‘Twelve times one equals twelve, twelve times two equals twenty-four, twelve times three equals thirty-six’; this was the regimen each Tuesday afternoon. I dreaded it more than anything else in life. He would require the class each week to stand at our desk and recite the multiplication tables. “Next week will be the twelve times tables,” he announced. This signalled that each student could be called upon randomly to stand at our desk and begin to recite from memory the multiplication of a number he selected, and we needed to do so in order, because rote learning was the ideal pedagogical technique in his mind.

‘Twelve times four equals forty-eight, twelve times five equals sixty, twelve times six equals seventy-two.’ I prayed he wouldn’t call my name.  He knew I couldn’t do it and yet, while others were spared, it’s as though he took delight in calling my name, so he could berate and shame me in front of my classmates.  “Nizar let’s see what you’ve got,” he called.  I began tentatively.  ‘Twelve times four equals forty-eight, twelve times five equals sixty, twelve times six equals seventy-two, twelve times seven equals…twelve times seven equals…’ (Why couldn’t I remember?) ‘…twelve times seven equals…’ I slumped into my chair, defeated, my head bowed.

Our punishment for failing to complete the multiplication from one to twelve was to then write out 100 times the answer which we were unable to summon from our mind as he had instructed.

“Unbelievable!”, he shouted at me — my head still bowed. I prepared myself for the berating. “Two weeks in a row and you can’t figure out what twelve times seven equals?” he asked incredulously; “Why can’t you figure out something as simple as that?”

The snickers began behind me. I just kept my eyes focussed on my desk, hoping it would be over soon.  I reached for a sheet of foolscap — Hilroy, nicely lined orderly sheets with the red line to designate where the margin began. I tried to focus on anything but his words and hope it would be over soon.

I was so focused on the paper on my desk, I didn’t see him walk up behind me.  Slam! went my head into the desk.  He reached behind my head, grabbed a fist full of my hair and slammed my head into the World War II surplus desk that the school passed off as appropriate furniture for elementary school learning. He held my head down on the desk shouting: “Indian people are supposed to be good at math — you’re a disgrace!”

The quiet sobs began, the hot tears rolled down my face. I didn’t want to cry loudly in fear he would see this instinctive act as a form of defiance, or worse, additional weakness on my part.

At this point, his voice had reached fever-pitched levels and echoed out in the hallway. Why wasn’t anyone coming to my rescue? I thought. The other students in the class were stunned into silence. No-one dared say anything in fear of similar retribution. I could see their scared faces, a few of them also sobbing quietly from fear, as my face was held down sideways, now viewing the terror in their eyes, yet blurred by my tears.

“It’s 84! It’s 84! you stupid idiot!” He shouted with the weight and strength of his arms on my head. “Write it out 100 times if you can count that high,” then he walked back to the front of the room and took his seat at the teacher’s desk.

It was done.

I lifted my head, the tears still running freely down my cheeks and the stifled sobs emanating from my chest now slowing in pace. I started to fulfill my punishment and write out 100 times: twelve times seven equals eighty-four, twelve times seven equals eighty-four, twelve times seven equals eighty-four. My handwritten punishment filling what was a clean sheet of paper that seconds earlier was my focused solace against the trauma that would come; the answer that had escaped me written in neat rows 100 times.

I was 10 years old; I was in grade four. It was a public school at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). This wasn’t some far flung location in a distant country where a teacher beating a student was considered commonplace and acceptable. This was Toronto, at Woodbine and Danforth in 1978.

To this day, 40 years later, if I am innocently asked a multiplication question or even when faced with calculating the gratuity on a restaurant bill that requires me to determine the answer in my mind, a pit forms in my stomach and a nervousness fills my being resulting in a mental fog that inhibits me from thinking clearly.

Years later, when I mustered the courage to tell my best friend, both of us now in our 20s, he a newly minted teacher at the TDSB himself, asked sympathetically: “Why didn’t you tell an adult in your school? They might have protected you.” I looked at him and said: “I was being beaten by my teacher. Wasn’t he the one I was normally supposed to go to for protection?”

As we consider the atrocities motivated by racism today – from the 215 lost souls in Kamloops to the atrocity in London, Ontario or the fact that hate crimes are on the rise across the country – it’s clear, racism is not just a problem south of the border.

The story I just shared is 40 years old and so much has improved. However, it is not unique and is by far, not even the worst racist experience I had growing up, it is simply one I still cannot shake.  It is also one of thousands of stories that other victims of racism can share with you but have also been kept quiet in the recesses of our minds over decades out of fear, shame or because we rationalize to ourselves, things are better now.

Nizar Ladak is the CEO of the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization (NDRIO), and a passionate Canadian.