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,
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.
``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
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
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
Alex Buzo is the author of Kiwese and Pacific Union.