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George Coombs

DragonTales reviews the “good old days” with veteran teacher George Coombs  

Veteran HKIS teacher George Coombs says teaching for him is a vocation, a calling. “I always wanted to be a teacher. My own high school teachers as well as my uncle who taught high school inspired me.”

The Coombs family - Jonathan '94, Ame and George

George grew up outside Philadelphia and attended a Catholic boys’ school. He remembers his 10th grade English teacher’s name was Ed Smith. He was a religious brother with a social conscience who became a role model for George.

“He used to take us down town where we repaired and painted houses in the poor sections of the city. We met civil rights’ leaders, and we participated in marches in support of the poor. Literature and scripture came alive in his classes. We had to practice our faith!”

Those formative years had a lasting impact on the young George, to such an extent that he started the first Interact Club in his high school as a teenager.

“When I was growing up service was a regular part of my high school experience, but when I came to HKIS there was just a ‘Day of Giving’. There was no Humanities I in Action.”

High School Principal Jim Handrich wanted a more formative service program, and in response, high school teacher Marty Schmidt and George began to explore ways to deepen the service ethos at the school.

Micah Schmidt, Zella and Marty with Ame and George

“The two of us took a trip to Anteneo High School – a Jesuit school in Metro Manila. They had a well-developed service curriculum with a weekly service experience. We were inspired,” he says.

Today, half of HKIS high school students participate in service on Saturday and almost half of our 9th graders take Humanities I In Action, which includes service.

Mr. Schmidt has also been a more recent inspiration and hero for George. “For the past four years he has been working on his PhD in Service learning. His research has added much to our understanding of the transformative power of service in the formation of social conscience. His work is a real labor of love and a gift to the school.”

George joined HKIS in 1988, the same year as the new high school opened at Tai Tam. He remembers it was a spectacular October day. The building, however, was not completed, and high school students had to share the Repulse Bay campus with the Middle School.

“We attended class on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It was a rough transition. Two weeks after we moved in, we had one of those rare October typhoons. Windows leaked. Drains were too small. Water damage was extensive. There are about four of us still on the faculty who  remember how challenging that year was. However, we made it through the year. For me, it was ‘baptism’ by lots of water!” 

George with Bijoy Goswami '91

What George liked most about those early years was the size of the high school. Even if he did not teach a student, he knew who they were. “Between concerts, plays, sports and extracurricular activities, you could meet just about everyone.”

George lived in Kowloon and had to commute to school. He remembers getting on the MTR at 6:23 am each morning. “I rode the same car each day. The journey lasted about 40 minutes and after 6 months I began to speak to some of the people who rode in the same car every day. After a year, we were celebrating birthdays and knew all about each other’s families. We even went to Yum Cha occasionally. My Chinese was basic, but it was heart-warming to connect to so many local people in a simple community. It made the journey special and

George’s first teaching position in Hong Kong was at Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong where he taught for 10 years 1974-1984. In his first two years there, he was fortunate to work with Ame Lee, who eventually became Mrs. Coombs.

George and Ame with Emi Takahashi '96

“We taught an interdisciplinary humanities course. It was a great way to teach language and culture. It was innovative in those days. We designed several units on science, technology and society. It was an amazing opportunity and a challenge to teach in a local school,” says George.

He remembers there being 40 students in each class, and he had to have a seating chart in each of his six classes. Nevertheless, the students were enthusiastic, disciplined and well-behaved. Their standard of English was also very high which made teaching them enjoyable.  

Outside of School

In his free time, George loves to hike and swim. For each of the past thirty years, he has traveled to Tai Long Sai Wan in the fall.

“It’s part of the Maclehose Trail that goes to the beaches. It’s the most beautiful beach in Hong Kong! When you come over the hill and see three beautiful beaches with spectacular waves, you can hardly believe you’re in Hong Kong. This has been my still point. While the rest of Hong Kong continuously changes, Dai Long Wan has remained untouched,” he says.

George also enjoys classical music and opera. He says while his passion for opera came late, he has become a big fan. “Thanks to the efforts of people like Warren Mok, I can even experience live opera in Hong Kong.”

George is currently promoting the art form in his Humanities II classes. Each year, in the spring, he shows The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner. “Of course, I only show excerpts. However, for the dedicated few, we have “ring parties”.

This past year, he has shown all four parts of the Ring Cycle. “We set up the big speakers in room 417. We bring food. I have even made Philadelphia Cheese Steaks! But the sound! The music! You can’t help but be affected by the power of the drama. It speaks to the yearning for transcendence and the music takes you there! Next school year, I will organize a similar experience for adults,” he promises. George lives with his wife Ame and their son Jonathan who works in the financial service industry. Ame’s mother, who is 95, lives one block away. Her  older brother lives nearby as well. “So it is very easy for us to get together for ‘Yum Cha’ on Sundays,” says George.

“We have three nephews and one niece living in Hong Kong. There have been a couple of family weddings to celebrate recently. I have been very lucky in many ways. I am very close to my own family and when I decided to live in Hong Kong, it meant a lot to me to be part of a large family,” he says.

Ame’s family has provided George with an understanding and insight into Chinese culture. “My life in Hong Kong has been richer because of the bonds of family. And I am truly grateful.” 

Source:  DragonTales Volume 11 Summer Edition 2009