I’m a member of the last generation that grew up without a cell phone.
My childhood consisted of packing my backpack full of books and running into the woods. I had a treefort. I could stern a canoe, and I read Anne Rice’s entire lascivious canon, all before I was 12-years old.
That’s an age that Riya Rajkumar won’t reach.
I was 16 when I got my first cell phone. At last count I’ve had seven since then. The introduction of the cell phone would change my life immeasurably. I went from being a solitary and distant little kid whose world was almost entirely internal, to being exposed to what I came to know as the Global Village. Gradually, and somehow also suddenly, the entire universe was at my fingertips. No longer did I have to sift through our ancient and outdated encyclopedia for answers to my endless questions – I only had to ask, to type it into my phone or onto my computer and the answer usually arrived. I learned media literacy really quickly because I was always in search of The Truth. I can tell almost at a glance what slant a website has, what its reading level would be, and what it’s trying to convince me of.
This global village showed me that I didn’t need to wait for someone with authority to teach me. I could seek knowledge all on my own. Of course, this methodology also exposed me to countless inappropriate and ultimately traumatizing images and concepts. But to balance that, it revealed to me the world I’d learned about in books – our stunningly inordinate, weird and wonderful world, and all the amazing, odd, and even cruel people in it. This was my village, I learned. I entered adulthood feeling a sense of belonging, understanding, and solidarity with the other denizens of planet Earth. I found connection with people who experienced similar things as me: fans of No Doubt, teenagers with eating disorders, students applying for grants, other women planning weddings, people considering bankruptcy, fanfic authors, the gay community, and feminists. As I aged from 12 to 32, I found my people, over and over.
I learned that it takes a village to raise a child. And I was a child on the internet, a little lost, a little lonely, but ever curious and thankfully discerning. I needed that village because I felt completely at odds with my family of origin and indeed the community of Huntsville. That village was there for me when I needed to talk about what was happening in my home and in my heart. At the risk of being dramatic (something of which I’ve certainly never been accused), I would say that village saved me when I had no other.
The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” precedes the Internet, of course. It has (apparently) untraceable roots in African culture, and there are variations like, “One knee does not bring up a child” in Sukuma and “One hand does not nurse a child” in Swahili. When I heard this as a young person, I thought it meant I could trust that adults were looking out for me; that if someone tried to hurt me, someone would be paying attention. In a strong community, children were safe.
On Thursday, February 14, Riya Rajkumar was taken by her father after he did not return her to her mother as had been arranged. Riya’s mother had called the police before 7pm that evening with concerns because the father had threatened violence against Riya. The police waited several hours to issue an Amber Alert, for reasons that we, the village, are not privy. Just after midnight, the Amber Alert was called off, and most of us did not realize until the next morning that this was not the good news we’d assumed.
Almost immediately after learning that Riya’s father had murdered his 11-year-old daughter, on her birthday and that of her mother, I witnessed a flood of proclamations on my social media feed decrying people for being annoyed by the alert. I thought, there’s no way people are actually up in arms over an Amber Alert, especially knowing that as a direct result of the alert Riya’s murderer was located and apprehended.
So I asked around and most people had not actually heard anyone complain directly about the text message we all received, with the exception of a couple folks who have sleep disorders or anxiety and struggled with getting back to sleep. But Global News reports that Peel Police had over 300 complaints about the late hour and other concerns. People didn’t understand why they were getting the alert in Ottawa (which is 4.5 hours from Peel and the killer ostensibly could have travelled that far after killing Riya) and Winnipeg (which, admittedly, would have been a longer trip).
My question is, where does the village end? What are the parameters by which we measure our village? When our children are in danger, where are we drawing the line? Would any one of you like to take out a map and point at the areas that you don’t think should care if your kid is kidnapped? Who do you want to make sure gets a good night’s sleep and doesn’t have to hear the piercing, disconcerting ringtone of an Amber Alert when it’s your daughter? Would you rather inconvenience a few in hopes of getting your child back alive? Invoking the drama again – could you sleep at night knowing an abducted child passed through your town and you didn’t know? Or would you rather get woken up?
I like the Amber Alert system because it restores my faith in the village. It connects us. We were all, upon hearing that noise, huddled together in a collective hush, waiting for news. I thought about Riya’s mother. I thought about my mother, and my friends’ daughters. I thought, don’t you f…ing hurt her. And I kept watch.
Because that’s what I was always told the village would do. And I’m no longer a little kid waiting for an adult to notice that something is wrong. Now I’m the adult, keeping an eye, making sure kids feel seen and heard, and checking my phone for updates on a fellow villager.
If you don’t want to be a part of the village, google ‘how to put my [phone model]on Airplane Mode’, go back to sleep, and stop wondering why kids these days don’t play outside anymore; why they are all glued to their phones, alienated from the disjointed community around them. The Global Village steps in where our own communities continue to fail. They feel supported, connected, cared about. Like someone there might look out for them, not tweet their annoyance.
We can do better. We can forge this village once more. Children are citizens, they are humans, and they deserve to feel supported and loved, not mocked and derided, and certainly not ignored. How far is the distance between airplane mode and ignoring your neighbour kid’s cries for help? How big is your village?
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.