And it was all due to an ad for a flower planter.
In August 1997, Nashat Cassim was just five-years-old when he arrived in Toronto from Sri Lanka with his parents and sister.
The family settled in Regent Park and Cassim remembers it was a strange and scary time.
“At the time it was a little intimidating; it wasn’t always the safest place to live. I know my parents were feeling pretty overwhelmed.”
Just before he started at his new school in his new country, two junior kindergarten teachers from Sprucecourt Public School, located right where Regent Park meets Cabbagetown, paid a visit to his house.
Along with school supplies, they brought encouragement, advice and support, which continued through the school year.
After about a year and a half, the family moved out of downtown, eventually buying a home in Markham, north of the city.
Cassim would go on to high school, then university and is now doing his residency in pediatric dentistry at the University of Toronto. He works at the Hospital for Sick Children, Mount Sinai Hospital and does outreach work in his old Regent Park neighbourhood.
He founded an after-school program there called Junior Smiles to teach kids about oral health. He has taught at dental schools abroad and hopes to eventually become a professor.
‘I remember him so well’
Earlier this month, Cassim’s mother asked him to post the flower planter she wanted to sell on Facebook Marketplace.
Someone named Karen Ayotte responded, but she was in The Beach neighbourhood in Toronto and could not go to Markham to pick it up. For Cassim, the name sounded familiar, so he clicked on her profile.
“My teacher’s name was Ms. Ayotte and I look at the school she worked at and now the gears are turning in my head.”
So Cassim messaged her back asking if she taught senior kindergarten back in the 1990s and when she said yes, he sent her a picture of them both along with another teacher, Ms. Gibson.
“I remember him so well,” said Ayotte, who taught for 32 years at Spruce Court Public School and is the longest-serving teacher the school has had.
“He was a quiet child quite liked by his classmates, eager to learn, a little bit shy,” she said.
“But he had a lot of support from his parents,” Ayotte recalled, adding she and another teacher used to do home visits and introduce themselves to families and let them know what to expect in September.
Ayotte, 64, is still working for the Toronto District School Board as a site administrator in its International Language program.
“I find the newcomers coming to this country take education very seriously.”
She was happy to reconnect with Cassim and the two arranged a time and place to meet. He brought her the flower stand, which he gave to her for free, along with a long thank you note and a Tim Horton’s gift card.
“How it happened is so surprising to say the least,” Ayotte said. “I was a little overwhelmed. And to hear how successful he is did my heart a lot of good.”
‘They had such an impact on me’
Cassim thinks his success is at least partly due to Ayotte and Ms. Gibson, the other teacher who visited him that day so long ago.
“I think that value of education and that passion for education traces back to me having such a good experience,” he said, adding he often wished he could thank these two warm and encouraging educators.
“I always kind of wondered about those two teachers because they had such an impact on me, but back then social media was non-existent,” said Cassim.
“I didn’t even know teachers had first names. I didn’t even know teachers didn’t live at school. The idea of contacting teachers was not really in my head back then, but as I grew older I always remembered those teachers and thought of them fondly.”
Cassim also tracked down Ms. Gibson, who had moved up to Uxbridge, Ont.
All three plan to get together as soon as it’s safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know if I’d be where I am today without them giving me that foundation,” said Cassim.
“It’s a good reminder of what an impact a good teacher can have.”