The visible man spreads inclusivity message
In third grade, Milton McKenzie felt invisible. His teacher seemed to hate him, some of his classmates called him the n-word; his school claimed he had attention deficit disorder.
“My situation there was definitely because of race,” he said.
Mr McKenzie drew on that painful experience for his book, The Boy Who Was Invisible But Was Really There. His hope is that it teaches middle schoolers about discrimination and inclusivity.
The story is about Ethan. His teachers say racially insensitive things; his school mates insist he play the villain in their games because of his brown skin.
Ethan physically disappears until only his clothes are visible to his teachers and classmates. The school blames his visibility problem on troubles at home. His parents insist teachers take sensitivity training.
“We can all identify with what it feels like to be excluded,” said Mr McKenzie, a Canadian who lived here for a decade working as a substance abuse counsellor with the Salvation Army’s Harbour Light programme before joining the Department of Corrections as a probation officer.
In 2014 he returned home with his Bermudian wife, Krystal, and their two children and found a job as a youth probation officer.
“I’d worked at many different posts over the years and I’d always been well received and welcomed,” he said.
“My colleagues took a position that I didn’t deserve to be there. They believed that the boss had handpicked me and I was underqualified, which was ridiculous.”
He felt like he was in school again. His colleagues ostracised him, refusing to so much as say hello, and made constant snide remarks.
“My manager said to me if you think you have it bad, I have it worse,” he said. “They are against me too.”
As a result of the stress, Mr McKenzie’s health suffered.
“I thought I might have a stroke,” he said.
“I was perspiring while I was sitting still. I could almost hear my heart beat. From me being generally even-keeled, I felt I was running while I was sitting still.”
After 15 months he gave up the job.
“Surveying everything I was giving up, I said why do I feel so invisible,” he said.
The situation took him back to his experiences in third grade. The Boy Who Was Invisible But Was Really There was his therapy.
It took Mr McKenzie six weeks to write, but five years to self-publish. One of the holdups was finding a committed artist to do the illustrations.
He finally held the first copies in his hands in early December.
“If I had been more in touch with my emotions I would have cried,” he laughed, likening the experience of producing a book to having children.
Margaret Lazarus, a superintendent in the Canadian school system, supported him throughout the process. She helped get 100 copies into 40 schools in Ontario’s Durham District.
Sixth graders asked Mr McKenzie if Ethan’s teachers and classmates were racist. He said that most people experience some level of discrimination in their life, whether because of gender, sexuality, race or age.
“Racist is a word we throw out quite often,” he said. “I don’t believe the characters in my book have an ideology of superiority. I believe it is more discrimination, where there is ignorance attached to their view of things.
“I asked students what kind of discrimination would I face as a black man. They started shouting out answers. Based on my skin alone, they suggested people would believe I was uneducated, that I was poor, that I was a bad guy as well as I was ugly.
“That was deep. We were able to break it down with the students and say though it is very possible that those ideas come with someone’s perception of me, they are not true.
“We discussed fact and fiction. It was heavy to me that those were the first things that came to a young person’s mind when discussing race and discrimination. It is that process I find very revealing.”
He encouraged the students to use their voices to advocate for inclusion and equality.
“In my book, Ethan’s father tells him there is nothing wrong with him,” Mr McKenzie said.
“That is my secret gift in the book for the reader. Don’t let discrimination and bullying stop you from reaching your goals. There is nothing wrong with you.
“Granted, we all need a bit of tweaking, but if we understood that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, we would be able to walk in that, and would really be able to change the world in the way we were destined to. That is the message of the book.”
Many parents and students thanked him for writing the book and told them of their own experiences with discrimination and feeling invisible.
“I thought I was writing my story, but it turned out I was writing our story,” he said.
The book is now being translated into French.
• Milton McKenzie will sign copies of The Boy Who Was Invisible But Was Really There at Brown & Co tomorrow from 12pm to 3pm
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