Hitting a Sour Note
My eighth-grade Vocal Music teacher at a junior high school in the former Borough of East York had a penchant for Broadway show tunes, sappy love songs, and pubescent female students. Thirty-some years later, I looked him up on a whim, surprised by what I discovered.
WARNING: This article contains sensitive subject matter, including discussion of sexual assault, that could be triggering for some readers.
Outgoing and attentive with a droll sense of humour, in addition to teaching,
Mr. Holden (not his real name; other names have been changed) conducted the school choir and accompanied students to singing competitions, chaperoning overnight trips throughout the province, and Quebec.
The 35-year-old Vocal Music teacher was a favourite among students, and until the second semester, I never had an issue with Mr. Holden.
Why I selected vocal as one of two optional courses that year–the other being Industrial Arts, was an odd choice since I could not hold a note to save me. I recall a vague desire to learn to read sheet music. Except that I could not play an instrument, I just as easily could have selected Instrumental Music.
My spirit sank upon realizing Mr. Holden seldom taught lessons using the spotless green chalkboard in his studio-style classroom. To my recollection, vocal was the only period in my academic calendar that year, besides phys ed, that did not require a notebook. Dismayed at the prospect of a semester of song, I considered dropping the course but, in the end, convinced myself to stick it out.
After the first few classes, it was clear I had made a terrible mistake placing Mr. Holden and me on a collision course.
Vocal Music was in a high-ceilinged, four-tiered, trapezium-shaped classroom beside the main office. An upright piano was positioned such that Mr. Holden could face students and play while instructing the class. His small office was pigeonholed in the corner. When it came to tickling the ivories, he was an enthusiastic teacher-slash-performer. Students would shuffle into class, and after attendance was taken, Mr. Holden would break into song, shouting instructions as he played. Overcome with enthusiasm, he would thrust the piano bench backward, commencing to play Jerry Lee Lewis-style.
Students found his gusto contagious. They belted out lyrics to Broadway show tunes like "One" and "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line. Forty minutes later, class wrapped with a sentimental ballad like the theme song from the film Ben or the Carpenters’ 1970s easy-listening hit, "Yesterday Once More".
I dreaded every minute.
It did not take long before Mr. Holden honed in on my lack of participation, once stopping mid-song to ask, "Eddy Brown, why aren’t you singing?” All eyes on me, I fidgeted in my chair, “I don’t like to.” “So why,” he snapped, “Are you in my class?”
I asked myself the same question.
At the beginning of the semester, Mr. Holden had instructed individual students to sit on the bench next to him and sing a solo while he accompanied them on piano. Before launching into song, he attempted to put some pupils at ease by rubbing their backs or massaging their shoulders. I saw more than one of my classmates squirm at his touch. Soloing permitted him to classify each students’ vocal range, after which he assigned them to one of four vocal categories, bass, alto, tenor, or soprano.
Basses sat on the lowest tier to Mr. Holden’s left. This was largely the domain of jocks, husky young men sporting the shadow of a moustache since fifth grade. The majority of students, male and female, were designated altos and tenors. They occupied the second and third tiers. Sopranos, all females, hit the highest notes from the upper tier.
When it came to my turn to solo, I refused. “Come here,” Mr. Holden coaxed, palming the bench, “Sit beside me.” “I don’t want to,” I responded. “Then get out,” he barked. Ejected from class, I roamed the hallways for the duration of the period.
When I returned to class, Mr. Holden assigned me a seat among the sopranos. In hindsight, I suspect it was his effort to emasculate me because he made a point of announcing, “Eddy is the only boy among the sopranos.” Shrugging off the supposed slight, I took my seat and leaned against the cinderblock wall.
Vocal was not a complete washout. Around this time, Mr. Holden distributed handouts containing basic symbols of notations like clefs, notes, and half notes, informing the class there would be a quiz at the end of the semester. The final grade would be a tally of class participation combined with quiz results.
I had to ace the final, or else.
As the semester progressed, Mr. Holden and I came to an unspoken truce. While my classmates sang their hearts out, I put musical notations to memory. Before long, I could distinguish a halftone, from an octave clef and a tremolo, on paper anyway.
Honestly, I spent most of my time in the back row doodling, carving my initials into the desktop with a compass, and casting a bored gaze over the classroom. I witnessed notes passed clandestinely among pupils. I saw jocks puffing their chests. I watched as boys and girls in the throes of hormonal bliss did everything in their power to catch one another's glance. I noticed the seating arrangement was such that most female students sat directly in Mr. Holden’s line of vision. Male students were relegated to the periphery. Assuming the arrangement had to do with acoustics, I soon observed otherwise.
Something perverse was at play.
From my perch in the back of the class, I saw Mr. Holden leering at the girls.
In early spring, the truce foraged between Mr. Holden and I shattered. Frustrated at attempts to harmonize the class on a rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s 1980 hit, "Hurts So Bad", Mr. Holden stopped playing abruptly. "Come on. You’re not even trying," he whined to the class, "What am I even doing up here?"
For the most part, teachers and classmates would not describe me as a disruptive student, so when Mr. Holden posed that question, something in the moment made me forget myself. Without considering consequences, I glanced up from my desk and blurted matter-of-factly, "Looking at girls’ crotches and staring at their chests."
Except for the odd snicker, the class plunged into silence.
Mr. Holden’s cheeks blazed red as McIntosh apples. His eyes narrowed. He charged toward me, nearly knocking pupils out of their seats. In a few strides, he hovered above me, jaw clenched, close enough I could smell his sour breath. Physically unassuming, if this turned violent as I expected it might, I did not stand a chance. Grabbing my collar, he yanked me from the chair and dragged me into the hallway.
Unsure of his intentions−haul me to the principal's office or deal with me directly, Mr. Holden was briefly distracted by an unaccompanied student who moments earlier had injured herself in phys ed. As she staggered toward the nurse’s station, tears streaming down her cheeks, Mr. Holden rushed to her aid. Presented with escape, I sprinted in the opposite direction.
For my uncharacteristic outburst, I expected to face suspension, or worse.
Besides some of my peers criticizing me for maligning the well-loved music teacher, oddly, I received no reprimand at all, not from school administration or even Mr. Holden. However, upon my sheepish return to Vocal Music, in the eyes of my teacher, I became persona non grata. I did well on the final, though my lack of participation sank my final grade to the point I squeaked by with a passing grade.
In ninth grade, Mr. Holden remained as popular as ever among teachers and students. I heard the occasional whisper about inappropriate attention he directed at some students, but he was never, to my knowledge, confronted.
Mr. Holden's attitude toward me remained cool. For my part, I kept an eye out for him. At assemblies and other school events, I made it a point to know his whereabouts. If our paths crossed in a hallway or front office, he ignored me. I got the impression he knew I was watching him. The following year I would commence tenth grade at a high school across the street, and I worried. My younger sister would begin seventh grade at my former junior high. As a middle child of five, I knew firsthand, teachers never forget.
Everything changed early one evening when best friend Jimmy and I cut behind our junior high headed to the bowling alley. A yellow police car was parked in the school parking lot. We were accustomed to the presence of police in the community, but this was different. I recognized a familiar figure in the backseat. Chin pressed to his chest, a handcuffed Mr. Holden writhed about nervously. We gazed at one another for what felt like an eternity until he looked away. Intuitively, I knew the reason for his detainment.
At that moment, I could not describe my feelings. Anger? Disgust? Satisfaction? Was this what vindication felt like?
Wrapping on the window, Jimmy and I gawked and chirped a few moments until the cop heard enough. Rolling down his window, the officer cracked, “Beat it. Your teacher’s a child molester.”
Before the first period the next day, a cluster of students gathered outside Mr. Holden's classroom. Some claimed he was in a serious car accident and would be absent indefinitely. Others exclaimed their favourite teacher, struck by a sudden illness, would remain away from class until an unspecified date. I remember students crying.
Breezing through a knot of students, in a tone of defiance, I put my two cents in, "He was arrested. Jimmy and me saw him after school last night in the back of a cop car." Their eyes grew saucer-wide. "The cop called him a child molester." Students hounded me for information.
Jimmy and I felt like the most popular kids at school that morning.
Going forward, teachers remained tightlipped on the subject of Mr. Holden’s absence. Another teacher assumed Mr. Holden’s classroom duties. The school was beset by rumours. According to some, Mr. Holden assaulted students in his cubbyhole-size office. Was it true he cornered girls after choir practice and assailed them? Names of supposed victims were bandied about. I heard gossip about a friend’s sister allegedly assaulted multiple times. When she spoke up, nobody believed her. She secretly tape-recorded her next encounter with Mr. Holden.
Was it true? Did she submit to Mr. Holden’s depravity one last time to get the evidence required to convince authorities she was telling the truth? I did not have the heart to ask my friend the story's accuracy and never found out.
In the end, Mr. Holden’s departure went unexplained. My ears pricked up once in gym class when I overheard two female teachers mention Mr. Holden by name, referring to him as dirty.
Three and a half decades would elapse before discovering details about his arrest, conviction and other troubling findings.
In the intervening years, I thought little about my eighth-grade music teacher or his arrest. In 1989, I enrolled at York University. After class one day, I bumped into Bailey, a former junior high school classmate, in the lobby outside Curtis Lecture Hall. I recall the conversation because what he told me sounded impossible. I am unsure how he came to this knowledge, but according to Bailey, after Holden’s arrest, the school board placed him on administrative leave. When the case was resolved, and his sentence served, he returned to work at board headquarters before resuming a classroom teaching position.
Flash forward to 2016.
The Liberal government at Queen’s Park passes Bill 37, the Protecting Students Act. Three years later, the government strengthened legislation further with Bill 48, the Safe and Supportive Classroom Act. The Ontario College of Teachers was mandated to post members’ dates of certification, qualifications, and disciplinary decisions online.
Curious to discover Holden’s status, on a whim, I visit the website. After typing his name into the search bar, I'm surprised by what I find, or more accurately, didn't find. It appeared Bailey’s assertion Holden went on administrative leave before returning to the classroom might not have been far off the mark.
The Ontario College of Teachers website shows a teacher with the same name and educational history as my former Vocal Music teacher retired after a forty-five-year career as recently as 2017. Not a single disciplinary note appears on his profile page. I assumed a clerical error had occurred. Could he have been teaching all this time? The thought a convicted sex offender had unfettered access to students disturbed me. I sought an answer from the College, approaching the agency through their general inquiry mailbox. Without providing Holden’s name, I asked, would the College assist in locating a former teacher?
The issue would be resolved quickly, or so I assumed. I envisioned the College's response going something like this: Yes, they can provide a teacher's placement history, at which point I provide details, including Holden's name. Worst-case scenario, it is confirmed he worked in a classroom post-conviction, and an investigation is launched. Pending an outcome, his profile page is updated.
Ten days after sending the email, a response from the College appeared in my inbox. Client Services #96 informed me on occasion, they receive requests such as mine. "Unfortunately," #96 explained, "We are unable to assist you in your search as we are not authorized to give out personal information on our members."
I mull over the reply a few days before going back and informing #96 I suspect a clerical error had occurred and the member I seek failed to inform the College of a sexual assault conviction. This time it did not take ten days to receive a reply. Forty-five minutes after clicking the send button, a message arrived from Patrick Winter, Investigation and Hearings department. Winter was interested in examining the matter further. "While the College does not post information related to criminal convictions on its public register, a conviction such as you describe would likely be the subject of disciplinary action at the College."
Winter pledged to look into the matter. He required the member's name and registration number. I agreed to provide this information, so long as he promised to inform me of what he discovered, specifically if Holden taught post-conviction.
Three weeks passed before Winter's response arrived, and it was not what I hoped.
"I am not in a position," he began, "To provide information with respect to [Holden’s] employment situation. As you can see from his public register profile, however, his certificate was not cancelled or revoked at any point from his initial certification in 1972." Winter explained the College would follow up with "appropriate bodies" regarding Holden’s criminal convictions but pointed out his offences occurred before the 1997 formation of the College, concluding, "I regret that we cannot provide further details at this time."
I assumed safeguards in the educational system prevented Holden from resuming a teaching position. In fact, because his license was never revoked, I learned he could have applied for reinstatement five years after his offence.
What about a criminal background check?
In my final correspondence with Winter, I sought clarity on the subject. My email asked, "Prior to 1999, teachers in the province of Ontario were not required to submit criminal background checks. In order to maintain their certification, would an individual certified to teach in the province prior to 1999 been required to submit a criminal background check if continuing to teach after that date?" The answer unsettled me. "Teachers who were licensed in Ontario prior to 1997 and whose certificates were valid at that time were deemed to be members of the Ontario College of Teachers, without having to go through further registration requirements such as a new criminal record check (my italics)."
Considering the province licensed Holden in 1972, twenty-five years before background checks became policy in 1999−a policy Holden was exempt from−it appeared the loophole might permit Holden into a classroom.
Frozen out by the College, a process of locating Holden decades after our last encounter commenced. While documenting the process, I aim to discover if Holden taught in-class after his conviction. If I locate him, I'll request he correct or remove entirely misleading content on his Ontario College of Teachers’ profile page.
This proved to be wholly naive.
One thing for certain, Holden was alive. As a policy, the Ontario College of Teachers does not post information concerning deceased members.
My initial internet search produced zero results. At first pass, Holden appeared to have no online presence. This required me to adopt a methodical approach of pursuing leads, researching source material, and connecting with individuals from his past.
A good place to start was the Toronto Star archives. A search turned up a brief article on his trial. Except for name, age, and street address, the write-up is short on detail. The article stated he was convicted of sexually assaulting two female students. The Crown recommended lengthy jail time. The presiding judge instead sentenced him to twenty-four months probation and psychiatric treatment for the duration.
Court transcripts are part of the public record. Accessing Holden’s casefile might provide important details about his offence, sentencing and if the verdict was challenged and overturned on appeal. At the courthouse, a helpful clerk informed me, considering the amount of time that had elapsed since the trial, combined with a lack of details such as Holden’s complete date of birth, turning up the transcript would be difficult but not impossible.
When the clerk’s search turned up nothing, she directed me to visit the Archives of Ontario. An archivist informed me the archives have court cases in their holdings from 1984 but accessing them required a file number obtained from the courthouse where the trial had been heard.
As I had discovered, there was no record of the trial, thus no file number. Returning to the courthouse, both the clerk and I were equally frustrated by the conundrum.
The only yearbook I possess from my school days dates from ninth grade. I thumbed through the pages, recalling familiar faces. Would any former students know what became of Holden? Do any have contact with him today? The process of reaching out to individuals I had been out of contact with for ages did not go smoothly. Many who received emails, phone calls or, in some cases, letters showed no interest in discussing Holden. Most never bothered to respond. It seemed nobody wanted to associate with a person interested in discovering the current whereabouts of a convicted child sex offender, regardless of intention.
With this in mind, I altered my approach when next I contacted Fatima. Fatima and I met in seventh grade and shared a few classes. I remember her as smart, outgoing, and popular. In my memory, she gave off a Jodie Foster vibe. I respected her. Eventually, we would attend the same high school but move in different cliques. A couple of years ago, we ran into one another and caught up. Fatima supplements her income as a freelance photographer. Exchanging business cards, she encouraged me to contact her if in need of a photographer.
Through email, I told Fatima I was working on a writing project she could help with. She agreed to meet for coffee. After some back and forth, we settled on a time and location. The tone of the exchange changed dramatically after she asked, "Give me an idea of what you’re writing about so I know how I can be of help." Instead of being direct, I said I was researching draft dodgers who taught at our junior high and high school, referencing Mr. Holden specifically. Early on, I had followed a false lead indicating that he was American-born and fled his homeland in the late sixties to avoid conscription during the Vietnam War.
Holden’s name set off alarm bells.
Adamant she had nothing to contribute to the topic, she did an about-face and refused to meet. Acknowledging the change in her demeanour, I put it on the table, confessing, "When I approach individuals beginning with I want to discuss Mr. Holden, I’ve been rebuffed." Applying to her principles, I pleaded, "There’s a chance Mr. Holden continued teaching after his conviction. If true, think of the implications."
I touched a nerve. Fatima protested, "Up until his sudden conviction [Holden] was seen as a good vocal teacher," and "Your investigation serves no purpose for clarity, understanding, or change." She continued, "Policies are now in place to vet a teacher’s qualifications."
What she said next caught me off guard when she suggested I had a personal vendetta against Holden. I did not ask what this implied. Instead, I thanked her for her time, and I told her I would take what she said into consideration, ending the conversation disappointed.
When I entered junior high, Ms. Hanbridge had been teaching for over ten years. Patient and quick to smile, she drew students into classroom conversation with her measured speech. Before seventh grade, no teacher had engaged my interest in learning quite like Ms. Hanbridge. Finding her address on Canada411, I wrote her soliciting help in my quest. I included email contact, providing an option to respond electronically.
A few weeks later, she replied via email. She was initially guarded. Foregoing salutations, she began abruptly, "First, I wonder what you want with the information."
By the third sentence, however, her tone changed noticeably. She admitted, "I think some of us [teachers] suffer a certain amount of guilt because some students mentioned things about Mr. Holden, but it was unbelievable to us at the time."
In retirement, Hanbridge explained that she and several peers who had taught together at the junior high remain in contact. They continue to get together on holidays and other occasions. Over the years, Holden’s name surfaced at these gatherings. I was stunned when she revealed Holden had been preying on students longer than I imagined. "The general consensus," she reflected, "Was that Mr. Holden had been interacting (my italics) with students from the time he started at [the junior high], which actually was before any of us started."
Over a period of months, Hanbridge and I exchanged several emails. She asked former teachers for their recollections of Holden's behaviour. One recalled Holden snuggled under a blanket with a student on a bus trip. When she shared what she had witnessed with a superior, their response had been lackadaisical, "Oh well, that’s Mr. Holden". Through Hanbridge, I learned Holden did not just prey on females. Another teacher remembers male students expressing concern about inappropriate behaviour directed at them by Holden.
Hanbridge searched old yearbooks to identify students who, decades earlier, raised red flags about the music teacher’s behaviour. Emails from my former teacher included additional names, many of whom I reached out to. Not surprisingly, not one replied.
It came as a relief to learn, as far as Hanbridge could ascertain, post-conviction, Holden left the teaching profession entirely. From what she gleaned, after completing his sentence, the convicted sex offender became a home inspector. She was sure the court had imposed a lifetime ban preventing him from being in the presence of minors. He went on to work for the provincial government in an unspecified role.
Hanbridge provided invaluable groundwork. With the materials provided, I did a deep dive on the internet. To the best of her knowledge, Hanbridge understood Holden had worked in the civil service, but as far back as 1996, his name does not appear on the province's sunshine list. The omission did not cause me to question Hanbridge's accuracy. The absence simply meant Holden earned less than one-hundred-thousand dollars annually. (I later discover a column published in a New Brunswick newspaper wherein Holden, in conversation with the columnist, describes himself as a retired civil servant.)
A picture of Holden emerged. As best I can surmise, Ronald Winston Holden was born around 1949. His childhood was spent on a farm. Through research, I discover the name of his high school and the church his family attended. Completing his teaching certification from Toronto Teachers' College, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Waterloo Lutheran University. The East York junior high school I would later attend hired Holden as the Vocal Music teacher. Records show he purchased a small, postwar bungalow ten minutes' drive from the school. A visit to his last known address revealed he left Toronto ages ago.
Why probe this far into his past? The process potentially lays bare clues to a person’s current whereabouts.
From this process, I realize I have been searching in the wrong place.
Looking for a musician? Follow the music. Instead of attempting to locate Mr. Holden, former music teacher, I have more success locating Ron Holden, practicing musician.
The jazz trio consists of men in late adulthood sporting similar Hawaiian shirts. In a video, Holden, porkpie hat at a jaunty angle, solos on a scratched lacquer finished trumpet at an outdoor festival in cottage country. His accompanying bio states he took early retirement in 2001, becoming the trio's trumpet player and vocalist. He and his wife are active in their community, participating in service club activities. In retirement, the couple breeds sheep.
In addition to footage from this gig, I find an image of him in a tuxedo and bowtie posing with a fifteen-piece swing band. Like the trio, the ensemble performs in venues ranging from homes for the aged to concerts in parks. Both bands participate in numerous community fundraising events. In addition to performing, Holden volunteers with the ensemble in an administrative capacity.
Under Holden's direction, the swing band is mandated to mentor youth.
After the passage of so much time, my reaction to seeing Holden surprised me. I scrutinize his mannerisms closely. He had aged and put on weight. His hair thinned and greyed. In some images, he sports a soul patch or goatee. I do not recall him wearing eyeglasses. His singing voice is not as strong as I remember, and except for the piano, I never heard him play another instrument, but clearly, he has chops on the horn.
As a youngster, I was unfamiliar with the meaning of charm, but watching Holden interacting with his audience, I bet he has always possessed it in spades. He is still outgoing and has maintained his sense of humour. Expecting to see the shamed individual recalled huddled in the rear of a police cruiser, I instead see an older, heavier version of the self-assured teacher from eighth grade.
From here, the internet provides enough residual information on Holden that, with a little know-how, I secure contact information. I confirm his residence by telephone. The line rings a few times before an answering machine clicks on. I recognize Holden's voice instantly and hang up.
First contact is through registered mail. A single-page letter explains at the outset, "This letter has no basis in vigilantism or extortion." It continues, "At no time…have I been a victim of sexual abuse by you or any other individual." I assure him it is not my intention to disrupt his life needlessly. "Several studies indicate the majority of sex offenders do not re-offend...[and] for your own sake and the sake of loved ones around you, I hope you never reoffended. However, because of the long-term negative effect sexual abuse has on victims, in good conscience, I cannot remain silent."
To the point of the letter: "I need reassurance you have not used your status as a member in good standing with the Ontario College of Teachers to exploit minors sexually. Since your conviction, have you worked/volunteered in any capacity with minors? Are you willing to clarify/make additions to/remove entirely content on your member information page on the Ontario College of Teachers' website?"
Ideally, he would address the issue straight away. I feel it necessary to inform him, "Your failure to respond will require me to seek answers in the community." I underline for emphasis.
He had the option of replying by email, regular post, or telephone. It would be disingenuous not to admit that, for a fleeting moment, I considered sending the letter anonymously. In the end, I concluded I had nothing to hide nor had done anything wrong and signed the letter.
Months pass with no response. No doubt, Holden received the letter. A signature proved it. Following up, I contact him by telephone to inform him, among other things, misleading content on his Ontario College of Teachers’ profile page is an affront to his victims.
After several rings, a female answers, "Hello."
"May I please speak to Ronald Holden?"
"Um…," she stammers, "Sort of." She paused to ask, "Who’s calling?
I exhale. "My name is Edward Brown−" No reaction. I continue, "I’m calling about a letter I sent Mr. Holden a couple of months ago−"
She hung up.
I call back. This time with bite, she snaps, "Hello."
"Ma’am, all you have to do is tell me Mr. Holden is not working with minors and you’ll never hear from me again."
She replies sternly, implicitly, "He had a stroke. Mr. Holden cannot speak." She threatens, "I’ll have the police after you. Do you understand that?" I remain silent. A second time, "Do you understand that?"
"I appreciate your input, but if you read the content of my letter, you know−"
"You are a blackmailer." The accusation is unexpected. Before ending the call, she fumed, "We will be in touch with the police."
Placing the handset on the cradle, I pondered her use of blackmail to describe my action. An odd turn of phrase, considering the letter explicitly states, "Unless informed you have violated criminal code laws/statutes, details [of your response] will remain confidential."
I was getting nowhere. If I continue to pursue Holden directly, I open myself to a charge of harassment, a serious criminal code offence. I needed an ally, someone presently associated with my former teacher whom I could confide in.
I found such a person and then wished I had not.
His identity will remain confidential. I will not reveal his position nor disclose his denomination. For the sake of this enterprise, assume his name is Alex. A reliable source informed me that Alex, an officiant of a large Toronto parish, might be Holden's nephew. I hope the soft-spoken clergyman in his mid40s will counsel me on the best way to convey my concerns to Holden.
I call the parish numerous times but never get beyond reception. I leave a message on his voicemail expressing concern the welfare of minors may be at risk. I am disheartened when he never responds.
Sunday service begins at eight. This morning Alex sermonizes on the topic of stubbornness. From a hard pew at the back of the historic church, I strain to hear his unobtrusive voice barely audible in the cavernous sanctuary. He recites an Old Testament verse. From the Book of Isaiah, "Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness."
At the homily’s conclusion, the small number of congregants present waits for the cleric to descend the altar. He walks the length of the centre aisle purposefully. Standing in the sunny atrium outside the church, he offers benedictions as the departing file through propped open oak doors. "God bless," he intones, nodding and shaking hands with parishioners.
Among the last to exit, I extend my arm, grip his soft hand, "I’m Edward Brown." He pulls away quickly to address the congregant behind me.
A Hail Mary. The following day I call the church. The receptionist directs me to voicemail. Bewildered, I leave a message stating how his lack of concern is staggering and propose meeting in a week, an hour before noon, at a diner a short walk from the church. If I do not receive a response, I will assume the arrangement is suitable. Before hanging up, I plead, give me fifteen minutes to voice my concern, after which I promise never to contact him again.
I arrive at the diner before eleven and find a booth with an unobstructed view of the door. I have a copy of the letter Holden received, a printout of the Star article describing his conviction and my yearbook. The cheery waiter places a menu on the table and greets me. I order coffee, black. He returns carrying a carafe, fills a white mug, and asks if I am ready to order. "In a few minutes. I'm waiting for someone."
Fifteen minutes pass. I observe the door. Watching from his station, the waiter returns to the booth to refill my mug. Another fifteen minutes. I order a slice of apple pie. Forty-five minutes. The lunch crowd files in. Elbows propped on the table, I rest my face in my hands, dejected.
I expected more from a man of the cloth.
The waiter brings the bill.
Disillusioned, I step back for a time to regain perspective. Writing projects I have neglected receive attention. When I resume, I focus on Holden's big band. They are lauded for their dedication to serving children and youth. In partnership with a service club, they provide scholarships to adolescents pursuing post-secondary education in music. Aspiring musicians improve their skills performing in the big band alongside Holden and other veteran musicians. Photographs of Holden presenting oversized cheques to beaming recipients populate the website.
Through social media, I reach out to scholarship recipients. Explaining I am gathering material on bandmate Ron Holden, a respondent in his early twenties apologizes, explaining, he has little to contribute to the subject. He asks, "What does this pertain to?" I reply my focus is on Holden's work and interaction with youth. This individual knew Holden since high school but only in relation to the big band. When asked, he states he never witnessed “Anything that could be construed as inappropriate behaviour towards myself, my younger brothers, or any of the other young members…” on the part of Ron Holden.
Then I make a troubling find; confirmation Holden is in direct contact with minors through his volunteer work.
According to a website, the fifteen-piece ensemble, the service club and a primary school partnered with a not-for-profit community arts program. Band members join schoolteachers in providing music lessons to youngsters five and up. The service club raises money to fund the program. Holden is quoted as saying he's "excited" to be performing with the children.
I reach out to the founder and coordinator of the arts program. He explains volunteers undergo provincially legislated criminal background checks. I ask if Ron Holden volunteered in the program. The coordinator responded, "Yes, he came in to help…" I wonder, how does a convicted sex offender get to participate? According to the coordinator, "Any adult who is not a member of the board of education (my italics) requires a police check." Is this what I feared? Since Holden remains a member in good standing of the Ontario College of Teachers, does he use this status to skirt the police check requirement?
Upon commencing this endeavour, I pledged not to seek the identity of the females whose assault led to Holden's conviction. If I discovered minors could be at risk today, I would contact authorities.
Constable Mike Smith is a twenty-five-year veteran working out of the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Holden's community. After a brief conversation with the desk sergeant, my call is put through to the affable peace officer. Constable Smith listens without interrupting, allowing me to explain my concern. His casual manner and relaxed speaking style make conversation easy. He asked how I came to the knowledge of Holden's conviction.
I start at the beginning, providing a condensed version of events; the article in the Toronto Star; information provided by the Ontario College of Teachers; the letter posted to Holden's residence. When I am through, he reviews his notes and asks, "Are you saying you were a victim?" I reiterate the entire story from the beginning a second time. Constable Smith apologizes for the misunderstanding. I can hear him thinking as he explains this is the first time he has received a complaint such as this and promises to follow up. I ask, "Will you let me know what you discover?" He is reluctant. "There are privacy concerns to consider, but I'll see what I can do."
A week later, I have not heard back. I call the detachment and leave a message requesting Constable Smith call me. Seven days later, I call a second time. Constable Smith informs me he investigated my claim. "I'm not coming back with any similar responses about any kind of arrest. I'm not finding anything that's overly glaring that would raise the same concern as you are...I'm kind of at a bit of a stalemate here with respect to any further information. I'm not seeing anything on any databases that would concern me."
I inquire, "Are you positive we're talking about the same individual?" to which Smith replies, "I feel pretty confident…" He attempts to assuage my concern by confirming Holden suffered a stroke last year, concluding, "With respect to any potential threat from this day forward…I feel that threat is minimal." I ask about Holden's interactions with minors prior to the stroke. Shouldn't that be investigated? Smith agrees but does not express particular interest in pursuing.
For the first time, I seriously consider the fact Holden may have been pardoned. This would explain the lack of court documents and the dearth of information resulting from Constable Smith's database search. I ask the officer about this possibility. Yes, it's possible, he says. However, even with a pardon, this type of offence would be flagged in a search of the pardoned sex offender registry, a registry Smith did not see fit to examine in this case. He suggests I approach Toronto Police Service and Toronto Court Services, avenues already explored.
I take a different approach.
Midweek in August 2020, novel coronavirus pandemic infections temporarily ebbing, I book a motel, rent a car, and venture to Holden’s community to confront my former teacher in person.
With a population of less than a thousand, Holden resides in a small town outside Toronto. Typical of many Ontario towns, nineteenth-century red brick buildings populate the core. There is a post office, a few churches, a bakery, a hardware store, and a handful of other independent retailers. A former inn houses a pizzeria and a real-estate firm at the crossroads of town. The Legion is nearby. Blink and you'll miss it all.
Without a proper address, I possess only his post office box, his residence will be a challenge to locate. Considering Holden's interest in sheep farming, a hobby requiring acreage, it is safe to assume his home will be outside town. Like searching for a needle in a haystack, even before checking in, I crisscross concession roads searching for a mailbox displaying his surname, turning up nothing.
Next, I visit the Ontario Provincial Police station to meet Constable Smith but find the squat building housing the detachment locked tight at midday. At the entrance, a laminated sign beside a telephone fixed to the wall instructs visitors to pick up the receiver and wait for operator assistance. After a delay of a minute, an operator asks how she can assist. I inquire if Constable Smith is available. She confirms he is on patrol in the community. If I wish, I could leave a number, and Constable Smith will call me. I decline.
I dawn a mask and check into a barebones motel on the outskirts of town across the road from a cemetery. The lot is full of pickup trucks and SUVs bearing Quebec plates. The one-star motel is not much to look at. As he slides the room key across the counter, the innkeeper, a shirtless, good-humoured south Asian man in cargo shorts, flip-flops and the kind of neon vest a parking lot attendant would wear, refers to himself as Mr. K and informs me I am eligible for the complimentary breakfast sandwich tomorrow morning.
Inside dank room number eight, I get down to business, reviewing my notes in preparation to call Holden. Glancing at my notebook as I dial, I realize a year ago to the day I had called Holden and was told he could not speak due to a stroke.
One year later, I hope that has changed. I suspect I will not have much time to speak before the conversation ends. My objective is simple: Convince Mr. Holden to meet with me in a public place I scouted out earlier.
After a single ring, a female answers. "Hello, is this Ms. Holden?"
"‘Tis," she replies smugly.
I charge ahead, "It’s Edward Brown calling. Last year I sent a letter in regards to your husband, Ronald Winston Holden−"
"Yes. I’m not talking to you."
"I’m going to be in your town tomorrow−"
She interrupts curtly, "Yes?"
"Would it be possible to meet with you and Mr. Holden?" I suggest the local Tim Horton's.
More than once, she mutters, "I'm thinking."
I volunteer for the first time, "Mr. Holden was my teacher. I attended his school at the time of his arrest for sexual offences. I’d like to know his status as far as the conviction stands." Even though it is a hunch, I ask, "I’m assuming he’s been pardoned?"
She exhales audibly. "That is correct. Can you please leave us alone?" She claims she has been instructed not to engage me, to "Ignore this person who is attempting to blackmail you."
Sensing she is about to hang up, I blurt, "How did Mr. Holden go from being a convicted sex offender to receiving a pardon?"
She says flatly, "You apply for a pardon, and they determine whether or not you deserve it."
Until Stephen Harper's Conservatives passed Bill C10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act in 2012, legislation permitted Holden to apply for a pardon five years from the conclusion of his sentence. Today, he would be ineligible on the grounds his offence involved sexual activity with minors.
I ask, "How much time elapsed between−"
She interrupts, "This is ridiculous. Is this off the record?"
"There is no record, Ms. Holden."
The conversation takes an odd turn when she states she would be more than happy to meet if I agree to tell her my real name.
"I told you my name. Edward Brown."
"No," she insists, "It's not. I want to see some identification in which case I will meet with you." I ask what the point of this odd request would be, and she replies, "I don't believe you. You are not Edward Brown."
The conversation spirals. She repeats, "You’re not Edward Brown."
"Who am I, then?"
Her answer knocks me back, "You’re anonymous."
I consider the many nameless students Ronald Holden preyed upon in the time leading up to his arrest and conviction.
Before I can respond, she hangs up.
If you want to see who lives in a small town, park yourself on a bench outside the post office before noon. Before heading back to the city, I do just that. Cars and trucks pull to the curb, masked occupants enter and exit in short time. A woman walking a dog ties the leash to the railing at the base of the steps, dawns a mask and goes inside to collect an item.
A grey-haired senior around Holden's age in khaki shorts and striped golf shirt strolls past fumbling for his car keys, a bundle of envelopes held together with a thick elastic band clenched under his arm. A service club logo, the same service club Holden belongs to, is embroidered on his mask.
I call to him, "Excuse me, sir."
He turns, removes his mask, and smiles a big, Polident smile. "Yes?"
"Do you know a man named Ronald Holden?"
He makes a motion as if playing an imaginary piano, "The keyboardist?"
He volunteers, "He and his wife live out on [redacted] Road. He had a stroke last year. Been laying low since. A terrific guy. Why? You know him?"
"Yes. Does he get into town often?"
"No. Like I said, laying low."
"Do me a favour?"
"Next time you see him, tell him Eddy Brown was looking for him and says hi."
"Okay. Will do."
I remain outside the post office, observing the comings and goings of town folks. Have I done all I could to ensure Holden did not use his Ontario College of Teachers’ status to gain access to minors? I contacted authorities with my concern; the Ontario College of Teachers; Ontario Provincial Police; Pardons Canada; a member of the clergy, the organization Holden volunteers with; the subject himself.
Remember the unnamed female I mentioned earlier, the sister of a friend who, if the story is to be believed, reported Mr. Holden to authorities? I think about her today. As the story goes, when she initially reported Holden’s assault, she encountered indifference. Perpetrators like Holden banked on this. What he didn't bank on was her courage to take matters into her own hands. If she had not, like previous victims, she would have remained anonymous.
Today, he once again banks on the inaction of authorities. His wife is correct: As long as my concern is not addressed, they remain anonymous. Have I met my objective? No. My failure results from operating within a system that allows individuals like Holden to operate at the edges.
Among the dozens of people I reached out to, Valarie agreed to speak with me about a close call with Ronald Holden. Valarie and her siblings attended the same junior high school as I did around the time of Holden's arrest. I did not know any of them well. Today Valarie has a couple of kids and a successful job.
Valarie and I exchanged emails and, eventually, a telephone conversation. We discover we had lived closer to one another back in the day then realized and had many mutual childhood friends.
In the course of our conversation, Valarie shared a harrowing incident she experienced with Holden.
After class one day, he waited for her classmates to depart, held Valarie back and cornered her in the classroom. Alone with Holden and aware of his lecherous reputation, he positioned himself uncomfortably close, attempting to convince her to join him at a cottage for a weekend. He promised the two of them would have a good time. Disgusted, she got out of there as quickly as possible.
Three decades on, Valarie is still repulsed by Holden's suggestion. I hear it in her voice.
We talk for an hour, and at the conclusion, she asks to be kept informed of Holden's present status.
Returning from the visit to Holden's community, I email her about our former teacher receiving a pardon. In under thirty minutes, she replies, “Thanks for keeping me in the loop. How gross. The justice system is a joke.”
POSTSCRIPT: Passage of Bill 229 in December 2020 mandated that teachers disciplined for sexually abusive conduct receive a lifetime ban from teaching. The Ontario College of Teachers now has the authority to retroactively review disciplinary cases. To date, 28 licenses have been revoked.
As of this posting, Ronald Winston Holden remains a member in good standing of the Ontario College of Teachers.
If this story affects you, help is available here and here.
Contact a mental health professional here.
Note to readers:
For various reasons, no publication agreed to publish this article.
Because of the importance of the subject matter, I decided to post on this site.
This article has not been professionally edited.
I would like to acknowledge Artists and Lawyers for the Advancement of Creativity (ALAC), operating as Artists’ Legal Advice Services (ALAS) for legal advice.
Photographs by Ryley Brown