Just when it seemed Paul Messam was about to turn down the wrong road, Cyril Young pulled up in front of him to avoid the detour.
That was nearly three decades ago and Messam – along with other Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute students – have not forgotten the lifeline the retired teacher threw to them.
Mainly newcomers from the Caribbean, Young provided sound advice and helped them integrate into a new school system and environment.
“When I was heading down the wrong path, he took me aside and straightened me out,” said Messam, who is an electrical contractor. “He let me know what could happen if that was the route I was going to choose. That was my wake-up call. It’s because of him that I am who I am today. He was like a father figure.”
Happily married to another Vaughan Road Collegiate graduate, the father of two relished the opportunity to thank Young for his unyielding support at a surprise dinner at a Markham restaurant recently.
“Most of the students at the time had just come from the Caribbean and were in a new school and system,” said Messam, who migrated from Jamaica in 1978. “Mr. Young helped us to make that seamless transition. He was very patient and humble and we could always count on his support.”
Though she was only in his class for a few months, Olivine Burgess-Coley said Young’s impact has lasted a lifetime.
“I had just arrived from Jamaica in 1982 and I was extremely shy and uncomfortable in my new setting,” said the married mother of three children. “He let me know that everything would be fine and he also helped me to find a part-time job on the weekends that I held for nearly two years. I might have seen him just once since I left Vaughan Road in 1984, but I was not going to let the opportunity pass to meet him again and let him know how grateful I am for what he did for me in those early days in Canada.”
A successful businessman, Clifton Daley sings the praises of his former teacher.
“I learned a lot from him that has helped to shape my life,” said Daley, who graduated four years after arriving in Canada in 1976. He owns a mechanic shop and a catering business.
Two days after landing in Toronto, Janet Llewelyn was enrolled at the school.
“Just imagine what it’s like coming out of your comfort zone and finding yourself in a classroom with things being done differently,” said Jamaican-born Llewelyn, who was instrumental in organizing the reunion celebration. “And as if that was not bad enough, you are told you would be put a class behind where you were supposed to be. Mr. Young stood up for me and other students in ensuring we were placed in the right class and educational stream. He looked out for us to make sure we were treated fairly.”
Following a teaching stint in his native Trinidad & Tobago, Young migrated to the United States where he taught adults at New York City County College before coming to Toronto in the early 1970s. Graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education, he joined the then City of York School Board and helped implement a program to facilitate immigrant students from the Caribbean who were experiencing challenges adjusting to the Canadian education system.
In addition to facilitating the program and teaching Math, English and Science, Young was a mentor and track coach at Vaughan Road Collegiate. The track team included two-time Olympian, Marita Payne-Wiggins, who was the fastest female in the Western hemisphere in the 400-metres event with a time of 50.06 secs. and a silver medalist in the 4×100 and 4×400-metre events at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Married to former National Basketball Association (NBA) player Mitchell Wiggins, their son, Andrew Wiggins, is a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Young also co-ordinated the Tropicana Community Services Organization’s Saturday Morning tutorial program.