribute to Ben Tobias

Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan contacted me this weekend to ask if we would pay tribute to Ben Tobias (above with sister Katie), a 14-year-old who was bullied before he took his own life in August. Ben was born missing both legs and his right hand.

Just a few weeks before his death, Ben, who lived in Bothell, Wash., spoke with Adrian, an internationally renowned violin soloist in Toronto who is also one-handed, to learn about how a bow could be adapted so that he too could play the violin. "My husband Mike did a search of one-handed violinists and Adrian's name popped up," writes Ben's mother Jan Davidson. "My husband called him and Adrian was very generous with his time, talking to both Mike and Ben."

After Ben's death, Adrian asked Ben's mother to write an essay about her son. She wrote "A mother's sorrow," below, while listening to this video performance of Schindler's List, which Adrian has dedicated to Ben. Following the essay is a commentary from Adrian. As you know, I have my own "Ben," and when I read this story about Ben Tobias, my heart broke for him and his family. And then I was filled with anger and outrage at the bullies.

A mother's sorrow
By Jan Davidson

My child, my child, where are you now?

I wrap my arms around his sweater and smell his sweet mysterious scent.

He is gone from this earth, gone from my arms, far too soon and far too violently.

I cry the tears that only a mother can cry. I did not, I could not, protect him from his pain. I did not see, could not see, the depth of his pain. Ultimately I failed him.

My sorrow is bottomless and I will live with that forever.

There is a pain when a child dies of disease. There is a pain when a child dies accidently. There is, I think, a much greater pain when a child considers his place on earth, finds it unworthy, and takes his own life.

And when that death is caused by an inexplicable meanness, nastiness and hate, a parent is left with overwhelming feelings of anger and revenge. A state of grace and forgiveness does not come easily or naturally.

My son, my beautiful, intelligent and wonderful son, was bullied. Bullied to death. He was 14.

Ben's life was never easy. Born in Arsenyv, Russia, he was rejected at birth by his parents and abandoned in an orphanage to die. Ironically, the reason we adopted him was the reason he was abandoned. He was a triple amputee, missing both legs and his right hand.

We devoted our lives to him, never leaving him with a babysitter. We nursed him back to health, taught him to walk, ride a bike, swim and tie his shoes. He rose above his disabilities and became a friend to all. He inspired respect and awe wherever he went, yet he wore the adulation lightly. He could never understand why people thought he was special.

He may have been born without limbs, but God granted him an extravagant intelligence. He was a genius, a child savant. He was an accomplished writer and artist and was studying the violin. He had been reading at the college level for years. He could have been anything that he wanted to be. He had the capability to change the world.

Yet as he was struggling to make the leap between childhood and manhood, with all of his issues, certain other children were determined to hobble his trajectory, to cut him down to their level. They began to bully him, in person and on the net. Every day brought a new set of humiliations for Ben. He was assaulted by physical abuse, verbal abuse, taunts and jeers. One young girl made it her life's mission to make him as miserable as possible and sought him out in school and on the net to make his life a special hell. Yet he never told us, never mentioned his humiliations, never revealed his tears.

We had no idea.

So on the warm summer evening of August 7 when his father found his lifeless body in his room, we were racked with "why" and "what if?" It wasn't until later that we pieced together the tortured and painful last months of his life.

The pain of losing a child is an unimagined hell.

The pain of losing a child to bullying is an indescribable descent into blackness. Somewhere out there are children who chose my child on whom to heap their load of scorn, to torture and to laugh at. They sleep peacefully while I am left with only pictures and memories.

We struggle to make sense of their actions. What kind of families do they come from? What kind of people are they now and what kind will they turn into? What kind of society are we creating that nurtures this kind of behaviour? Didn't they see the pain they were causing and didn't it give them pause?

There is something seriously wrong with our society when a pack of children cull from their midst the most vulnerable and fragile of their group -- a physically disabled child -- and badger him to death. This is the work of animals, not human beings. I fear for the future of our race.

For the people he has left behind, there is no "new normal." There is only a hole that cannot and will not be filled. I am left to pray only that he is in a better place. I pray that he is happy, and at peace.

I love my son with all my heart, and will continue to love him until the day I die. We needed him as much as, or more than, he needed us. We aren't complete without him. This is the painful result of suicide.

Benjamin Michael Roman Tobias, July 30, 1996 to August 7, 2010. Rest in Peace, Sweetheart. We will never forget you.

Love, Mom

From Adrian: I originally came in contact with Ben through his parents, who called me up here in Canada. The interesting thing is that I only spoke to Ben once, a few weeks before his suicide. There was a hope that I could connect him up to my prosthetist at Holland Bloorview to see if we could optimize an adaptation for his violin device, which he had begun using recently. He sounded like a pretty happy kid on the phone, and one who was on the cusp of doing some very special things in his life. There is always a peculiar connection people with disabilities share, and I felt an immediate connection with this young man.

In particular, I was hoping that the violin, and music in general, would become a special part of his life, as it was in mine. Looking back, it was music that helped me survive elementary school bullying, as it was not only an outlet to my emotions, but a way of communicating with my peers on an equal footing.
A few weeks went by, and I was curious if Ben had made any progress, and was about to message him on Facebook, when his father wrote to me about the loss of his son. It was a shock, I remember being particularly emotional. That brief connection we had on the phone was sacred: I feel that every amputee is like an extended brother or sister, as we not only share our struggles, but our hopes as well.

I knew I wanted to do something special for him, although I had no clue about his life and story. It was happenstance that Schindler's List was the perfect choice, as I found out after posting the recording that Ben's family was Jewish, and it was one of their favourite songs. Secondly, the Holocaust is, in a sense, bullying taken to a tragic extreme. The same ignorance that killed seven million Jews was the same ignorance that killed Ben. The piece is an elegy to those who have been lost too soon, and a reminder of the pain that these victims had to endure. It is the most meaningful recording I've played thus far in my career, and I'm happy to do my best to make sure Ben's story reaches as many people as possible.

Beyond that, Ben is an inspiration for my life in general, as he is one of the reasons I'm applying for grad school in education over the coming months. It is sometimes not the children's fault that bullying becomes prevalent in schoolyards. The onus remains on parents and educators to ensure that we send strong messages about social justice and inclusion. These changes have to be systemic, rather than within individual classrooms, and I believe that we can do better.

Ben, dear brother, you are not alone, and for those who are going through similar challenges in life: it gets better!


What beauty -- this young man, the violinist, the emotions evoked by the mother -- and what horror, too, at this culture, at what people do to one another. It boggles the mind --

This is breaking my heart too. We can do better, I hope we can do better.

I was crying as I read it. I hope that there is a greater good that comes from his death. I hope the bullies were identified and sent for pyschological/psychiatric sessions because it is that serious. I'd go as far as to say that they are a danger to society.

This is heartbreaking. Without justifiying what was done, bullies themselves often have their own issues with self-confidence and low self-esteem, and as a result prey on those who they feel can have a sense of control over. I pray that for the bullies, they eventually realise that what they do is wrong and find something more meaningful in their lives. As for the family and those whom this story affects, I am at a loss for words. I pray that they find comfort and peace that Ben is not suffering anymore, and by sharing their story, I hope that others are saved this pain.

I am a student at Ben's former school, and I want to stand up for some of the kids there. The first week Ben came to our school the people at my lunch table invited him to sit with us. He complied of course, because he never ever said no to someone if it could be avoided. I never really knew him that well but i would still say hi to him in the hallways occasionally, and I know some of my friends were always inclusive to him. And even now, I still cry on his anniversaries of his death. It's been three months now and I called my friend to talk to her about it on October 7th. It still hurts me and I know I'm not the cause of Ben's death, but I feel the guilt other certain people should. I am so sad he had to die to teach me a lesson, but I cannot show my appreciation enough that I learned early enough in my life, although I know it just makes the fact that he's passed all the more sad. My friend and I went in to the principal and asked if we could do something for Ben a couple weeks ago, because we didn't want him to be forgotten. However, their response was frustrating and it seemed like they were more about the politics than the act of kindness and tribute towards Ben. Ben was such a great person and I promise it really has changed me for the better. There is this kid who is different, moved here after school started, and not athletic, meaning naturally stupid people teased him. However, now he and I are good friends and I enjoy talking to him as two equal people. This has been a painful experience for me and I know many other people, but remember-every rainy cloud has at least one silver lining.

Thanks everyone for your comments!

Anonymous number 1 -- you are so right. We should be focused on what it is within our culture/school system that feeds/enables bullying and allows it to persist.

And Anonymous number 2 -- I'm really glad you posted here and shared your feelings and insights. It's good to know that there were students in your school who welcomed Ben. I'm very sad to hear about the response you had from the principal when you tried to organize something to remember Ben. Maybe you could work with Ben's parents and family to keep his memory alive. You're obviously doing that every day at school, in the way you reach out to others, like the boy you mentioned. Thanks very much for sharing here!

I hope your family has done some healing in the past three years, I was just thinking about ben today (I went to school with him for a couple of months) and found this. I felt your letter of loss was a bit cruel to the girl that you're talking about, although I understand it. She was bitter, evil and malevolent towards Ben, but I'm sure she didn't want it to go so far. I remember Ben and her actually being friendly towards the beginning of the year, till she too was taunted for being his friend, and this is where insecurity on her part played in. Perhaps you need not blame her, but the people who taunted her. I just thought maybe, in case you hadn't heard that perspective you should. She wasn't out to get your son, she was insecure, and your classic junior high mean girl.

Just a nice memory to share also..
I was sitting in i think graphic design class or something at leota with ben, (I don't remember if we had a seating chart or we just chose our seats) anyways, he spent the first four days of class creating this masterpiece of music on the computer and trying to explain to me how to use garageband. On about the fourth day, he had some classical art going and i had a beat...with some background effects... we spent the whole class goofing off and laughing about how musically challenged I was. A couple more months into that class, as we had grown closer and I had learned more about him, we were doing a type to learn activity and I had been stuck on this level for days. The level was some type of game where you had to type fast enough to pass it. After expressing much frustration, Ben offered me his help, doubtful that he could do better than me due to his disability I hesitantly let him try it a couple of times. The first time his score was lower than mine, but persistently he kept trying until four more tries later, he got it! A little baffled and greatly impressed, I gave him a big smile and thanks. But more than that, I learnt that the least privileged will surprise you. Unfortunately, shortly after that I pulled myself out of the school due to my unhappiness, I wish I would've known to warn Ben and let him know that he had the option to leave, and start over. RIP Ben.