To Mr. G, with love

Last week, I wrote about running into a teacher with whom I’d had a difficult time back in high school. I felt somewhat conflicted about publishing it since on the whole I’ve been very fortunate to have mostly wonderful teachers. So to even out my blog-karma, I wanted to share a little about one of my favourite teachers, Mr. G.
I was about 7 or 8 when Mr. G joined my little primary school. He came from another school in northern England and had a slight accent to his speech. He came with a reputation for being very good with computers, which back then were all those big square 1980s Apple Basics (yes, I’m that old!).

I remember that he was quite tall, although every adult is tall when you are small, and quite slender, almost boyish, though he must have been in his early thirties. At first he seemed new and strange, but I remember deciding he must be ok because he used to wear socks with tiny Fred Flintstones on them — oh, the logic of children!

He brought with him new ideas for projects we’d not seen or heard of before: he had us play games in class, answering questions about history or science; we listened to books on tape and for the the first time discovered what it was like to hear the author read aloud; we started a newspaper and learned about the 5Ws.

My favourite activity was a unit-study about Egypt where we learned about hieroglyphics and pharaohs, myths and mummies. Mr.G had visited Egypt on holiday and shared stories of deserts made of rocks rather than sand, and photos him of racing dune buggies (that threatened to tip over) with his friends, and of visiting the pyramids. For young children whose idea of exotic was occasional trips to the seaside, it was as though he were telling us he had visited Narnia, or some other fantastic, mythical place.

His pedagogy was not all show and sparkle. He found ways to reach students individually, encouraging strengths and working to improve areas of difficulty. In my case, he was able to give me extra help with Maths (my life-long nemesis) while encouraging me out of my natural shyness with oral book reports and special art assignments. So it was for my classmates, too: he found their trouble spots and corrected them with characteristic gentleness and patience, all the while nurturing their special interests.

He was known as a good sport, able to make fun of himself in a way that made him likeable, but without loosing his authority. He once brought his expensive racing bike to school for us to see, clad in one of those multi-coloured spandex outfits usually restricted to professional athletes. Some of the bigger kids laughed at the strange bike with its skinny wheels and at the garish costume that went along with it, but he laughed along with them. Whether it was at something funny a student said, at his new, too-bright high-lights (remember when “tips” were all the rage?) or when, for Comic Relief, he dressed up as a girl, complete with a long blonde wig and my Mum’s clip-on earrings — he was always quick to break into a laugh.

It was only many years later, when I was in high school and considering becoming a teacher myself that I realized that Mr. G was likely one of the first gay men I ever met. In recent years, it’s become quite commonplace to have an openly gay teacher, family friend or member of the family. But in the late eighties, when fear over HIV and AIDS so often led to violence and open discrimination, being gay was still subject to tremendous stigma. I’m sure the trustees and even some of the parents at my parochial Roman Catholic primary school were cognizant that this young unmarried man with a slight lisp and several close male “friends” was not really just “waiting for the right girl”, as he claimed with a wink when we slightly-besotted little girls asked. Given the Church’s long-standing history of intolerance (and more recently, it’s propensity for refusing to admit its faults) it serves as a testament to just how good a teacher he was that, even in a time of tremendous prejudice and when working for an institution that continues to persecute against individuals of his sexual orientation, Mr.G was well-respected and well-liked.

I don’t know what happened to Mr.G after I left the U.K. in the mid-nineties. He would be in his fifties by now, so I like to think he has enjoyed a long, rewarding career, perhaps becoming a head teacher so that his particular style of gentle leadership could be passed on to subsequent generations of teachers.

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