By Elana Spivack
Walt Jr. left the White family breakfast table and found himself in Rosse Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 11 in a talk sponsored by Student Lectureships, Discrimination Advisors, the Peer Counselors, Social Board, Student Accessibility and Support Services, and the psychology and neuroscience departments. Actor RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad, AMC’s wildly popular series about a cancer-diagnosed chemistry teacher-turned meth dealer, came to Kenyon to speak out about overcoming disabilities. Affected by cerebral palsy, Mitte is an authority on overcoming setbacks. His presentation featured anecdotes from his own life as well as universal lessons about moving beyond fear.
Mitte began acting at about age 10 and did background work for shows like Hannah Montana and Weeds. He claimed these roles gave him insight on how leading actors worked, and helped him prepare for his successful acting career as Breaking Bad’s Walter Jr., who also has cerebral palsy.
Mitte emphasized not only the challenges he overcame but the daily challenges with which everyone struggles. “Everybody in this room has a disability,” he repeated throughout the night.
“A disability is not a disability. It’s knowledge,” he went on. He elaborated that he fully realized his ability to grow through his disability. One anecdote related to a pivotal moment when he realized everyone is scared of “being the first one” to stand up for a cause. “I stood up for myself, so people stood up with me.” This epiphany helped him overcome bullying, a phenomenon he says extends beyond the playground, especially into social media. “People want to attack what they don’t understand,” he said. “[They] try to take a piece of who you are, … but that’s not for them to use.”
Mitte’s antidote to life’s setbacks is to bypass fear itself. “If you let that fear manipulate you, … you’re not being who you’re meant to be,” he stressed. While assertion about determination and positivity may seem clichéd and even juvenile, the crowd had an overwhelmingly positive response. His philosophy of selflessness is not new, but it is often much-needed for the meandering college student.
He also acknowledged that some challenges are persistent. “You will constantly have self-doubt. When it gets down to it, you have to just face that fear,” he said in response to a student’s question. Such strength cannot come from a single person. His headstrong personality comes from his family, specifically his grandparents. They forbade him from saying “I can’t,” pushing him to confront his fears. “You have to find the few people that you can model yourself after,” he said. “People you know inside and out.”
His mother Dyna Mitte accompanies him on his tours and has supported him his whole life. She described her momentary turmoil when he was diagnosed at age three, but then pulled herself together after her aunt, a longtime manager of a medical facility and key figure in Mitte’s diagnosis, advised she “[g]o get a bath, a glass of wine, and cry all my tears out that night because there couldn’t be any more tears after that.” Dyna continued, “I had to focus on what I could do as a parent to make his life as normal as possible … We surrounded ourselves with supportive people.”
Celia Lown ’15, co-president of Student Lectureships, stressed the importance of speaking out against bullying. “You think of bullying just as the middle school playground but it’s really all-encompassing these days,” she said. “As cliché as it sounds we really wanted people to take it to heart and think about how their actions affect other people.”
Maddie Morgan ’18 attended the talk and came away with the enviable ambition Mitte possesses. “Go after whatever you’re passionate about, don’t let other people stop you, don’t let fear get in the way,” she said.