Inspiration of a lifetime

Teaching Legend

Everlasting Alec Alvarez (sitting) with his old students.

School life at St Joseph’s Boys High School was typically reminiscent of wild pranks, homework, detention and our relationship with our teachers. While some inspired us, others brought out our mischievous side. But there is one teacher who we are still very close to and who we feel, we were truly lucky to have. He taught generations of students, very often several members of one family and in the bargain, became our friend for life. His goal was not to identify winners but make winners out of ordinary kids,” say students of Alec Alvarez, who taught Chemistry and Physics, at St Joseph’s for 35 years joining the staff in 1939.

A teacher during the War years, he joked about how students, who had not fared well in their Senior Cambridge exam, would pray fervently that the ships carrying the papers to Cambridge would be sunk by the Germans and that they would pass by default!
Now pushing 95 and comfortably ensconced in a retirement home, surrounded by letters that arrive everyday, and cherished memorabilia from the past, he still has his phenomenal memory and sense of humour intact. Most of his frequent visitors happen to be his old students.

Zaki Khaleeli, a businessman in the City and an ex-student, visits or phones Alec as often as he can. Zaki remembers the meticulous way Alec performed even the smallest task that was also characteristic of the way he taught and his fine penmanship.
“He simplified Chemistry and Physics so that even the weakest student could understand. In spite of a constant sniffle brought on by the lab chemicals, he was always cheerful, gentle and never raised his voice or felt the need to inspire fear in his students. He became the secretary of the Old Boys’ Association and for 17 years ensured that ‘printers devil’ never dared appear in any of our material,” he says.
Colonel Len Noronha still makes it a point to visit his old teacher every Sunday morning without fail, a practice he has followed since his retirement from the army. Joe Pillai, currently Chairman of the Singapore Stock Exchange, attributes his successful career to the strong fundamentals taught to him by Alec Alvarez as do many distinguished professionals around the world. He was the first teacher to coach students appearing for the IIT entrance exam in the City.

“We, a group of 12, visited him at his home on the first Wednesday of every month after we passed out of school while his wife Dorothy was still alive. She too was our teacher and we addressed her affectionately as ‘Cher’. She would also look forward to our Wednesday visits.

His was a family of teachers, who combined 150 years of teaching in St Joseph’s together,” says Santosh Naidu, a student from the 1961 batch. “He never tried to create students in his own image, but developed students who could create their own image. He raised our self-esteem and never differentiated between achievers and non-achievers always standing up for the underdog,” says Terence Lazarus from the 1943 batch.  
Alec Alvarez himself seems bemused by all the fuss that people make of what he considers ‘just a day’s work’, “I loved teaching,” he says quite simply. What is the secret of his success? “Don’t try to fix the students, we must fix ourselves first.  A teacher must try and make the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed,” he says.

Whether he will be remembered for the impeccable way he dressed, the gentle way he taught, the interest he took in each of his students, the boys who learned, laughed and grew under his direction have never forgotten his love or his lessons. A portrait of him hangs in the Chemistry lab at St Joseph's commissioned and unveiled by his former students. A fitting tribute to a teacher who apparently gave his students something to take home and think about besides homework.

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