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In principium erat Loïs

lundi, 5 janvier 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Alejandro Rodriguez-Giovo (LGB '72)
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No document in any archive, however rare, precious and evocative, can match in value the eyewitness account of a live human being. Someone who can tell you vividly what happened, because he or she was actually there, and moreover was an integral part of the historical event, is the ultimate source, next to which all others are but pale derivatives. Alas, with the passage of time such direct witnesses become increasingly rare, and the reliability of those who survive sometimes wanes, as the physical consequences of extreme old age take their toll.

First Ecolint register (detail)
Part of Ecolint's first ever register, showing Loïs Meyhoffer as the very first student.

Some years ago I had the privilege of getting to know Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of World War I, not long before he passed away. He was 111 years old at the time (the same age as Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings), but entirely compos mentis and still a patient, gentle and wise interlocutor. I chose not to tire him with the innumerable questions that came to my mind: although unfailingly courteous, Mr. Patch spoke in a sleepy, hoarse whisper, with a remote look in his eyes, as if he already glimpsed the au-delà. He reminded me of Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking: “But I am done with apple-picking now. / Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.”

Alert and sharp-witted

In contrast, there is nothing somnolent or detached about Loïs Meyhoffer, Ecolint’s first student (as page one of our school’s original, handwritten register – dated 17 September 1924, and carefully preserved in a locked display cabinet in the Archives – testifies). Loïs, who after living abroad in pursuit of her further studies and humanitarian work for the World Council of Churches, now lives autonomously at the same address in Champel (a superb art déco building adorned with colossal caryatids) where she was born in 1918, could not be more alert and sharp-witted. Many of us who are four, five or six decades younger have reason to envy her memory and mental agility. One has to keep on one’s toes when speaking to Loïs; affable though she is, she pounces unerringly on inaccuracies, fallacies and fuzzy thinking, dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s not pedantically but soberly, with matter-of-fact precision.

What is most notable about Loïs, however, is her uncompromising commitment to our school’s core values and ideals. They are deep-rooted in her; she is, after all, the daughter of Ecolint’s first director, Paul Meyhoffer, a distinguished educator from the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau who earlier in his life had pursued theological studies and was the author of Les idées pédagogiques de Luther (1909).

Loïs Meyhoffer in 1954
Loïs Meyhoffer visiting refugees on behalf of the World Council of Churches near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1954.

It would be fair to say that her father’s Christian, and specifically Protestant, ethos – which he shared with his fellow Genevois Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross – is one of the strands that has crucially contributed to our school’s identity, together with pacifist convictions, a multi-cultural outlook and a firm belief in the “equal value of all human beings” (famously affirmed in Article 4 of our Charter). Loïs is the chief guardian of Ecolint’s moral mission, and what she has to say about how we have indulged ourselves with grand, lavish facilities instead of devoting our resources to scholarships for Third World students may be uncomfortable to hear but is salutary.

This is a role that she has shared with at least two other remarkable women in the history of our school: Marie-Thérèse Maurette, our director between 1929 and 1949 and an impassioned defender of humane, egalitarian principles, and Elspeth Williamson, a memorably great-hearted and fiercely idealistic English teacher at La Grande Boissière in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, whom one Director General described as “my moral conscience” (to which Elspeth instantly replied: “Why don’t you have your own?”).

Une tâche toujours pas terminée

Loïs has followed the development of Ecolint from day one (she is the six year-old girl sitting and shading her eyes in the foreground of our earliest, iconic photograph – see below – when we had a grand total of eight students) and continues to take a loving but critical interest in where we are heading, now that the number of students has increased to 4,400 and some 30,000 Ecolint alumni are disseminated throughout the world.

Earliest photo of Ecolint students and staff (20 September 1924, Route de Florissant 45), with Paul Meyhoffer (centre) and Loïs Meyhoffer (seated, foreground).

As evidence of her perennial engagement, here are some reflections that Loïs submitted to the school’s authorities earlier this year, in connection with the Alumni World Reunion and our 90th Anniversary:

"En pensant à la prochaine réunion mondiale ou nous célébrerons les 90 ans de l'Ecole , je voudrais proposer un nouveau défi. 1924, l'année de la création de l'Ecole était une période d'euphorie. La "grande Guerre" 1914-1918 venait de se terminer, la Société des Nations était née permettant aux peuples et aux nations de régler leurs différents par le dialogue et l'arbitrage plutôt que par la guerre. Mais une génération plus tard éclate la seconde guerre mondiale. Cependant l'Ecole a continué à oeuvrer pour la paix, engageant dans cet effort ses enseignants, ses élèves et les milliers d'anciens dispersés aux quatre coins du monde. Et la tâche n'est toujours pas terminée, les conflits se multiplient. Que faire ?

Ne pourrions-nous pas engager une réflexion sur la place et le rôle des minorités dans nos sociétés: minorités ethniques, linguistiques, religieuses ou raciales. Il y en a partout, dans tous les pays dans toutes les sociétés, ignorées ou bafouées par la majorité. Si l'on pouvait reconnaître leur légitimité et leur valeur et leur donner leur juste place cela permettrait peut-être d'éviter des conflits. Apprendre à se tolérer, à reconnaitre la valeur de l'Autre, à le respecter. Tous sont nécessaires pour former une société humaine riche de toutes les cultures, de toutes les croyances.

Nous pourrions engager la communauté de notre Ecole à réfléchir à cette question en vue de notre prochain anniversaire. Ce serait vraiment le rôle de notre Ecole qui est l'exemple même de cet enrichissement par la différence. Montrer que c'est possible et proposer des voies à suivre pour mieux vivre ensemble serait une tâche intéressante pour tous, pour les élèves actuels comme pour nous leurs aînés."

To borrow a Voltaire witticism: “Si Loïs Meyhoffer n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.” But thankfully she does exist, and this year, more than ever, we should rejoice in her presence among us. And although I’d love to offer her secure and permanent accommodation in the Archives, I must admit that she’s better off in her comfortable flat on the Avenue de Miremont.

Alejandro Rodriguez-Giovo (LGB '72, Archivist for the Foundation of the International School of Geneva)



Loïs Meyhoffer was interviewed in the Autumn 2014 edition of Ecolint's echo magazine (see p.9).

The above post was originally published in the Ecolint Education Newsletter, September 2014.



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