Erudite. Authentic. Inspirational. We talked to the Aiglon community about the teachers who changed their lives.
Originally published in the Aiglon Magazine Issue 10, June 2018.
It may have been 50 years since they shared a classroom, but Erik Friedl (Delaware, 1969) remembers his inspirational English Literature teacher Mr Lancelot ‘Lance’ Harris as if it was yesterday. “He was an old sea dog of a master,” says Erik. “He had spent many years in the Royal Navy, and when he taught Coleridge you could almost believe he was the Ancient Mariner himself, leaning on his cane, practically dripping seawater. That kind of thing really sticks to the ribs – I can still recite the poem!”
Of all the unique experiences life on the mountain offers, Erik says it is the spiritual largesse and guidance of the dedicated teachers at Aiglon that he remembers with the greatest fondness.
“They were life-shapers. Things like Lady Luia Forbes giving me a copy of Alcyone’s At the Feet of the Master that had been personally inscribed to her by Krishnamurti – I never went on expedition without it. Or JC [school founder Mr John Corlette] cutting me a cheque for 150 francs towards my next 8mm film – no strings, except a commitment to try my best.”
Then there was Mr Robert Boas, the History and Languages teacher, who loved classical music, particularly Wagner. “More than once, at the last minute, he would pile three or four students into his Mini Cooper and we’d go roaring down to Milan to La Scala,” says Erik. “I remember seeing Herbert von Karajan conduct La Cavalleria Rusticana. I saw Nureyev. That was culture, up close and personal.”
“I don’t know what I would have become without Aiglon,” says Donald Macdonald (Alpina, 1963). “I arrived with pretty much no formal education. I’d gone to a tiny school in Scotland and I’d spent much of my free time learning to make raffia baskets and shooting on the moors with my dog. The Aiglon teachers gave me an incredible education in two years – I went on to Boston University. I credit them with saving my soul.”
Eric Gibson (Alpina, 1972) remembers a life-changing lesson from Expeditions Leader Mr Will Sutherland. “I didn’t much like expeditions, out of sheer laziness and a sense of self-preservation,” he says. “But I really connected with Will – he was young, charismatic and full of humour. I found myself getting more involved in expeditions and mountain climbing, until one time I had to abseil over a cliff. It was only a 10ft drop but it might as well have been 1,000 – it was terrifying. To me it was a suicide mission. But Will encouraged me like he did everyone; he was such an energising guy, and I inched backwards over the edge and down a little, and suddenly realised, ‘I can do this!’ It was so exciting; from that point I was on cloud nine. It was an absolutely formative moment that I still think of – it taught me not to be afraid.”
Eric is now an editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he is in charge of a team of art critics. He says he discovered writing because of English teacher Mr Gustav Theodore ‘Teddy’ Senn. “Mr Senn loved using words. He had this love of language and incredible erudition,” he says. “He fired up something in me that led me to become a professional writer and editor. He knew Shakespeare inside out, which was especially powerful because English was his second language. It gave me an impetus to step up. He made me appreciate the music of language and, even today, when I’m banging away at my keyboard, it’s Teddy’s voice I hear, telling me to use fewer, better words.”
Alma Fakhre (Exeter, 1980) also remembers Mr Senn. “He had a Yoda-like quality,” she says, “quite apart from his habit of saying ‘Mmm’ at the end of every sentence. He had a vast perspective, so it took you away from the smallness of things that were bothering you. He was in a higher realm. He was like a teddy bear, a safe haven for young people away from home. Head Master Mr Philip Parsons was also a safe haven. He and his wife Bibi were parent figures.”
Roya Ansari (née Mohagheghi, Clairmont, 1979) agrees that the Parsons, along with Houseparents Mr Trevor and Mrs Gillian Wilson, made Aiglon feel like a home away from home. “Sitting with the Wilsons every night and seven other students for dinner – we stayed together all the way through – truly felt like family,” she says. “Bibi and Philip had great compassion and humanity, and once helped my own family out. They were very kind people.”
Roya credits Mathematics teacher Mrs Elizabeth Senn with being a huge influence on her career. “I’m on my third Silicon Valley technology startup and I’m on the board for the Association for Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics),” she explains. “Mrs Senn taught me to not fear Maths, as many girls do. She had this very creative approach; she related Maths to life. Calculating angles would involve going up the hill to Alpina, for example. I could calculate in my head, and she’d ask me up to the front to show how I’d arrived at my answer – it gave me enormous confidence. Her creative, questioning way is something I use in what I do now. “She was very fun and very kind, but she could be a tough cookie too. I remember sneaking out the window once during study hall, because I wanted to get ready early for skiing. But I’d miscalculated the distance between the window and the ground so I was just hanging there from the windowsill. Mrs Senn looked over with a wry smile and said, ‘Would you like to come back in and join the class?’, and I had to climb back in. I was mortified.”
Alma agrees that her two most influential teachers, as well as being extremely good people, were also a little bit intimidating. “I loved [Biology and Pottery teacher] Mrs Rosemary Hopkins – I still do, she came to my wedding,” says Alma. “She was my Dead Poets Society teacher. But she was also intimidating and formidable. If you were misbehaving you’d get sent to her house in Chesières – it was a punishment but you sort of wanted to go. She was a healer – she had been a psychiatric nurse – and she’d boil herbs and make special ointments. In class she might suddenly stand up and say, ‘Let’s go and look for water!’, and she’d grab her dowsing sticks.
“She taught pottery with so much passion. She’d invite us to her home in England and we’d meet potters (we met the great Lucie Rie), find fossils and fire pots by putting them in the earth.”
Art teacher Mr Gordon Dyke was also fierce in his brilliance, Alma says. “He was preparing us to find strength in ourselves,” she explains. “He’d shoot from the hip, but he wanted us to realise our potential. He’d catch you off guard. Although we were rich kids, we had the different suffering of migrant souls, and he saw that. He had the capacity to be a scanner of the human heart. One day we were drawing interlocking forms, and I had just started drawing a woman and a man. He looked at it and said, ‘That’s right, Alma, pour all your anger into it.’ I was gobsmacked, I hadn’t even known I was angry. But I was.” Without Mr Dyke, she says, her whole life would have been different. “I am an artist now and he taught me how to see,” says Alma. “I remember we went on a trip to the Rhône Valley to look at all these churches and their stained-glass windows, and we were all saying, ‘Oh my God, how boring.’ But he said, ‘Look at this, look at how the light comes through’, and by the end we were all fascinated by stained-glass windows. I still think of him when I see one. He had this alchemist’s capacity to bring out your love of something.”
The man behind it all, of course, is Mr Corlette. “I remember meeting him for the first time with my mother,” says Donald. “This thin, ascetic, upper-class fellow, imbued with gentleness. My mother was very taken with him, and felt safe leaving her son at Aiglon. Later I remember him sometimes sitting down to have tea with us: brown bread and raspberry jam.” “He was interesting, inscrutable, intimidating, and sharply intelligent,” says Erik Friedl. “Yet somehow I felt able to go and ask him for the cheque to make my second film, and he said yes straight away. Two years after I left he telegrammed me asking me to make a promotional film about the school. I hesitated because I’d never done something like that, but I did it, and I went on to have a career as a filmmaker. “During filming I remember him roaring up in his Jaguar and telling me to ‘savour the landscape of the mountain’. I’m very grateful to him and Joyce Lowe, the School Secretary and his right hand.” “He started Aiglon on a wing and a prayer,” adds Eric Gibson, “and he built this enormous legacy.”