Warning: This story contains racist language and references to racist social media posts. Discretion is advised.
A high school in Pickering is in the process of replacing all of its 2019-2020 yearbooks after a racist message replaced a tribute written by a 17-year-old graduating student in honour of his grandmother.
“This is just hurting me. I’m in shock… I’ve been breaking down, I haven’t been myself,” Joshua Telemaque told reporters Monday afternoon.
“I don’t ever want this type of thing to happen to anyone else because I don’t want anyone going through this pain that I’m going through right now.”
The story first came to light after a picture was posted by Telemaque’s aunt, Mayma Raphael, on social media Saturday afternoon. She recalled how she received a “frantic” phone call from her sister after the yearbook discovery.
The quote to accompany his photo was supposed to be, “RIP Grandma. Thank you for guiding me through my four years of high school.” However, in the social media post, the photo showed it was replaced with, “Rip Harambe Dooga booga.O.”
The shocking message appears to reference Harambe, a gorilla that was kept at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio.
Telemaque said he first learned of the caption after being told about it by a friend.
“As soon as I saw it, I started breaking down because I knew what I put there was going to be something where I left my imprint. The person who has touched my heart, I would have left it right there just to thank her for everything that she has done for me throughout these last four years of high school,” he said.
Telemaque said this was the first time he personally experienced overt anti-Black racism, but that he was bullied often and heard stories of how others were affected.
“I left it alone. I just didn’t do anything about it. You know, I don’t like causing trouble. It’s not who I am. I don’t like to brag about myself or anything, I’m a kind person. I have a soft heart for everyone,” he said.
“It just hurts a lot. I hope after all this, I hope this comes to an end because bullying is something that’s very serious. Not only bullying, but racism as well. As a Black man, the words that I’ve seen on that book was very degrading and hurt me a lot right to the heart.”
Marva Telemaque, Joshua’s mother, said she and her family have lived in Pickering for the past 10 years. She said Joshua, her eldest son, has been bullied at school and outside of it.
“My son was devastated,” she said, adding they went to the school over the weekend to meet with school officials.
“I am a proud mother. I have invested a lifetime of love and energy into raises my sons. I will not allow someone’s prank to derail his mental health, growth and development.”
Marva described this Thanksgiving as the best and the worst one for the family, noting the social media post has been shared internationally.
“People from all over the world have come together to support him. We have a lot to be thankful for,” she said.
Joshua called the support he has received “amazing,” but said this has greatly impacted him and others.
“This has a huge impact to the Black community at my school,” he said.
“No kid deserves to come to school every day scared to come to school. They should be welcomed into school.”
When it comes to his grandmother, Joshua reflected on their special bond.
“(She is) looking down on me right now, she’s my guardian angel. She will always be guiding me,” he said, calling her a positive figure in his life.
“She was always there for me … I want to show her I’m living my life through her.”
As for the response by school officials, a letter was issued to parents on Sunday by principal Susan Duane. She said an investigation has been launched by school officials “in collaboration” with Durham Regional Police, promising disciplinary action against those who produced the message.
“The traditional St. Mary Catholic Secondary School yearbook is intended to capture fond memories for students and staff. We are horrified to discover that inappropriate comments were unknowingly published in the 2019-2020 edition,” she wrote.
“These comments were malicious, hurtful and racist in nature. These comments are not a reflection of our mission, vision or values as a Catholic learning environment.
“We sincerely apologize to the school community for the offensive, hurtful and unacceptable nature of these comments.”
Duane said the school is recalling all yearbooks that were distributed. The yearbooks are set to be replaced. Everyone was asked for their “100 per cent cooperation” to ensure the books are returned to school officials on Tuesday, noting a full inventory will be taken.
Meanwhile, Joshua said he hopes something positive can come from this.
“This really hurt me. I can’t sleep at night. It scarred me. I don’t know what to say, but I hope all this gets justice. It’s really hurting me,” he said.
Joshua, who was an athlete throughout his time in high school, is now attending prep school for football. He said he wants to go to university to keep playing football, adding he hopes to turn pro. However, years down the road, he said he’s thinking about studying fire prevention engineering as a potential second career.
“I’m going to get there and nothing is going to stop me,” Joshua said.
Supporters of Joshua setup a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to support his post-secondary education.