My Most Memorable Moment

By John Davidson

TESOL France? It was on the drawing boards when I first heard of it. I had just finished an MA degree/fellowship at the American University of Cairo in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). I had worked on the Camp David program with the Fulbright Commission to send 1000 Egyptians to the U.S. for all-expenses-paid graduate studies in the U.S. And then, back in Paris, I found myself in the midst of the creation of TESOL France. Of course I supported it. I remember one early convention at Telecom ParisTech (rue Barrault) when someone from the U.S. embassy came up to me and said, If you need money to support this, we have it. Wow. I don't know whether we ever got it, or even asked. But how often do you get people asking to give you money?

My most memorable moment was perhaps in 1985 or so. TESOL France was once again planning to use the Telecom ParisTech premises as its venue for the annual convention. Suddenly, the administration there turned south. We were to be evicted within weeks if not days of our convention. The president, Jennifer Molet, asked me to help out to find ways to keep the welcome mat out at Telecom ParisTech. The only backing of any substance that I could think of was the chairman of what was then called Compagnie Générale d'Electricité (now Alcatel). One Jean-Pierre Brunet, who'd been put in place by the Socialists in 1982 when they nationalized everything under the sun. Brunet was an internationalist, having been the French ambassador to Bonn and Tokyo, and he spoke English beautifully. He used to ask me to look at the texts for his speeches in English, to check them for errors, style, etc. He liked me a lot.

So, I put in a call to his executive assistant, saying that I needed to see him immediately about this affair where Telecom ParisTech was throwing out TESOL France at the last minute. She, his exec assistant, got me a 15-min appointment for later that day, which I accepted. In the meantime, we were burning up the phone lines. Jennifer Molet to me, I to an English friend who said, Keep your voice low (good advice), and so on. When suddenly Jennifer got through to me and said, Cancel that meeting. If your guy gets involved, the top Telecom ParisTech establishment will blow. So I canceled that appointment.

Jennifer miraculously managed to reschedule the convention events around other facilities. How she did that so quickly and efficiently is for me a mystery. But the convention took place, there were shuttle buses and speakers, and everything else.

I also remember another convention, the first to take place outside of Paris, at Caen, I think. The place where the beautiful tapestries of the Unicorn are. One of our board members welcomed us. Kate Mailfert was president. Suddenly, I was asked by Jean-Pierre Brunet (above) to be the interpreter at an international management committee meeting of his company where Gen. Al Haig was a member. All the other members spoke French (and English), but Haig spoke only English. So I was supposed to whisper into Haig's ear, over lunch, what the CEO was saying. Brunet was seated on my left, Haig on my right. So Brunet could listen in to my translation. It was over a luncheon table with very nice food, that I didn't touch.

Kate warned me, before the lunch, "You'd better get out there to that convention!" Since going to this Haig lunch meant missing the TESOL France coach. But as foreseen, I did get out there. Kate was quite a strict watchdog (as was the Treasurer Jean Cureau).

Back to the lunch. At one point, Haig asked, How many shareholders did your company have before it was nationalized? The response was, "plusieurs milliers". Now, I have known since my earliest French classes not to confuse "milliers" with "million", and that memory flashed through my brain as I interpreted for Gen. Haig. But it came out wrong, as I spoke (I am not a professional interpreter) as "millions". And Brunet turned to me and to Haig to whisper, "thousands". Right.

From there I went out to Caen and participated in that year's convention of TESOL France.

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