Teachers Wayne Rice and Amro Elzeki and librarian Maria DiGiovanni decided that this year would be their last, as the trio ended their long tenures at Survival School. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)
With each school year, new faces show up in the hallways while others leave in the cycle of secondary school that continues annually. The constant, however, is the staff that though senior students leave, certain faces are expected each fall.
September 2019, however, Kahnawake Survival School’s halls will be absent three familiar faces that have been at the school for decades and whose absence will be noticed immediately by fellow staff, students and parents alike.
6+5=call it a career
Walking to the parking lot after school last week, math teacher Amro Elzeki got a surprise. His loving students had covered their teacher’s car entirely with paper and Post-it Notes in a farewell gesture, as Elzeki prepares to call it a career after 36 years.
“I don’t know if it was love or ‘we’re going to get you, you SOB,’” joked Elzeki.
Elzeki started work at Survival School in 1983 after moving to Montreal from northern Quebec.
“I wasn’t really eager to look since I had a year unemployment in front of me, so I decided, I’m going to take it easy,” said Elzeki.
Elzeki’s wife, Marta Mohr, however, had other plans.
“She didn’t like me home, so she applied for a job for me here,” he said with a smile.
Elzeki said the way people talk, the culture, and the way he has always been treated have made his time here a wonderful experience.
“I felt at home,” he said. “The sense of humour, the easiness, I have a ton of friends. You can’t even begin to imagine. The first year, as with any teacher, was a tough year. After this, it was a picnic.”
Elzeki came to Canada from Egypt in 1975 when he was 21. He eagerly learned about Kanien’kehá:ka struggles while in the community over the years, and spoke about how they compare with his culture.
“I’ve learned a lot here about their experience,” said Elzeki. “What they are going through here. Believe it or not, in Egypt it might look like it’s tougher, but I think here they are having a hard time. They are trying to really keep their culture, keep their language, and it’s a big fight. In Egypt, if I’m gone, there are 99 million strong. They’re not going to go anywhere.”
The science, chemistry and math teacher had always thought this year would be the one to turn off his calculator and put his pencil down.
“When I turned 65, I said, ‘this is it.’ Time to hang around the house, bug my wife, play with my grandchild,” said Elzeki.
In September, he already knows it will not be easy knowing the bell will be ringing for other teachers, but not him.
“Extremely. Really, really tough,” said Elzeki pointing to a wall of well wishes from students and parents that reminds him of what he’s meant to Kahnawake students for almost all of his adult life.
What will he miss most?
“Probably the challenges from some of the kids who are in need of extra explanation and guidance,” said Elzeki, who helped organize the graduation dinner and ceremony for the past 25 years. “Most of the teachers here were my students, so I’ll miss them greatly.”
He said he leaves proud knowing he taught students, their parents and, on a number of occasions, their grandparents.
Historian finishes final era
History teacher Wayne Rice’s interview for a teaching positing at KSS was unlike most others. He began teaching at Survival School in 1990, and did his interview during the summer when Kahnawake Warriors were in the midst of staring down Canadian soldiers during that summer’s crisis.
“We couldn’t even come through the gate. There were guys in fox holes and there was barbed wire,” said Rice, who was hired that summer.
Before teaching his first class at Survival, Rice was already working on the grounds.
Rice finished university, and was hired to dig foundations for two new buildings for the new site at the time. He then did landscaping and was hired to develop curriculum for two years.
He got a call from then-principal Alex McComber for some potential short-term work.
“It was by accident I got this job,” said Rice, who subbed for the late Ronald “Frosty” Deer’s math class for two weeks. Deer’s side computer business took off, and he decided to commit full time to the business, leaving a position open for Rice.
“I liked being in the class, I liked talking to the kids,” said Rice, who went back to Concordia and McGill University to complete the required courses.
Rice said one of the most rewarding things about the job is seeing his students move on in life to careers, families and other endeavours.
“Once they graduate, they’re gone, but you see them all over the community. That’s the reward,” he said. “Five years after they’re out of high school, they’re doing things.”
Rice also spoke about his fascination with how different years bring about a different lingo and vocabulary.
“Before it used to be ‘budget’ then ‘mint’ then ‘beast,’” said Rice, who, like his colleagues has taught parents, their kids, and sometimes their grandkids.
“Sometimes I taught both mother and father,” said Rice.
Rice primarily taught the higher grades, only teaching middle school for a short time. Teaching Grade 11 was always what he wanted to do.
“By the time they’re in Grade 11, you can have intelligent conversations that you wouldn’t have to have with the 9s,” he said. “The issues that they deal with are a little more controversial, a little more in-depth.
“They get a chance to express themselves. In Grade 11, we do issues of membership and land and jurisdiction, and I say, ‘A lot of you may already be effected by this, but if not, the real test will be when you leave here. You’re going to be applying some of these things.’”
Rice’s decision to close the textbook on a career happened five years ago. He told his wife Dianne McComber, who had already retired, that he would join her in retirement after five years. This year is the fifth, so he will hand up the keys to his classroom and become part of the subject he taught: history.
What will he miss?
“Working with the kids, (and) working with the staff. It’s a great staff,” he said. “There’s a word that keeps coming back all the time: family. It’s family with the kids because when they deserve a pat on the back, when they need a kick in the ass, they get that too.”
Rice is expecting his decision to retire will hit hardest in August.
“I’m going to be like the goose watching all of the other geese flying and I’m not going anymore,” he said.
Librarian signs out
Librarian Maria DiGiovanni, like Amro Elzeki, came to KSS to work thanks to the advice of someone else.
“I had just returned from out west, northern Manitoba. My dentist said, ‘Apply to Kahnawake! Apply!” said DiGiovanni with a laugh. “I go, ‘what?’”
She applied originally as a teacher, but there were no positions available at the time. The following years, however, DiGiovanni stayed in touch and jumped when a librarian position opened.
She committed to the job in 2000, taking a longer and much more expensive commute than many.
“I taxied here for two weeks in May,” said the 64-year-old librarian, who lives in Laval. “I felt it was an investment, so I taxied.”
The investment was worth it, and she immediately began enjoying being in Kahnawake.
“I couldn’t have found a nicer place to work, honestly,” she said.
This year, after almost two decades of fighting traffic on the highways and roads in a constant state of repair or disrepair, she decided it was time to call it a career.
“The commute was getting more and more challenging,” said DiGiovanni. “It was getting to be a little too much.”
DiGiovanni plans to go to Italy in her retirement, and said she will likely miss the day-to-day interactions with students and staff at the school pretty quickly.
Like Elzeki, DiGiovanni came from the another culture, and came to appreciate and embrace Kanien’kehá:ka culture and customs.
“I think the difference is the culture,” she said. “On the outside they have no culture. I don’t think they know what they’re doing on the outside. Here, they have this culture and they practice it. You come to respect that. I don’t understand everything, but you come to respect the fact that they’re doing this because out there, forget it.”