I trace and comment on my life struggles through public school, high school, and thence to my first university degree. Throughout, I faced the dual problem of going to school without having the mandatory fees. But I point out that I completed my education debt-free, never having applied for or received a student loan.
I also reveal how I coped with the double-edged difficulty of being both black and ambitious, while persevering in a mostly unwelcoming white-dominated environment. Then I tell how I managed to overcome numerous obstacles, to obtain a doctorate (in organic chemistry), and eventually go on to become a pioneering Canadian-born black scientist and educator-more than forty years ago. Parenthetically, the pivotal breakthrough in my professional career took place at about the same time (1947) in the same city (Montreal), that Jackie Robinson was making his breakthrough into organized baseball.
So in every sense, this is the story of a "native son."
Thomas "Tom" F. Massiah
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Musings Of A Native Son: An Autobiography
The life and times of a Canadian Scientist.
By Thomas F. Massiah
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Thomas F. Massiah
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
It was around 3:30pm on Thursday, August 06, 1931. I had been playing with several of my playmates, at the corner of Richelieu and Lacasse streets (in Montreal's Saint Henri district), roughly half a block from my home. Suddenly, one of my friends called out to me, telling me that my dad was being taken to the hospital. I ran towards my home, but only got there in time to see the ambulance turn the corner at St. Antoine Street, enroute to the Royal Victoria hospital.
Around 10am the next day, Mother received the news that Dad had succumbed to his illness during the night. Mother was barely in her thirties, and was now a widow, with several small children to take care of. Understandably, she was devastated by the sudden death of her husband, and it was to affect all of us adversely throughout our lives, in many ways. However, in retrospect, Dad's death should not have come as a surprise, in that, at that time, he had been essentially bedridden (while under the doctor's care) for something like eighteen months. Nevertheless, his passing heralded for me (the fourth of six children), the start of a long and at times difficult journey, to a reasonably successful adulthood.
Although I had had a dad for only a little over four years of my life, I believe that a lot of him rubbed off on me. For one thing, Dad was widely respected in the Black-Caribbean community as a scholar, having emigrated from British Guyana (early in the 1900s) to study Medicine. He attended medical school at both Howard and McGill universities, prior to marrying Mother.
Some of his friends even referred to him as 'Doc' Massiah, although regrettably, he never graduated from either medical school. I never found out why. Yet, despite his higher-than-normal education, he spent his all to brief working life as a sleeping-car porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). But this perceived failure (on his part) instilled in me at an early age, the commitment, that at least one of his children would obtain a doctorate, although not necessarily in Medicine. And because I seemed to have been blessed with an insatiable curiosity about how and why things work, together with the facility to learn things, I started my arduous academic journey towards a doctorate, in the post stock-market crash, depression-years of the 1930s. An early picture of Mother and Dad is shown below.
SCHOOL DAYS -DEAR OLD GOLDEN RULE DAYS
By the age of three, I could read. So the transition from home to elementary school was uneventful. The school was Lewis Evans — a one-story, rectangular eight – room building, situated at 4275 Richelieu Street, just south of the CPR railway tracks, that walled off Montreal's St. Henri district, from lower Westmount to the north. It was presided over by a dapper, but sadistic principal (Mr. Snodgrass), who also taught grade seven.
From the day I entered Lewis Evans School, until I transferred to Royal Arthur school (at the end of grade six), I was at the top of the class. Learning came easily to me. I took great pride in receiving gold stars on my report, denoting excellence, and the honour cards given to the leading students at the end of the school year. But my otherwise carefree days at Lewis Evans were affected adversely by my fear of the principal. He seemed to relish instilling fear in the students through his unbridled use of the strap — a practice that I found to be abhorrent, especially since it was being used on pre- pubescent youngsters. Therefore, I rejoiced when this medieval form of torture was finally abolished in all schools.
Ironically, it seemed like poetic justice, that some time after being transferred to another more affluent school, Mr. Snodgrass was convicted of sexual malfeasance, involving some of his students. I do not recall what his punishment was, nor do I remember even being concerned about it.
There is something that occurred in grade 6, which merits mentioning. I think of it, even today, as an act of extraordinary kindness.
A number of black youngsters were chosen each year, by Mr. Dudley Sykes (the Executive Director of The Negro Community Centre), to attend the Rotary Club's Christmas Dinner, at Montreal's Windsor Hotel. Fortunately, that year, my younger brother Michael and I were chosen to attend. At the dinner, each boy was placed alternately beside a Rotarian. The man who sat between Michael and me, was a Mr. John Mills. He told us that he was the President of the Westmount Rotary Club. During the dinner, he asked us what we would like Santa to bring us for Christmas. I blurted out — a Meccano set — having in mind something in say a 12 x 12 box, selling for no more than $5.00 — a princely sum in those days! Of course, by then, I no longer believed in Santa Claus, nor did I have any expectation of actually getting a Meccano set from Mr. Mills, or any one else, for that matter. Still, I went along with what I thought was a ploy on his part — by giving him our names and address. At the end of the dinner, we thanked him for his kindness, and left, never expecting to hear from him.
On Christmas Eve, we were busy setting up our Christmas tree in a wooden box, filled with lumps of coal. Around 8:00pm, the doorbell rang. When we opened the door, a man asked if Michael and George Massiah lived there. It was Mr. Mills! He said that Santa had left a package for us at his home, and had asked him to deliver it to us. Then he brought in a huge flat box that had to be 3ft. long x 2ft wide.
It contained the largest Meccano set that I had ever seen! There were hundreds of parts, a large instruction book, and two wind-up motors. What a gigantic number of objects we could build! A Meccano set like that must have cost at least $100 — an unimaginable sum to me, back in 1937. We couldn't believe our good fortune. No one had ever given us a gift that could rival what we had been given by Mr. Mills. As I said earlier, it was an act of extraordinary kindness and generosity.
Michael and I enjoyed our Meccano set for many years. When we felt that we had outgrown it, we donated it to the Salvation Army. We hoped that some other youngster might derive as much pleasure as we had — from Mr. Mills' gift to us.
Now let us return to my public school days, at the end of grade 6. Reluctantly, I had to transfer to Royal Arthur School, in grade 7, as our family had moved into their district.
My teacher there was a Miss Feilde. She had upperclass pretensions, based on the fact that her father was a medical doctor, and that she lived on Sherbrooke Street (near to Guy St.), some distance north of the school. Royal Arthur school was situated below both the CPR and the CNR railway tracks. So Miss Feilde never disguised her dismay at having to teach there.
I adapted readily to the new school, but found that despite my best efforts, I could never achieve a placement of being higher than second in the class. There was a Finnish girl named Sirrkka, who always managed to beat me (albeit barely) mark-wise. But more serious than this was my disappointment in not winning the boy's scholarship, later that year.
In the penultimate report, I obtained an average of 95%, whereas, my nearest rival — a chap named Freddie Grevatt obtained an average of something like 83%. Yet on the day when the final results were revealed, Freddie was given the boy's scholarship (with an average of 88.1%), while my average was 87.5%.
To this day, I wonder if factors other than merit were operative in Miss Feilde's marking. You see, Freddie was white and I am black. Regrettably, it would not be the only time throughout my life that I would ask this question.
As an aside, Sirrkka won the scholarship for girls, and Freddie was awarded the boy's scholarship. So far as I know, neither of them finished High School.
THE INVISIBLE YEARS
By the time I reached High School (in the Fall of 1939), three of my siblings were also in High School. My older brother James (or Johnny as we called him) was on a 4-year Athlone scholarship at the Montreal Technical School, thanks to the efforts of Mother, who succeeded in obtaining it for him. My two elder sisters (Helen and Margaret) were enrolled in the Commercial course at Strathearn High School.
Except for Johnny, none of us had the wherewithal to attend our respective schools, since fees were mandatory in those days. So my ploy was to attempt to be as inconspicuous as possible in class, hoping that the teacher did not notice me when payment of fees was brought up. My sisters probably adopted similar coping strategies.
Eventually, towards the end of September, we were each awarded a bursary from the school board, and our studies could continue.
I enrolled at The High School of Montreal (popularly called Montreal High). There were only two choices insofar as to a curriculum — Latin or Science. I knew nothing about Latin, except that it was an archaic language, sometimes used in medical prescriptions, and in Law. Since I did not plan to enter either of these professions, I opted to study science. But which science?
In our first year at Montreal High, we were introduced to the study of Biology. Our teacher was a Dr. Lead, a newly minted Ph.D. in biology. Over the four years of High School, I received a first class exposure to biology.
We went on field trips, where we collected and mounted many different species of plants and animals. However, despite the excellence of the exposure that I received, in those days, I could not see how one could make a living as a biologist. Of course, today it would be a different matter, thanks to the current interest in molecular biology. So I looked for other choices in the field of science.
In my second year at Montreal High, I was introduced to something called General Science. Essentially, this was a means of introducing us to the metric system, some elementary concepts in physics and also to mensuration. Chemistry and Physics were introduced in my third year, and was continued in my fourth and final year of High School. With three sciences to choose from, how did I come to choose Chemistry, as the career path that I would follow?
The choice was almost accidental. Each of our laboratory-based science courses required that the student pay something called 'caution money' as insurance against breakage of laboratory equipment. I didn't have 'caution money' (or any other kind of money) for any of the courses. Dr. Guest, the chemistry teacher 'forgave' my chemistry course 'caution money'. I felt indebted to him because of this, and thereafter took a special interest in doing well in the chemistry courses that he taught. Later, at university, I discovered Organic Chemistry, which became my professional life's primary pursuit. But I am getting a little ahead of myself.
There were several teachers at Montreal High, as well as events there that had a lasting influence on my life.
Aside from Drs. Lead and Guest, Messers. McGarry, Reeves and McBain all were important influences in my development — each in a different way.
Mr. McGarry taught French in grade 10. He was a very competent teacher, having been the recipient of a prize that enabled him to study in France. But this is not what constituted how he influenced me most. It was how he explained Shakespeare's peerless stature as a dramatist, to me. I had asked Mr. McGarry why Shakespeare was held in such high esteem, since I could not find anything appealing in any of his plays (such as A Midsummer Nights' Dream, and The Merchant of Venice for example) that I had read up till then. His explanation went something like this. He said,....
"If I were to ask you to draw a man, you would probably draw me a stick-figure representation, and label it 'Man'. But if I asked Rembrandt to draw a man, he would draw a figure with depth, passion and sensitivity.
Well that is the difference between Shakespeare and other dramatists."
From that time on, I have been able to read and really enjoy Shakespeare, thanks to the perspective given me by Mr. McGarry.
Mr. Reeves was my homeroom teacher in both grades 10 and 11. It was he who instilled in me the love of mathematics that I have retained to this day.
Then there was Mr. McBain. He was a rather eccentric English teacher, whom the students called 'Cuckoo McBain'. He was also rabidly anti-Semitic, despite his constant disclaimer ----
"Boys ... On the staff they say that I'm anti-Semitic. No; no such thing! I just don't like the people!"
Despite his obvious prejudice, he was also an excellent teacher of English, and especially of English composition. Whatever skills I have as a writer, started under his tutelage. Every day, he would announce in class that our assignment was to write a composition, and he would hand out over-size sheets of foolscap paper. Then he would destroy our completed essays by awarding marks such as minus 20, (out of a 100). It was infuriating, but it worked in the long run. He confessed to me using this ploy as a stimulant, during my High School graduation ceremony.
Montreal High was a strictly non co-educational school. The student body numbered 1200 boys, and was comprised of representatives of every nationality in Europe, together with a few Chinese students. There were but six black students in this very diverse student body. This made for no end of problems for us, in that in those days, we were invariably subjected to being called demeaning names such as 'rastus, coon, lightning and snowball'. Our usual response to the verbal assaults, was to respond with our fists.
One of the Black students who attended Montreal High when I did was Oscar Peterson, who was to become the legendary jazz pianist. Although he is one year older than I am, he entered Montreal High (in 1940), one year after me.
This was due to his having been ill for a protracted period. Initially, Oscar was loath to retaliate to the verbal abuse by some of the white students, demurring that he was a pianist, and therefore could not be involved in fisticuffs. However, later that year he changed, and became proficient at using his fists to redress the name–calling and other racial barbs, as did the other black students.
Contemporaneously, Maynard Ferguson (who later achieved fame as a jazz trumpet and French Horn player) and his brother Percy (in whose band Oscar made his professional debut), were attendees at Montreal High. So Jazz was definitely a hallmark of my high school days.
The strap ----that abhorrent relic of my public school days---- achieved vaunted status at Montreal High. It was used so extensively, that the teachers almost had to make a reservation to access it. One teacher announced to his class (on the first day of school) that he planned to strap every student at least twice during the school year. I understand that he did so one and one-half times!
I was strapped unjustifiably (in grade 8) for the one and only time in my life. Then I was informed by one of my classmates (probably erroneously) that my having been strapped, disqualified me from being eligible to write the scholarship exams. So with nothing more to lose, I became decidedly rebellious at school. I vowed that the next time I was strapped, I would deserve it. That never happened.
In fact, what surprised me was that, despite the vicissitudes that I experienced during my High School years (coupled with my at times non-compliant behavior there) I was able to graduate at age 16, coincident with the 100th anniversary of Montreal High.
One factor that helped restore my focus toward school — aside from Mother's unflinching discipline at home — was my entry into our school's Air Cadet Corps. Participation in the corps was mandatory, back in 1942. I enrolled in the NCOs course, and obtained the rank of Sergeant. The following year, I was promoted to Flight-Sergeant, becoming the first black student in Montreal to achieve this rank. Our squadron (#242) was the largest in Montreal, and consisted of 12 flights. Each flight was commanded by a Flight-Sergeant.
A special parade (involving the best marchers in the squadron) was planned as part of our school's 100th anniversary observances. Roughly one-quarter of the entire cadet corps made the cut to participate in the parade. Those chosen were minimally corporals, and each had to excel at marching. Then, which Flight Sergeant would lead the parade, had to be decided. I competed for the honour, and wound up tied with Mickey Stein, another Flight Sergeant. We resolved the impasse by deciding that I would lead the processional phase and Mickey would lead the recessional phase of the parade, which included a rifle-toting armed guard. Thus it was with pride that I shouted out the commands.... "Parade! ... Atten Cha!; Move to the right in column of route, Right Ta!; By the left, Quick March!", to start the parade into our school's gymnasium, marching to the beat of the drum and bugle band.
Excerpted from Musings Of A Native Son: An Autobiography by Thomas F. Massiah. Copyright © 2012 Thomas F. Massiah. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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Table of Contents
A WORD ABOUT THE AUTHOR.................... XXI
IN THE BEGINNING.................... 1
SCHOOL DAYS.................... 5
THE INVISIBLE YEARS.................... 11
TO THE GARDEN~ALONE!.................... 31
OUT OF THE COCOON.................... 71
ON EAGLE'S WINGS!.................... 79
THE SEVENTH AGE.................... 103
EPILOGUE: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY!.................... 157
ADDENDUM TO: MUSINGS OF A NATIVE SON.................... 165
DOES TRAINING IN THE SCIENCES LEAD TO AGNOSTICISM?.................... 173
OTHER ARTICLES BY T. F. MASSIAH.................... 181