Sometimes as children we go looking for heroes. When we have questions so big we can't articulate them ourselves we seek out those people who can adopt our inquiries and bring a new vocabulary to them.
When I met Joe Opatowski I was looking for a hero. My father had just died from cancer. I was 12-years-old and had read Craig Kielburger's book "Free the Children" and I suppose at the time, given my disposition with regards to my father's illness, I had grandiose questions and was looking for a hero. Kielburger, then a 15-year-old child rights activist who had traveled the world seemed like a good hero to have. After sharing my story with an employee at the Kids Can Free The Children office and expressing my desire to change the world, and in so doing change myself, I was invited to attend their conference titled "Grasping Globalization." This is where I met Joe.
At 12 I was uniquely inquisitive and I think that's why I was so ostracized in school. Following my father's death I became a target for ruthless harassment and found myself faced with the question "why me?" Free the Children's philosophies were easy to grasp, maybe a little too easy--simply, every challenge functioned as a case for why one should endeavor to change the world.
When I met Joe, he was trying to get everyone to shout the words to some absurd campfire song. I didn't want to shout. Being who I was then, I would rather sit and watch other people shouting and think about it on my own terms. Joe singled me out until I was crying and shouting. I hated him but was drawn to him. I hated him because he made me speak when I wanted to slip away. I was drawn to him because he could be so shameless, shouting foolish childish chants, without ever seeming to sacrifice his dignity.
When people write about Joe they write about his troubled past. When I think of Joe I think of a force that came from some powerful thing that rumbled in his core, the earnest and impassioned selflessness that exploded out of him, like a bodily function. I think it was something he had to have been born with, not anything that he inherited by way of Toronto's seedy underworld.
During this first meeting with Joe he taught me his first lesson, "Your voice matters," he told me. "You have to learn to trust your own voice." That night I wrote my first poem.
When I returned to school in Fonthill, Ontario, I can guarantee that everyone, my teachers, classmates, and family, thought I had gone nutty. The thing is that I realized there was something that wanted to burst from my own core for a very long time. I raised my hand in class, I sang loudly in front of other students, I said my opinions, I stopped caring so much about what other people said and began to consider the truth of my own ideas. I had an inwards eye that was focused now and growing.
The backlash was nothing to be scoffed at. Kids hated me even more and let me know that when I spoke I was performing some kind of wild transgression. Good girls don't have ideas. Good girls keep their hands folded politely in their laps and only speak when called upon. Joe would be in Toronto, he would be at a party or at a nightclub or in a meeting but he always took my phone calls. Most times I would be crying. "If everyone thinks something is wrong with me," I would say, "then maybe something is gravely wrong with me and I am undeserving of love." He would respond, "Just because they don't understand you doesn't mean that something is wrong with you. You are loved and you are okay."
Every summer at the Leader's Today Leadership Academy I would go on incredible adventures with Joe. We would go around with signs that said "free hugs" or bring sandwiches to the homeless or jump into public fountains. Joe challenged me to try brushing my teeth with my left hand instead of my right. At one point he proclaimed that taste was a false sense and would prove his point by putting all kinds of disgusting food combinations into a blender and then drinking his masterpiece with a straw. He always slept on the floor. Even in a hotel he would sleep on the floor beside the bed. He taught me to stand on chairs and look downwards or lie on the floor and look up. Every change in perspective held an answer to a question you didn't know you were asking.
When I was 14 Joe organized a trip to Thailand and took me with him. On the beach, looking out onto the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, he said to me "think of all the philosophers who have looked out onto this same body of water and come up with a completely different idea." He told me to choose a star and stare at it and spin. We spun until all was dark and we'd both fallen into the water.
This October 29 will mark 10 years since Joe died while driving home after a delivering a speech on the importance of compassion to a school in Buffalo.
To me, Joe was not just a friend, he was an older brother, a father figure, and my biggest hero. When he died the Toronto Star dedicated a full page to his volunteer work, which was admirable, but not the entirety of what he was to so many people. I was floored to see the differences in attendees at his memorial: children from all walks of life, church leaders, activists, homeless, and various community members of distinguished repute.
The last time I saw him he told me to keep writing, "I think you are onto something with this writing bit. I think maybe that's where your voice is." I was sad about having to go back to school and having my passion be met with incredible hate. I kept writing. I called him to thank him the day before he died, he simply responded, "No, that's all you, kid."
Sometimes we think to be a hero we need to orchestrate some grandiose gesture. For a long time I believed that changing the world meant raising money to "solve" big problems or "cure" big issues. The world is large, and complex, and multidimensional, and forever spinning. Such ideas are often arrogant and foolish. At a time when I felt worthless Joe simply told me that my voice mattered and showed me it did by taking it seriously. For this reason, people like Joe Opatowski won't be in history books, but when his name is brought up so many people light up. It is difficult to write about the heroes whose heroic acts happen on a small, private scale, but affect such a copious amount of people in a deeply significant way. Joe Opatowski was a man who valued individuals as individuals and took the time to speak to the value of each singular voice, and thereby heal the world one person at a time.