March 1983: I was nine-years-old and in Grade 3 when Mr. Pearce was murdered. I have a child’s memory of that time, of course, but I remember it as being a startling moment in my young life. It presented a sudden and unexpected shift in my consciousness of the world around me. It took an educator away from his classroom, his school, and the people who loved him. And it introduced a most horrible set of new realities to me at, as they say, an ‘impressionable age.’ It was my first real exposure to public tragedy, serious crime, and homophobia. Mr. Pearce was gay.
Mr Pearce was a teacher at my elementary school in Mississauga, formerly named Havenwood Public School, in the Bloor & Dixie neighbourhood. Even then it was an ethnically diverse area of working-class and aspiring middle-class families, populated in high rises, town houses, and little fenced suburban homes. I grew up with classmates named Kamaljeet and Izet as well as Jeremy and Nicole. Mississauga was a young city, and the early 80s now seems like a relatively idyllic time when kids could walk to and from school alone or in small groups, let themselves in after school, and play outside after dinner until the sun was setting and parents called from windows.
Mr. Pearce wasn’t my home room teacher but I saw him often in the hallways. I remember him as a balding, dark-haired, bespectacled man who was quiet, kind and serious. I had no real sense of his age, other than he was an adult like my parents and an authority figure around whom I should be on my best behaviour.
Suddenly there came a day when the school was abuzz with terrible news. Mr. Pearce was dead. Someone had stabbed him, and he was never coming back. By this time, of course, I had heard of death and of murders, mainly from TV news and newspapers. This was my first experience of death at closer quarters. And, to make it more confusing, it wasn’t because Mr. Pearce had been really old, or desperately sick, which is when a person might be expected to die. Someone had set out to hurt him.
Collectively, we ended up planting a tree in his honour in front of the school. I remember that years later it was still a pretty spindly thing, and I’m not sure if it ultimately survived. But in those initial weeks I heard whispers and muted conversations among the adults, which replicated themselves as still more conversations on the schoolyard among my peers. It had been revealed that Mr. Pearce was gay, and that the police were saying that he was killed because of his sexuality, whether by a violent lover or by a murderer of gay men in Toronto where he lived.
Being ‘gay’ was more an abstract concept than a reality in my life and young mind. I didn’t really know much about it and I as far as I knew, I didn’t know any gay people personally. Some of kids viewed this as terribly salacious and shocking, and the way some parents muted their voices or quickly ended their conversations seemed to suggest that there was something strange, and possibly sinister, about being gay.
Even if it was ‘different’ to be gay, I thought to 9-year-old self, it didn’t seem a ‘good reason’ to hurt Mr. Pearce or take him away from the students who loved him. Why would you hurt someone for being different? Still, it was unsettling to get even a hint of the notion that something about Mr. Pearce caused his death. As always, I went to my mom and asked her. Fortunately for me, my mother has always been a thoughtful, liberal-minded person who, by and large, has always held a ‘live and let live’ attitude. It’s hard to explain how, even in the 1980s in a suburb of Canada’s most prominent city, friendliness towards the LGBT community wasn’t something anyone could depend on. My mom told me that it was just fine that Mr. Pearce was gay. No, there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with that; some people just were gay, & were born that way. And no, it wasn’t fair or right that someone had hurt Mr. Pearce. It was mean and horrible, and very, very sad.
January 2017: I was scrolling online, reading Facebook posts, and knew who the article was referring to before I finished the headline: ‘Police say they have solved a 1983 murder that rattled Toronto’s gay community – but the killer is dead.’ Before my mind could register his name, one look at his black and white file photo told me it was Mr. Pearce.
For the first time, I learned his full name: Graham Hugh Pearce. And, for the first time, I learned his age at the time he died: 36, nearly seven years younger than I am today, a teacher myself at George Brown College.
There were details about the crime, the context, the possible motivations. There had been several murders around that time that had Toronto’s gay community on edge. It wasn’t clear whether they were connected, or just horrible coincidences.
Mr. Pearce had gone out to socialize, have a few drinks, and dance at several clubs. Somewhere he met his killer, possibly & heartbreakingly believing he’d met a new lover. His roommate found him the next day, already dead of his wounds. His companion’s motives are still unknown. Was he psychotic? Was he a homophobe who temporarily befriended his victim? Was he full of self-hatred that he turned against Mr. Pearce? We’ll likely never know now. Mr. Pearce was apparently his only victim, and his killer died in 2001.
It was Mr. Pearce’s family that urged the police to re-open the cold case on his death, and four years later the story is somewhat clearer. I can only hope that his own spirit has long been at rest though his life was cut brutally short. While it’s certain that the developments must have opened old wounds for his family and friends, I hope it gave them some measure of peace to know the name of the person responsible, and maybe even to know that the perpetrator is now deceased himself.
As a child, Mr. Pearce’s death was hugely symbolic and influential; unfortunately, it opened my young eyes to the great pain and cruelty that exist in the world. As an educator and as an adult, I know that he would not have had it be that way. However, his death solidified and clarified in a brand new way that life is delicate, difference is perfectly acceptable, and kindness, dedication & learning are beautiful. Rest well, Graham Pearce.