Every day, Tom Young brings his dog to the Benicia Dog Park, a place where he has made lifelong friends. A youthful 70, Tom enjoys striking up conversations with fellow dog owners about life’s adventures—like his recent trip to Bali, his years in South Africa, and his passion for teaching science. As an educator for nearly 35 years, Tom brought the real world into his classrooms by sharing his life experiences. It’s how he kept his students engaged, and it’s one of the things he misses most about teaching.
Born in The Bronx, New York, Tom was the youngest of four children. His mother was a hairdresser, and his father owned a cleaning business before he went blind from glaucoma at the age of 55. Tom studied at Long Island University for two years, but found it hard to assimilate as a man of color. So in 1965, he transferred to Howard University in D.C., where he earned his degree in zoology with a minor in physics and physical science. He aspired someday to go to medical school.
After graduating from Howard, he took a road trip west with a friend from California. “I fell in love with the gorgeous vistas driving through the Berkeley hills and across the Golden Gate Bridge,” he says. “And there was no way I was going back to The Bronx, where it was hot and humid.” It wasn’t long before he enrolled in graduate courses in education at UC Berkeley.
One evening in a twist of fate, his guidance counselor invited him to dinner with the Minister of Education representing Lethoso, in southern Africa. “He was a dark-skinned man with a smile that could just light up the room. He and his aid were trying to convince me to go there to teach science. He offered me a big house for $15 per month, inexpensive meals, and told me ‘women will eat you alive.’”
The experience in Lethoso would change the course of his life. On his first night, he says it was the bed bugs that ate him alive, but he stayed from 1973 to 1976. “It’s where I learned that I love teaching.”
Lesotho had declared independence from Great Britain in 1966 and was not segregated, however the small country is completely landlocked by South Africa. In order to travel in apartheid South Africa, Tom and his black colleagues were made “honorary white people” on their travel visas. “Today it is much different,” says Tom, who still visits every other year.
When Tom returned to the U.S., his career as an educator would soon flourish. Over the years, he taught Human Anatomy, Physiology, AP Biology, Honors Biology and Algebra, among other courses. It began in Oakland at Castlemont High and then Skyline High, where he was voted Favorite Teacher. He fought for a position at Benicia High School and eventually became Vice Principal in 1998. After two years, he was recruited to be Principal at Pinole High School, where the political environment became extremely stressful. Nearing retirement, Tom says, “I knew I wanted to get back into the classroom.” He ended his career teaching human anatomy and physiology at El Cerrito High School, and says: “It’s the best decision I ever made.” His students there voted him Most Inspirational Teacher.
Tom was an active member of Building Diversity in Science, an organization that aims to equip underrepresented students with tools for navigating academics. “Anyone can learn science,” he claims. “I had kids who had always been afraid of science, but they just needed the correct frame of mind. If you turn your self off to something you can’t learn it. From a physiological standpoint, we build neural pathways and the more you learn, the more you’re capable of learning.”
Now nine years retired, he enjoys woodworking, writing and traveling. At heart, Tom says he’s a “romanticist,” a man who met his wife Carolyn at his sister’s dinner party in 1978, and wooed her with a Sarah Vaughan concert and a drive along Highway 1. The couple moved to Benicia from Oakland in 1987, and raised their children here. Their oldest grandson is heading to Howard University in the fall, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.