Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mr. G. retires but his teaching is destined to continue

Jeff Bell
Times Colonist
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Alan Govender is retiring after 34 years in Victoria classrooms, but his teaching career seems destined to continue.

Govender, affectionately known as Mr. G. at Sir James Douglas Elementary School, is considering a return to his native South Africa to join his brother at a school for children orphaned by AIDS. The disease is decimating young adults in the country, he said.

Govender, 60, came to Canada as a refugee in 1973 and knows the stark contrast between life here and life in his rural hometown about 200 kilometres from Johannesburg. The school he attended there has changed little, he said.

"It's mud and tin, with outhouses and 50, 60, 80 kids in a classroom."

He said he has always told his students about his life in South Africa, and has made sure they realize how fortunate they are to live in Canada. The laws have changed in South Africa, he said, but racism still exists.

"I tell my kids You have no idea how lucky you are. Don't ever throw half an apple into the garbage can. I will scream, because that's food.'"

He is drawn to go back and do what he can do to help, he said.

"When you enjoy this, and you see what's there where you come from, it hurts you. You feel for those kids, and you feel guilty. Why should my son have been privileged to have the opulence of Canadian society?"

Such are the lessons he has imparted to his students over the years, first at Blanshard Elementary, then at Cloverdale, and finally at Sir James Douglas. Many of them, past and present, gathered in the Sir James Douglas library Wednesday to tell Mr. G. the special impression he made on them, and how much they admire him.

"You're one of the coolest teachers in the world, and one of the funniest," said Shanelle Demelo, now a Grade 6 student at Colquitz Middle School. Like many others, she said she was actually afraid of the outwardly gruff, straight-talking Mr. G. until she had him as a teacher.

Friends Dayna Clark, Carina Bogoler and Camille Roos-McElroy, all in Grade 6 at Central Middle School, said they cried as Grade 1 students when the older kids teased them by saying how mean Mr. G. was. A few years later, he became one of the best teachers they've had.

Even Rachel Diamond and Mandy Popescu love him, though they spent many recesses writing lines - Mr. G.'s favourite means of discipline.

"He was the best," Popescu said.

Mr. G. himself claims to be feisty, even grumpy, but his students know better. The word "softie" is often used.

Sir James Douglas teacher-librarian Susan Harrison said her colleague has "quite a bark," but is definitely one of those special teachers who students will remember all their lives.

"They love him. He speaks to them like a sergeant-major, but he's all heart."

Greater Victoria School Board trustee Michael McEvoy stopped by the event to pay his respects.

"There's nothing that happened at this school that didn't involve Mr. G. He symbolizes everything a great teacher should be, he's a remarkable man."

Mr. G. said he simply tried to share his feelings and experiences with his young charges when he was teaching.

"I felt that was more important than learning from books. When you tell children that this is who you are, they become more personal with you, they become more involved with their learning, and they become more appreciative of what is around them.

"I'll be sad to leave. I'll miss them."