Gods and Monsters
To his students and their parents, Graham Wishart was an extraordinary music teacher who inspired his kids to soar in their studies and in their lives. That was before we discovered his unthinkable secret. How could someone so good have been so bad?
This article was first published in the April 2002 issue of Toronto Life.
In high school, if you’re lucky, you encounter one exceptional teacher. He makes you care about what he cares about, whether it’s the French Revolution, or the periodic table, or the three-point shot. If you’re really lucky, that teacher becomes your mentor and ushers you into adulthood. Your enthusiasm bleeds into your other studies, into your friendships. You astonish everyone, including your parents, by performing unexpectedly well. His lessons stay with you for the rest of your life. For me, and for hundreds like me, that teacher was Graham Wishart, the head of the music department at Oakwood Collegiate Institute.
Of all the concerts I played under his baton, one stands out. Not because it was our best concert, but because it was a great moment for Wishart and therefore a great moment for me. It was in 1990, my Grade 10 year, and we were in a tiny New Brunswick fishing village on Deer Island—the kind of place where men serve as volunteer firefighters and women make tuna casseroles with cornflakes on top. The community centre where we were scheduled to perform had no stage, so we set up in a corner of its basketball court. Wishart was in his 40s then and a dashing figure. Tall, thin, prematurely grey, he had preposterously bushy eyebrows that would have looked cartoonish on anyone else. He was the only man in the room wearing a suit. From my seat in the cello section, I watched him walk to the front of the ensemble with long, confident strides. He raised his arms, suspended them in the air and waited, catching the eyes of a few key musicians. The bleachers were packed with what seemed like the entire town. There was total silence. Then, despite the wretched acoustics, the gym filled with exuberant Mendelssohn. Wishart danced, and we followed, attentive to every breath, every tilt of his head, every lunge of his body. We may not have sounded like the New York Philharmonic, but that’s how we felt. Professional. Together. Exhilarated. Graham Wishart and his posse of downtown Toronto teens had transformed the Deer Island community centre into Carnegie Hall. I had no idea at the time that the man who inspired us to play like that, our favourite teacher, was a methodical child molester.
By the time I arrived at Oakwood, a sprawling collegiate on St. Clair west of Bathurst, Wishart was already a legend. He was 23 when he joined the school’s staff in 1967, and within two years he became the youngest music department head in the city, transforming the program into one of the great success stories of the public school system. The National Youth Orchestra was filled with his students; so was the faculty of music at U of T. His graduates went on to play in orchestras all over North America. Some students commuted from out of district (there was a flute player who took the subway from Scarborough to Oakwood every day), but most were from the neighbourhood’s immigrant families—Italian, Portuguese and West Indian. One of the stars of the program was a black kid from a single-parent home. Another was a Chilean who lived in subsidized housing. In rehearsal, none of that mattered. What mattered was Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Shostakovich.
Wishart was an elitist. He had no time for the crowd-pleasing dreck so popular with other high school orchestras. He chose complex works and expected us to play them seamlessly. Once a week, we had sectional rehearsals at 7:45 a.m. We often gave up our lunch hours to practise, and every Tuesday the orchestra stayed until nine p.m. During the day, if all the music rooms were booked, we’d rehearse in the cafeteria or even the hall. Wishart would arrange financial aid for kids who couldn’t afford private lessons. (“Nobody gets left behind because of money,” he used to say.) At home, I’d get up at six and play scales in the basement to avoid waking my parents.
Wishart’s other students were no less devoted. Reuven Rothman, who graduated in 1990, is now 30 and regularly plays double bass with the COC’s orchestra and the Montreal Symphony. “He demanded an emotional investment and seemed personally insulted when you weren’t paying full attention,” Rothman says, “but you wanted to please him. It was thrilling to believe that your contribution mattered.” He credits Wishart with helping him decide to make music a career. “He cared about being professional, and no other teacher had such lofty goals. He made me realize there was a connection between what was going on in the classroom and what was happening at Roy Thomson Hall, and I thought, yeah, I want to do that. It was the first time in my life I voluntarily took on responsibility.”
Wishart’s professionalism paid off. The orchestra travelled to Italy, then to Denmark. A trip to China in 1986 was a monumental triumph. Oakwood was the first North American youth orchestra to tour there. The final concert in Beijing was broadcast on China Central Television and viewed by some 100 million people. Jeff Baker, who was principal second violin that year, will remember it forever. “The magic of that trip was that most of the orchestra was composed of people who were far from being on a professional track,” he says now. “I remember we went to the Shanghai Conservatory and heard several of their brilliant soloists perform. We had no musicians like that, and yet their orchestra paled in comparison to ours. They were unaccustomed to playing together, and it was an awkward performance. I remember Wishart smirking and shaking his head, and I’m certain he couldn’t have been more pleased with how he had built his orchestra with what he had.”
He achieved such dazzling results by forging intense personal relationships with his students. The night before one of our music history exams, he invited a bunch of us to his narrow house on Westmount Avenue, about half a dozen blocks west of Oakwood. His wife, a lawyer, made hot chocolate. The family dog sat with us on the living room floor. Looking up at my teacher as he lectured on the shape of a Beethoven symphony—its textures, layers, tempos—I felt honoured to be there, to be welcomed into a great man’s inner sanctum.
When kids were learning to drive, he would take them out in his Jeep and give them pointers. He would slip them lunch money and never ask to be paid back. My close friend Tobias Novogrodsky—who played the oboe, and was school president for a year and second baseman for the Oakwood Barons—frequently confided in Wishart. “In Grade 10, he asked me how I was feeling more than anyone else, except maybe my parents,” says Novogrodsky. “In the classroom, he had a commanding presence and radiated authority, but he could also be your buddy, your playmate. He’d wrestle with people in the hall.” Wishart had driven us by bus to that concert in New Brunswick, about 30 hours. Here was this highly cultured maestro who would put on a baseball cap and calmly weave a lumbering tour bus along the highway.
We were in awe of him, but we were frightened of him, too. In the middle of a long evening practice, when we were being particularly unruly, he slammed his bulky key chain down on the podium. “It’s a fucking kindergarten in here,” he shouted. A story made the rounds that he had once been so angry at a member of the brass section for not paying attention that he tossed a black cast iron music stand across the room. “He was multi-dimensional,” says Novogrodsky, “and that was definitely part of his power.”
Some people thought he was too powerful. Wishart was the only department head at the school who had his own parents committee—a group of fiercely dedicated moms, mostly, who sold grapefruit door to door, organized car washes and persuaded local businesses to write big cheques. In 1990, when Oakwood’s principal and assistant soccer coach, Barry Stroud, was transferred to another school after only 18 months in the job, Rosie DiManno wrote an article in the Star suggesting that he was pushed out by music-department parents who didn’t think he had the right sensibility. It was an inflammatory piece of journalism, vintage DiManno, but the underlying truth was that Wishart almost always got what he wanted.
His provocative and dramatic persona was enhanced by the fact that he had a pilot’s licence and kept his own Cessna at the Island airport. Several times a year, he’d invite a small group of boys to one of his cottages (he had a place in Haliburton and another in Barry’s Bay)—to chop wood, tidy the grounds, practise music, pal around—and sometimes he’d fly them up from Toronto himself. Hearing about those trips always made me jealous—girls simply weren’t invited. I was a good student and totally committed to the program, but no matter how hard I worked, I knew I could never be as close to him as some of his favourite boys.
In 1991, shortly after March break, the vice-principal quietly escorted Graham Wishart off campus. Rumours circulated fast. I walked home that day with a friend, a 16-year-old tuba player, who told me what he knew: a student was saying he’d been molested, an investigation was under way, and Wishart had been sent to the board’s head office to pass the time doing paperwork. Though I’d never suspected anything, somehow the news carried the ring of truth. My immediate concerns, however, were selfish. By that point, music was overwhelmingly the focus of my life: I was the leader of the cello section; I headed up weekly rehearsals of younger cellists; I took private lessons with a TSO player; and I was already preparing for what was going to be the culmination of my studies—playing the Saint-Saëns concerto in my graduating year, Wishart conducting. Everything I cared about was in jeopardy.
The police issued a statement confirming that there had been an allegation of sexual assault. They handed out business cards, instructing students to distribute them among their friends. Within three weeks, enough victims had come forward for the cops to make a case. On April 4, Wishart was arrested in his home and charged with 27 sexual abuse–related offences. Seven days later, after more kids came forward, that number shot up to 40. The papers reported that the charges went back to 1979 and involved 12 male students. They said he flew the boys up north in his plane, that he served them alcohol, and that he molested them once they were drunk.
During those first few weeks, kids openly wept by their lockers. Others skipped class, unable to concentrate on geography lessons and lab experiments. “Everything looks different,” I wrote in my diary. “This is messy, dark, ugly. I dread tomorrow.” Going to school was like entering a fallout shelter, and yet I needed to be there. Only my friends in the music program felt the same crushing sense of betrayal and bewilderment. Parents who had always resented Wishart for being too hard on their kids felt vindicated. Those who had dedicated years of service to the program refused to believe the charges at all. There were even rumours of parents who believed the charges but thought Wishart should be allowed to continue teaching anyway. Everywhere I turned, the adults were taking sides. Meanwhile, students had practical worries: how were we going to get through our spring concert, just two months away? What was going to happen to Wishart? To the program? Was it even worth staying at Oakwood?
There was never any trial. In July of that year, Wishart pleaded guilty to 12 of the 40 charges. His hotshot criminal lawyer, Mark Sandler, presented the court with a two-inch-thick binder of glowing character references from former students and grateful parents. Wishart was sentenced to just two years less a day, to be served at the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, with recommended psychiatric treatment at the Clarke. Many criminals who plead guilty make a formal statement, usually a request for forgiveness or a declaration of remorse. Wishart said nothing.
For several years, I had a recurring dream that it had all been a mistake. Wishart would show up for rehearsal and explain that the crimes had been committed by his twin brother, or by some other teacher entirely. He’d be reinstated, I’d be overjoyed, and we would carry on from where we left off. But then I would wake up, devastated. It’s now more than a decade since he was convicted, and though the dreams have stopped, not a month goes by that I don’t think of him. I’m reminded of him when I hear a piece of music he taught us—Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. By the time of Wishart’s arrest, I had decided against a career in music—the competition is far too intense—but I still play, and I thought of him when I performed a Bach unaccompanied suite for cello during the wedding service of friends last summer. I remembered things he taught me, about how to phrase a line or draw my bow across the strings.
I also think of him when I read about similar cases of sexual assault, like the one in Sault Ste. Marie where the elementary and high school teacher Kenneth DeLuca coerced girls into sexual acts for 21 years; or Sheldon Kennedy’s abuser, Graham James; or the Clark Noble scandal at UCC. Like Wishart, these men were charismatic leaders, all of them were idolized, all of them brutally violated the trust of their students. The story of John Gallienne, former choirmaster of Kingston’s St. George’s Cathedral, so closely resembles Wishart’s that it’s as if the two men read the same manual. Gallienne was volatile and larger than life. He picked favourites, took his boys on sailing trips and had a following of adoring parents. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to 20 counts of sexual assault, involving 13 boys during his 16 years at St. George’s. But because Gallienne wasn’t my teacher, I have no trouble seeing him as pure evil. It’s more complicated with Wishart. Despite the anger, disgust and heartbreak, I’m still grateful to have been his student. The question is, how do I integrate the knowledge of his unspeakable acts with the fact that he enriched so many of our lives?
Susan Davey replaced Barry Stroud as Oakwood’s principal a year before Wishart’s arrest. She had a reputation as a strong, creative administrator, and I remember being glad she had arrived. A large, maternal woman with close-cropped black hair, she was tough and a little funky, and she recognized the importance of the music program. The revelations about Wishart’s sexual abuse not only presented her with a mammoth professional challenge, they were personally devastating. “It’s your worst nightmare,” she says now. “Even worse, because you really don’t think of this, you don’t think of a pedophile being in your midst. You dream about floods, and you dream about people falling off the roof; those are horrific things, but this was really quite beyond any of that.”
Now 57 and retired, she hasn’t yet fully recovered from that nightmare—the parents who came to her office in tears, the victims who told her in excruciating detail what had happened to them, the teachers who demanded to know why no one had picked up on this sooner.
Back in 1991, the Toronto board had not yet established a protocol for dealing with sexual abuse in the schools. Davey, along with other officials, had to make agonizing procedural decisions, sometimes in meetings that lasted until 2 a.m. Three weeks after Wishart’s removal, they sent in a self-assured young woman with a master’s in social work named Catherine Stewart to help manage the crisis. She showed up at our music class one morning for a kind of group therapy session. There were about 30 of us—kids who loved him, kids who hated him, victims, everyone hugely conflicted and tense.
Though Stewart had never met Wishart, she spoke as if she understood everything about him. She looked at us with her wide blue eyes and told us that sex offenders are master manipulators. She said that whatever we had accomplished musically we owed to ourselves and no one else. She reminded me of one of those deprogrammers that parents used to hire in the ’70s to get their kids out of cults, and I felt torturously uncomfortable. My musical accomplishments were absolutely tied to Wishart’s; that wasn’t a fact I could easily forget.
To this day, Stewart remains confident in her analysis. Like many professionals in her field, she believes that almost everything pedophiles do is part of a scheme to get at their prey. “People like him,” she says, “use their talent and charisma as a vehicle.” But what about the positive things he did for his students, the trip to China, the time he conducted Mahler’s First Symphony with the junior orchestra, the spectacular performances he led of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with full orchestra and hundreds of singers? He spent countless hours helping students reach unimaginable goals. “That was part of his use of power,” she says. “He made them feel like they owed their careers to him.” And then, as if to sum up her position on the matter: “Even Lucifer had his good points.”
Stewart worked directly with Susan Davey. They drafted letters home with updates, made themselves available to victims and navigated parents through dozens of evening information sessions, where tempers often flared. They consulted Vicki Kelman, a child abuse expert brought in by the board. For a few years following Wishart’s arrest, the three women went out for annual lunches to talk about how they were coping. “It was so horrible and so traumatic for so many people,” says Kelman. “We formed a bond that lasted a long time. I think of it as a trauma bond.” That made sense to me. When I run into students who were around during that period, there’s an unspoken sense of shared history—more than just the usual awareness that we had come of age in the same social scene.
It took several phone calls before Davey agreed to meet with me. She finally arrived with her pockets full of Kleenex and cried three times during the course of an hour-long interview. “I have learned that the cost of excellence in a public institution has to be thought about,” she said. “I know that there are many people who owe their careers to what they believe was the learning they received. I know there are some who believe they would never be where they are today if it weren’t for that program and that person. By the same token, nothing ought to cost that much.”
She’s right, of course. Nothing ought to cost that much. But I was surprised to hear her say excellence was part of the problem. I asked her if she thought Wishart’s high standards as a teacher were related to the sexual abuse. “Absolutely,” she replied. “The worst part of this is that all that was set up intentionally to support and cover up the pedophilia.” You believe that? I asked. “Some days I do,” she answered, her eyes downcast and still welling. “Some days more than others.”
Chris White was just 26 years old when he was assigned the job of lead investigator on the Wishart case. Sitting in the cafeteria of police headquarters on College Street, he recalled how resistant people were to the presence of cops in the school: “It was like, you bumbling gumshoes are trying to tell us that our icon is a monster.” Now in his late 30s, White is a beefy, moustached guy who bulges a bit around his too-tight collar. He’s also one of the youngest inspectors in the department, a fact he attributes in part to the Wishart investigation. He calls it his “career case” and uses it as an example in training sessions with junior cops. The challenge was not just collecting victim testimonies, it was backing them up—a tricky business when your victims are teenagers, when some of them are dealing with long-ago memories and when, to top it all off, they were drunk during the abuse. At one point in the investigation, he got a warrant for Wishart’s flight logs to establish the dates of visits to the cottage. Later in the process, he had victims look at lineups—not of perps, but of airplanes.
“You gotta understand that these kids were from broken families,” he said, “or they’d had economic trouble, or maybe they didn’t have the music talent but got into the band: a you-owe-me type thing. Then all of a sudden, they’re going up to this cottage, getting on a plane. For a lot of these inner-city kids, it was like, ‘What’s a summer home?’ If the subway didn’t go there, they’d never been.”
The investigation was a success, but White—like the rest of us—has unanswered questions. For one thing, he never got a chance to interview Wishart and ask him about motivation. “If it was strictly a sexual act, there are parts of this city where you can go and get that for a lot less hassle and a lot less risk,” he said. “I figure it was about power.”
Wishart clearly enjoyed the influence he wielded over his students, but I was unwilling to dismiss everything he did as an extension of his criminal behaviour. Toby Novogrodsky, the oboe player, struggles with the same issues. A year after the arrest, he was elected valedictorian (Wishart came up in his address) then got into Yale (Wishart was the subject of his university application essays), where he earned a degree in ethics, politics and economics. He recently completed graduate work at Harvard’s J.F. Kennedy School of Government and has moved back to Toronto to work at city hall. I asked him what he thought of Catherine Stewart’s theories. Did he buy the notion that Wishart’s enthusiasm for teaching was fuelled by perverse, predatory urges?
“He obviously had a desire to manipulate some young people,” Novogrodsky replied, “and he did horrible things to them, but I also think he had other psychological needs that he met by inspiring students and bringing out the best in them. The psychologists who posit a unidimensional profile of a pedophile discount the possibility of mixed and multiple motivations. They look for behaviours that confirm the predatory motivations without acknowledging that Wishart wanted to give the gift of music and appreciating life and going after what you want and—the irony—being a strong person.”
Jeff Baker was a few grades ahead of me. He was one of the stars of the music program, and soon after the trip to China he was appointed concertmaster. In his undergrad days at the University of Toronto, he was a lead violinist of the Hart House Orchestra. When I asked him if he thought Wishart’s success as a teacher was a by-product of his pedophilia, he didn’t seem surprised. “Looking back, I do see it as an elaborate plot,” he said. “To some extent, I’m confident that it was the fuel that kept the program going. The source of his system was predatory. On an emotional level, though, I’m unable to reconcile the two sides. Those of us who benefited from him have to live with that deep sadness.”
After U of T, Baker went to New York Law School but worked only briefly as an attorney. Five years ago, he returned to music full time. Now he’s the assistant director of the French-American Conservatory of Music at the Carnegie Hall studios, an academy for school-aged children. He told me he frequently draws on lessons he learned from Wishart: “I base a great many of my working relationships on the model that I had with him, absolutely, at the music school but in other jobs I’ve had, too. I probably fit a pattern of someone who is trying to undo what was done. In this job, I’m sure there are elements of reconciliation for me and for the next generation, so to speak, that stem from my sense of disappointment, anger and hurt.”
I admired Baker’s resolve to make something good out of the wreckage, but my own sense of loss was being eclipsed by outrage. The turning point came the day I got my hands on the court documents, specifically a seven-page list of the charges. It’s a cold, dehumanizing record, packed with legal language: gross indecency, fellatio, stupefying drug, sexual exploitation. None of those words seemed to adequately represent the crimes. But one thing made them real. The court clerk failed to properly black out the names of the victims. Holding the paper up to the light, I could make out each and every one. And I remembered them, their faces, what instruments they played, where they ate lunch, what posters they had up in their lockers. It also proved that the rumours were true: Wishart only assaulted the kids who seemed most vulnerable.
If he took three popular boys to the cottage—the good-looking ones, outgoing and musically accomplished—he’d bring a fourth who wasn’t. That kid would be a bit of a loner. He would be getting poor grades, or his parents might be going through a divorce, or he would be just learning English. Back then, I applauded Wishart for that. I believed he was giving those boys a chance to be themselves in a relaxed and safe environment. Up north, they’d practise their instruments, listen to music, swim or water-ski if it was warm enough. Without overprotective moms or dads around, Wishart would encourage them to try new things like driving the Ski-Doo or using a chainsaw. In the air, he’d hand over the controls of his plane. And when they weren’t goofing around, there was always some kind of project to keep everyone busy. One summer, his students helped build a dock. Often they’d chop wood, since Wishart liked to bring logs back to the city as gifts for friends to use in their fireplaces. He once hooked a trailer of lumber up to his jeep and asked Novogrodsky, who was 16 at the time, to drive it back to the city—about five hours on winding Northern Ontario roads. Novogrodsky told Wishart that he’d just earned his licence and that his parents didn’t allow him on the highway. “But you know how to drive,” Wishart said as he handed over the keys. “It was his way of saying, yeah, I trust you, you’re a man,” recalls Novogrodsky. “I still don’t know what his motivations were for empowering people like that, but he knew it was important, and I loved him for it.”
Those trips up to the cottage always began with a stop at the LCBO. The kids were too young to buy booze, so Wishart would take everyone’s order. You could have anything: tequila, gin, schnapps, whatever. And if you said you didn’t like hard liquor, he’d pick up beer, the brand of your choice. After getting back into the car, he would make a little speech: “I only have one rule up here,” he’d say, “that we don’t talk about what goes on. We’re just up here hanging out, having fun. This is the kind of stuff people could get in trouble for. So I need you all to promise that you won’t tell anybody what goes on up here.” Then he’d twist his body around so he could see everyone in the car. He’d point to each kid, look right at him and wait for him to say, “OK, I promise.” It must have been thrilling to share a secret like that with an adult, to enter into a harmless little conspiracy. None of them knew at the time that they were being asked to keep quiet about more than just the alcohol.
After long days outdoors, the kids would have dinner, kick back, play cards—usually euchre—and drink. Wishart made sure glasses were full. Late in the evening, he handed out little white tablets—vitamins, he called them, to prevent hangovers—and the boys would wash them down. Police later learned the tablets were sleeping pills. At night, Wishart would pick one boy—almost always the loner, the sad kid, the one without the confidence to talk later. That would be his victim.
Matthew* was the first to disclose, the boy who triggered the investigation that led to Wishart’s arrest. He was just 15 at the time. Even though he and I had been running into each other socially for years and I’d known since high school what role he played in the case, we’d never discussed what had happened. It’s one thing to know intellectually that your favourite teacher was a pedophile. It’s another thing to be face to face with one of his victims. I dreaded the encounter.
Matthew sensed my anxiety when he joined me for coffee one late afternoon at a Queen West café. As I awkwardly stumbled over my first few questions, he reached across the table and gently touched my shoulder. “I’m really comfortable with this subject,” he said. For the next hour or so, I listened with quiet admiration as this calm, sensitive 26-year-old talked openly with me about the darkest chapter of his life.
Matthew had arrived at Oakwood from another school district feeling unsure of himself in the new surroundings. His parents had gone through a divorce. He wasn’t a remarkable student but was making quick progress on the violin. Wishart took an interest in him from the beginning. “He made me feel really welcome and really good,” Matthew told me. “He was concerned not just about music, but about how I was doing in general, as a person. He definitely chose specific students that he was going to be that way with. It made me feel special.”
He was showered with all the perks of being a favourite: rides in the plane, jaunts in the Jeep, private conversations. The first time Wishart climbed into bed with him at the cottage, Matthew got up the next morning groggy, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pill. He thought that maybe it had all been a dream. The next time, on a subsequent trip, he woke up with Wishart in his bed. He remembered everything. After months of turmoil, he finally found the courage to tell his mother, and they immediately brought the whole story to Susan Davey.
Matthew stayed at Oakwood for one more year, then transferred to another high school, and went on to attend a prestigious music program in Europe. He’s now a successful fiddle player in an alternative rock band. His concerts and albums get glowing reviews. Over the years, when I’d read about him in the paper, I’d wonder how he was coping. I sometimes feel conflicted when I play the cello, so I imagined it was much worse for him. I asked him what role Wishart played in his musical education. “He was the first person to tell me I had talent,” he replied, “and I believed it.”
“So what would you say to someone who claims that he was the best teacher they ever had, that they’ll never forget his lessons and forever appreciate what he did for them?” I asked.
“I’d say me too.”
That Matthew is able to acknowledge the value of Wishart’s teaching, after all he’s been through, impressed me enormously. I was reminded of Catherine Stewart, who was appalled whenever someone spoke well of Wishart. Here was someone with direct knowledge of the absolute worst side of his character who could still appreciate the best.
“You must have torn emotions,” I said.
“No,” he replied, “I don’t have to completely understand him. My only job is to understand how it affected me. So I don’t necessarily like him as a person, but what he did for me as a teacher? He gave in that way, and he did that for a lot of people.”
He paused for a moment, took a last sip of his coffee, then gave me a look that said he knew exactly what was troubling me. “Take it for what it is,” he suggested. “With Graham Wishart, he taught you. So take that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What he taught you was good. What he taught me was good. And then the things that he did that were bad, you have to take those, too. You have to deal with them in a different way. But you can’t write one off because of the other. Then you’re creating inner conflict. You have to accept them whole for what they are.”
When a relationship is suddenly interrupted—because of death, abandonment or imprisonment—for those left behind, the role of the departed seems frozen in time. My image of Graham Wishart will always be as a music teacher, in total command of the classroom, or at the podium in concert with a red rose in his lapel. And yet he has moved on. Today, he’s the president of a small chartered airplane company that flies clients up north to look at cottage country real estate.
I sent a letter to his office requesting an interview, waited a few days and gave him a call. My biggest fear was that I’d hear his voice and immediately revert to my defenceless 16-year-old self. I expected that he’d slam down the phone, or yell at me, or beg me not to write this article. But none of that happened. When he picked up, I asked if he had received the letter. “Yes,” he said. “Would you be willing to meet with me?” I asked. “I’m afraid not,” he replied, sounding sombre. There was shakiness in his voice, a vulnerability that was a little disarming. This man was neither a monster nor a god—he was a small business owner with a past he’d rather keep quiet.
A week later, I received a fax from Wishart that said, in part: “Few days have passed when I have not reflected upon the terrible things I did which led to my conviction and sentence. I say now, as I have said to myself every day since, ‘I am sorry,’ to the young people who trusted me and whose trust I abused. I am deeply sorry. Nothing can excuse my conduct in this. But these events occurred at a time when I suffered from a mental illness, which I now understand contributed to my behaviour. I have gone to prison and have spent many years in treatment. I will never harm anyone in that way again.”
Perhaps his words will offer comfort to some of his former students, but they had almost no impact on me. By the time his letter arrived, I had stopped believing that an apology could make a difference. And I realized I didn’t need his explanation either. I had reached a point where I was able to see both the joy of having studied with him and the horror of what he did without feeling as though I had to reconcile one with the other.
As for whether his brilliance was driven by predatory urges, my gut says no—I think he did love teaching—but in the end it doesn’t really matter. As Matthew said, a clear picture of his motivations (if such a thing is even possible) won’t change how he affected me. It won’t change what he did to his victims, or how he filled our lives with music, or the pain we felt when the truth came out. Those are all things we just have to live with.
*Identifying details have been changed.