Friday 4 June 1999

School for thought


As a student at Ecolint, the first international school, Alex Buzo learnt about civilised debate and the misfortune of being Australian. Undaunted, he returned for its 75th birthday.

`WHERE were you in '62?'' asked the slogan for the film American Graffiti. In '62, I was at 62 - Route de Chene, that is - the only campus then for the International School of Geneva, also known as Ecolint. It was, as they say, an education.

``Going to a finishing school, are you? Watch out they don't finish you off,'' was the country-town reaction to the news I was heading off to Switzerland. Ecolint was, in fact, a pioneer of international education and it is celebrating its 75th birthday with a worldwide reunion of former students between 17 and 20June.

With alumni ranging from Yasmin Khan to General Norman Schwarzkopf (the late Indira Gandhi and Yul Brynner's son Rock attended, too) it will not be a humdrum occasion.

From the outside, this private and independent school looks just as it did in '62 and, indeed, just as it did when it was acquired in the 1920s. At that time, it was an estate called La Grande Boissiere and it belonged to the Russian Duchess Federovna. The only nearby addition is a block of flats and a cafe opposite called Outback, which serves Spaghetti Billabong and Walkabout Soup (translated, thankfully not for an exam, as ``Soupe du Moment'').

Otherwise, the walk from the tramstop is the same as it was on my first day, past cottages and houses with shutters and small fences under arthritic winter trees to the T-bar formed by the classroom block and the refectory, with its low-slung windows that doubled as mirrors.

Although all was quiet and bleak in the early spring sunlight, 1962 came back like thunder. This was the quadrangle, the arena, the noisy stage for a thousand fretful players.

At that half-way point in its history, the 1961-62 school year, Ecolint had already pioneered the concept of international education, beginning by educating children of the League of Nations delegates. In 1924, it was the first such establishment, but, in the following 40 years, international schools sprouted all over the world. Ecolint has kept close ties only with Vienna and the New York United Nations School, which it helped create in 1947.

I was a typical student in the sense that my father, who was an engineer, took a job with the UN's World Health Organisation and we moved to Geneva. There were only two other Australian students, no cricket team and certainly no ``Outback'' cuisine, but that was not the point.

The aims were to encourage international values, to understand other races and religions, to show respect for the host country and its culture, to encourage bilingualism (students at Ecolint have always had the choice of lessons in English or French) and to use its most immediate multicultural resource: the students.

As a classmate of mine, Iranee de Soysa, says: ``Where Ecolint is unique is that, quite effortlessly, we became truly international and understood that we are all in this life together and what we have in common is without question far greater than any differences there may be.''

There were no ``peace studies'' as such and none of the liberal bias similar institutions have been accused of. There was, however, the Student United Nations and this was great fun. Held in the old League of Nations chamber, it was a full-scale re-enactment of what happens at the UN General Assembly, with translations, heckling, wheeling and dealing and, inevitably, boycotts. My brother Adrian, representing Ghana, led a walk-out when the South African delegate got up to speak.

I asked the current principal, Othman Hamayed, whether the Student UN was still going, but he said the idea had been so widely adopted by other international schools it had become something of a cliche and had been dropped by Ecolint.

Was there anything in its place, any other form of cerebral-dramatic student activity, I asked. Yes, there was. With typical perversity, Ecolint now has the Student League of Nations.

The League, founded in 1919 to prevent war, may have crashed ignominiously in 1939, but ``the ideal was right''.

FAR from being a ``Swiss finishing school'', Ecolint has always had intellectual aspirations, and is currently enjoying its greatest success, the worldwide proliferation of the International Baccalaureate. In 1998, it was adopted as the only final qualification by the leading British coeducational school Sevenoaks, and is being offered in Australia by schools such as Geelong Grammar, where 20 students are taking the first year of the program.

The ``IB'', as it is known, began when Ecolint was devising a new history course in the late '50s. History was one of the casualties of World War II, and the aim was to develop a way of teaching it that was free from triumphalism or censorship.

From this began the concept of a world university entrance.

In 1965, Ecolint held the first of many IB conferences, and delegates could see first-hand the difficulties of international education. The school was offering the American College Board exam, the Cambridge A Level, the French Lycee finals and the Swiss Maturite. How much simpler it would be, especially in this highly condensed world, if there were one exam, the IB?

The course was introduced in 1969 and, then, in 1971, in the Greek Theatre near the playing field, Lord Louis Mountbatten presented certificates to the first IB graduates.

It is often the fate of pioneers to be left behind by those they have spawned. Hemingway became better known than Fitzgerald, for instance, and even denied the obvious influence. This has not happened with the International School of Geneva.

``Ecolint has tracked internationalism across the 20th century,'' says Geelong headmaster Lister Hannah. ``It remains one of the great schools - of any kind - in the world.''

With 2900 students now spread across three campuses and an annual budget of $A60million, Ecolint is also one of the biggest.

In an era in which multiculturalism is a fact - welcome or otherwise - some of the theory behind the founding of the International School and its descendants can seem rather pious and jejune. It should be remembered, however, that students at that school actually lived these now-hackneyed principles, and some graduates, such as Indira Gandhi, later helped to rearrange the politics and geography of prejudice.

The school has always lived out the idea that it should integrate with the host nation and, accordingly, the biggest bash of the year is the Escalade Ball. On 11 December each year, Geneva celebrates its 1602 victory over the beastly Savoyards, who tried to storm the city walls on ladders and were repulsed by the heroic Genevois in a decidedly unpeaceful, uninternational way.

THOSE entrusted with inculcating these mixed principles in the reallife drama of the school were the staff, who came from all over the world. There was no discipline as such, and certainly no corporal punishment, so the teachers relied more on psychology.

The housemaster at my previous school had kept a large cane called Horace in his study, and ``a session with Horace'' was no fun. My form mistress at Ecolint was Madame Briquet, and all she had was a frosty eye. As Raymond Chandler said of Humphrey Bogart: ``He could be tough without a gun.''

Of all the players on that stage, the most striking was Ecolint legend John Mawson, who taught English and drama. Tall, dark, with quizzical, defensive eyes behind tinted glasses, Mawson walked with a pigeontoed precision, sometimes with an overcoat draped theatrically around his shoulders, and always with a cigarette. Although Australianborn, he carried no torch.

``Where are you from?'' he asked when I approached him about a part in his production of Hedda Gabler.

``Australia, sir.''

``What a profound misfortune!''

He then walked away with his unique gait and I understood I had just failed an audition of some kind. Mawson had a coterie of favorites - a phenomenon not unknown with popular teachers - and they supported him to the end, which came when he died in New York in 1995.

``He was the best and most inspirational teacher I and many others ever had,'' was Rock Brynner's valediction for the stateless drama pioneer.

One quality of Mawson's that his admirers did not imitate was his voice. Like most Oz actors of that era, he affected - but did not achieve - an English accent. Students at Ecolint, then and now, all sport an American twang, even though Americans have never made up the majority. It is like that urban myth in which a goldfish is introduced into a tank with four white minnows and the next day there are five yellow fish swimming around.

History was taught by Michael Knight, then in his first year at Ecolint, now in his last. ``Another telegram from Alex,'' he would say in his genuine English accent, holding up an essay of mine. I had already begun treating history as drama, trying to pin issues on the major figures, hopefully building tension, respecting the reader, but, to satisfy perceived requirements, I once wrote a whopper, full of scholarly footnotes and endless examples. Mr Knight held it up, with some difficulty. ``Here's an encyclopaedia,'' he winced.

He is now awaiting the publication of his own magnum opus - a history of the school, which is due on 17 June and will be, it is rumored, of medium length.

The last of the great aims of the school was preparing students for university. This was done in many ways, including, perhaps quixotically, encouraging them to think.

The task was shared, but it was mostly the domain of chemistry teacher Doreen Slater, who held weekly philosophy and science discussions in her study. With her tousled hair and slapdash smile, Miss Slater looked like the kind of character Lynn Redgrave used to play, but she certainly got things going. We were introduced to logic and selfexpression and what university would be like.

Miss Slater was a conclusion freak and I inherited this trait, along with many others. We were encouraged to deduce, to draw conclusions - highly unfashionable now - from the discussion of various issues and evidence. ``Don't sit on the fence!'' she would exclaim. ``Let's be passionate friends or sworn enemies, but never just indifferent.''

In these different ways, Ecolint protected its students from the carnage of firstyear university where failure rates were as high as 70per cent in some places.

When I returned home to start university, I was a little overprepared and joined in firstyear tutorial discussions with great enthusiasm, asking questions and drawing conclusions at will. The tutors looked at me rather askance, as if to say, ``Take it easy, Bright Eyes, you're only in first year.''

I had to learn another lesson - but, as Ecolint taught us, the mind never sleeps.

Alex Buzo is the author of Kiwese and Pacific Union.




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