In the beginning

Steve Flinders
Director, York Associates
TESOL France Past Newsletter Editor 1982-1985

In the beginning (of TESOL France) was… Celia Russo. Celia was of exotic parentage (Argentinian and something?) and was the kind of person who gets more done before breakfast than most people in a month. She started the international department at ESIEE – it’s still there, she started the international department at ENPC – it’s still there too, and she started TESOL France. I was working for Celia in 1981 or so, and was completely in awe of her so when she told me that there should be an organisation for English language teachers which would transcend nationality, ideology, class, race, religion, … I was ready. We called a meeting of the movers and shakers in France representing organisations with even more unlikely acronyms, and they were clearly unimpressed by our kaleidoscopic vision. We called another, and I learnt things about meetings in France which still stand me in good stead in my management training today. But we were undaunted, unvanquished. We had an inaugural event in Paris. The top man in TESOL - Jim Alatis came from the States - it was like receiving Jehovah. We had a conference, and another, and another. I remember star-studded events with an extraordinary buzz which I’ve experienced at no other ELT event, perhaps fuelled by serious quantities of alcohol and attended by Chris Candlin, Henry Widdowson, little Mary Finocchario - an Italo-American granny who brought tears to the eyes of the audience – Catherine Walter, Gilian Porter Ladousse with her Dickensian ability to sum up anyone in the room in two pithy sentences... do these echoes mean anything to TESOL France members of today? I remember our treasurer, Jean Cureau at committee meetings, a faintly Tati-esque figure (which in my eyes is the greatest of compliments) with his pipe tobacco smell preceding the cloud of smoke which surrounded him as he came down the corridor. I was always concerned that he would set himself on fire, indeed that he might already be on fire. I remember the pugnacious determination of our President, Jennifer Molet, always to see things through and always to get the result. And Denis Girard, from the schools inspectorate, a thin overtly austere man who supported us with great political incorrectness and who I think almost single-handedly ensured that young French people today not only speak English but enjoy it, rather than standing in corners muttering grammar rules to themselves. We were the crusaders of the communicative revolution. We knew we spoke truth and that we would banish the dull care of mere grammar from the EL classroom forever.

Most of all I harbour my greatly affectionate memories of John Davidson and his Wang. John is (still) an American in Paris with a face which increasingly resembles W.H. Auden and a man with the unique ability to tell a story in one sentence which contains 73 separate clauses and takes 35 minutes to deliver. In 1981, John had access to a magic new machine called a Wang word processor, made by a Chinese American who was famous then, and it was on this that we edited The Newsletter, maybe the first newsletter in the whole history of EFL (historians please note) to be W-Peed and one whose quirkiness, I like to think, added to the quirky excellence of the organisation. Five years and a few hundred empty wine bottles later, JD and I surrendered our responsibility to a rotating guest editorship – another first. We have also served.

Has the organisation succeeded in its original aims? Well, partly. It certainly provides a home for lost expatriate teachers to share and care for each other professionally in France. It created moments - like the tears for little Mary - and also friendships which survive. I hope and wish that it continues to do so.

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