Mr T. McC. Chamberlain – A Caring and Inspiring Teacher

On a cold QES school day in 1960, our chemistry teacher was absent, and a tall, dark and handsome English gentleman took his place. As soon as he came into the classroom, he announced: “Mr Chan is ill today. I will be looking after you for this period. I’ll let you do your own work. Meanwhile, you can ask me any question on mathematics.” That marked the beginning of the first time I encountered Mr Chamberlain closely. Of course, I had seen Mr Chamberlain before in school, but always at a distance. Anyway, as a 14-year old student hardly able to utter a complete sentence in English and not exactly known for any outstanding achievement, academic or otherwise, I would be far too intimidated to talk to any teacher who did not know me, let alone to a “gwailo”. However, on this day, maybe it was because of his mild and friendly manner, or maybe it was his beautifully enunciated English, or maybe it was his smile, I picked up the courage to ask him a question. In those days, I had a passion for Euclidean geometry and of course I would ask the one problem I thought was the toughest and would show off my special way of solving it. He was extremely patient with my pidgin English and listened really attentively to every point I made until he fully understood what I was doing. With a smile, he complimented my efforts. Then, bit by bit, he told me why some of my assumptions were wrong, and how those led to wrong conclusions. I was stupefied by the speed with which he found the errors in what I thought a profound and rigorous proof. The ensuing discussion was humbling for me, however, I was very much encouraged by his kind and generous commendations. 

The following year, we were confronted with the first big academic hurdle – the School Certificate Examination. I was blessed to have Mr Chamberlain as our mathematics teacher. (I also learned that several of the girls in my class did not really like mathematics, but took the subject because of Mr Chamberlain’s striking handsomeness. To the disappointment of many, he grew a big beard which covered up much of his good looks later that year!) Handsome or not, he was one hell of a teacher! He was exceptionally lucid in his explanations, always trying to arouse our interest by drawing analogies to everyday events and to consolidate our understanding by representing the mathematical concept with a diagram. (To this day, I still practise these good habits of his in my lectures.) Even on a boring subject like stock and shares and interest rates, he would make it vivacious and colourful!

During that year, together with some other teachers, Mr Chamberlain established the QES Science Club. I was keen to join several of the sections including Astronomy and Meteorology, both led by Mr Chamberlain. It was during that time I heard someone saying that Mr Chamberlain was once the Deputy Director of the Observatory. I never confirmed with him on that, but after consulting with Mr Hinton who was not too sure about that either, we concluded that must be the time right after the war when he was still serving in the army.  Regardless, somehow, Mr Chamberlain managed to borrow from somewhere a high-power reflective telescope for us to view the heavenly bodies. (Later, under his supervision, we actually made one ourselves.) The excitement of a bunch of teenage students seeing for the first time the surface of Jupiter, or the details of the rings around Saturn could hardly be contained. I still remember when Mr Chamberlain explained to us that the image of the Andromeda Galaxy we were viewing at the time was in fact its image approximately two and a half million years ago, I was struck with such an aura of mystery that I felt completely lost in a daze, bewildered by the incomprehensible vastness of the Universe. We spent many, many late nights in the football field gazing at and learning about the planets, the stars, and the galaxies.  He also spent a few weekends taking us to visit the Hong Kong Royal Observatory in Tsim Sha Tsui. Besides academic work, Mr Chamberlain was also a keen sportsman, having great enthusiasm for (field) hockey and cricket. (He even gave me a few tips in boxing once!)

The year after the School Cert Exam found us all facing another big hurdle — matriculation. We did not have Mr Chamberlain for mathematics any more, but his care for our learning continued to touch us. At the end of our Form Lower 6, he volunteered to spend the summer with us giving us tutorials on calculus and analytic geometry.  In those days, it was every parent’s dream to get his/her son into medical school in Hong Kong. My parents were no exception. However, the tutorials that summer changed my mind. In spite of my parents’ wish, I totally turned away from biological sciences, and took up mathematical sciences for my career instead. Today, 50 years later, mathematics remains the prime tool for my scientific research and my interest in it is still as fervent!

I saw Mr Chamberlain for the last time in 1966 just before I left Hong Kong for England. He was about to take up his post in Northcote Training College. He explained to me at length on the education system in England. Even though I never saw him again, for over 45 years, whenever I thought of my old school days, Mr Chamberlain would be one of the first teachers that came to my mind.  It is very sad for me to hear that he had passed away. To me, he was more than a great teacher, he was an inspiring figure, be that in or out of the classroom. His unparalleled dedication to the education of his students will remain deeply imprinted in my heart, and no doubt, in the hearts of many as well.

Max Wong, FA61

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