Response 6

Eating Together

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Response by other applicants to the JC Society

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              To explain how I came to meet John Corlette, I need to go to the beginning of my Boarding School life. I was born in 1944 and at age twelve, after traveling with my mother and father to Formosa, where my father had taken up his first assignment with the Central Intelligence Agency, and then returning to the United States, my parents  decided that instead of placing me in an American school where their next assignment would be in Adana, Turkey, they would send me to a place where I could receive an exceptional education and learn a foreign language, as though learning Turkish would not be enough. I fooled them; I neither learned a foreign language nor did I get educated. I was an extremely poor student and really didn’t care about learning another language or anything else for that matter. Not only that but my classes in boarding schools were all taught in English anyway.

              Their first choice was Institut La Villan in Chesieres, Switzerland, a very small, co-educational school run by a gentleman named Rene Palisch. I was flown to Geneva, and was met by both Mr. and Mrs. Palisch and then driven to the school. The building was at least one hundred years old, somewhat run down and a place I really did not want to be. I had never been away from my parents except maybe overnight at a friend’s house so this was a completely new experience for me. 

              As time marched on I actually got to like the school and enjoy my new friends; I had gotten used to being away from home and for the next three years continued there. I was living a great life and in my opinion nothing could have been better, with just one exception, and that was one of my sisters was attending the same school. You might ask yourself how having a sister in the same school might cause a problem; my sister became the problem when she violated school policy and caused my precious existence to come to a screeching halt. My sister’s inability to get with a program that amounted to very little anyway, and my parents’ distress with the school decided the issue: we both would have to leave and find another place to be educated. Mind you, this was the end of life for me as I understood it.  I had developed a taste for girls and skiing and being able to skip out on as many classes as I wanted. Discipline at the school was lacking and with just a bit of knowhow, one could figure out the school system, what you could and could not get away with and to say the least I was quite content. Why my sister never managed to figure all this out is quite beyond me.    Assuming that most readers of this essay will have some familiarity with Aiglon College and its iconic and legendary Headmaster, John Corlette, you probably have some inkling of how I fit in (or did not fit in) there, like the ugly duckling.

              Shortly after the decision was made, my mother showed up at the school and had my sister and me pack up all our belongings; we both had been advised about the two separate schools we would be attending.  My sister would go to a school called La Harpe, which was just a few miles down the road, but I, on the other hand, would travel to a small town in the Italian part of Switzerland; for the life of me I cannot remember the name of the school or the name of the town. I truthfully think I mentally blocked all that out. The wonderful news, at least for my mother, was that I had been accepted with just one little condition and that was to meet the headmaster and get his final approval. 

              We arrived and discovered that the only way to get to the school was to ride a trolley-like car straight up a mountain. There were no roads. The only thing at the top of this mountain was this school. We were given a tour of the school by one of the teachers; among other things I was informed that one’s weight determined how much food one was allowed to consume on a daily basis. Keep in mind I am short and was at the time fairly skinny, not because I didn’t like food but because I worked out a lot. I loved to eat and burn. This was my thing. Now this clown was advising me that my intake would be in accordance to my weight regardless of how much I burned off. He then proceeded to go on about how one’s conduct determined how often one got to ride the trolley down to the town. His statement was somewhere along the lines of, “Well, you know some boys never get to go into town.”  It took only a fraction of a second got me to figure out I would be one of those boys. I need to point out that I have made progress; I live on a hill in Post Falls, Idaho, and can go into town whenever I want without getting anyone’s permission!  Nothing, however, seemed to be fazing my mother who only had one mission, to get me into school, get back on her plane and fly back to Teheran, where they were currently assigned.  I, on the other hand, also had only one mission and that was to become the biggest horse’s ass I could when it was time to meet the Headmaster. There was no way in hell I was going to be left on top of that mountain with those people. I had one mission; and I was determined to succeed.   There was some risk in acting like a Kamikaze pilot with one’s mother, understand, but I could not abide those fruitcakes.

              The headmaster held out his hand for me to shake but I refused to shake it. He had us sit and proceeded to ask me questions. My mother could not believe the answers I was providing but she probably had never seen a suicide mission before, either. What was my favorite activity? Girls.  What was my favorite subject? I don’t have one.  What do you hope to be when you grow up? I don’t know and don’t really care. Within a few minutes he asked me to wait outside his office and proceeded to tell my mother that there had been a terrible mistake and unfortunately I would not be accepted at the school; the word “unfortunately” is relative, of course. Thank you, God, fan through my head.  But my behavior, of course, left my mother in a horrible position; she still needed to get back to Teheran and I had now been booted from one school and refused admission to another.  I am sure she considered shooting me.

              Almost everything that I told the Headmaster was basically true. I really was a very poor student and my only real interests were skiing and girls; for my mother to find another school that would accept me was a real challenge. She was in a very bad position, having to leave Switzerland in just a few days. I mentioned to her a school that was very close to La Villan, actually less than a kilometer down the road, called Aiglon College.  She was desperate and just the thought of another school close to my last one might be the ticket, if only they would accept me. So back in the car we climbed and drove back to the town of Chesieres.

              Aiglon College was a school that had around sixty students, all boys, and followed the English educational system. Most of the students were English speaking and came from either England or the United States.  Aiglon consisted of one building at the time and had exactly thirty bedrooms for students. The school was converted from a very small hotel.  John Corlette was the owner and headmaster.  I cannot tell you how my mother managed to get an appointment with him because when she called, the secretary, Miss Lowe,  informed her they had all the students they could possibly handle and meeting with Mr. Corlette was a waste of time.  I can only tell you in retrospect that Miss Lowe held a very strong position with the school. In my opinion Miss Lowe and John had a thing for each other but to this day I have no proof and we all know what imaginations little boys have; but if I had to make a wager, my money would be on the side of a romance, thought it might never have been consummated or even discussed.  The bottom line, however,  was that if Miss Lowe said there was no space for another boy, you could probably take that to the bank,  although having worked for banks for much of my professional career, I may understand that allusion in a somewhat different way from my readers. I guess it was a good thing my mother was not aware of these facts and managed to sway Miss Lowe into allowing us to meet her boss.  Fools rush in, after all, where angels fear to tread.

              John was an extremely frail man who had a head that resembled a bowling ball.  He was not short but I would guess he did not tip the scales at more than one hundred and twenty pounds. He appeared to have a sunken chest and looked as though he would fall over if you breathed on him too hard. One of the other things that I noticed about him was his extremely warm and welcome smile. He greeted us so warmly there could be no way you would not instantly like him. To this day, of the top ten people I have been impressed with in my life, he would certainly take a top position, from the very first sentence that came out of his mouth.    He was just a darned nice guy who wanted the best for everyone that he could manage.  He was the polar opposite of the headmaster I had basically insulted only a short while before.  And even though he obviously did not eat much himself, I did not get any vibes that I would be limited as I would have been in the school on the mountain.

              As my mother and I sat there he informed us the school was indeed full but to please tell him a bit about her situation and a bit about me. She explained how I had been accepted at another school but at the last minute they had decided that they had really no place for me. I am sure that John could read between the lines and then began to ask me questions. “Steve, are you a good student?” to which I replied that I was not. “Do you have the desire to improve in your studies” to which I replied I did. (Truthfully I really did not and he probably knew that but it was beside the point. I wanted to get into this school so that I would be close to my friends, mainly the girls at La Villan.   He probably knew that, too.  I always thought that John Corlette knew everything.  Come to think of it, I still do.)

              In about an hour John informed my mother that he would make a space for me by moving a few students around. He literally told her that he would acquire a bed for me. I shall never forget the look on my mother’s face. She was so relieved I was afraid she was going to jump out of her chair and hug a man who, in her mind, had resolved a huge dilemma that had been facing her.   Anything was better than taking me with her to Teheran and placing me in the American school because then I would have to live at home. It was so nice to be loved—yes, that is meant ironically--and I would not be surprised if Mr. Corlette realized that, too.  He was amazingly perceptive about such things. And I think he rooted for the underdog.  My guess is that I was not the only CIA brat to be dumped in a boarding school.

              The year was 1960 and Aiglon was still an all boys’ school that followed the educational curriculum and practices of an English public school. Classes were based on “O” level, “A” level and “S” levels guaranteeing that once a student was graduated, he would be ready to attend a top college in England.  A student was placed in a class, not by his age, or by his grade, but by his ability in each particular subject. If you did well in English then you would be placed in a class with students older than yourself or at the very least the same age. If you were poor in English you would be placed in a class with much younger students than yourself and so on. I was placed with students far younger than myself in every subject.  Having a huge ego, I found this to be totally unacceptable but I was stuck with it. Being placed with “toddlers” probably helped me in my future years because it forced me to start learning for no reason other than wanting to move up to my own age bracket. John knew how to educate students and made no exceptions to his rules and if he did, I sure did not know about them.

              Things were far different for me in John’s school. In the morning before breakfast we were required to take an ice cold shower. It didn’t matter if the building was relatively cold, or how one felt about it, there simply was no way out. A teacher would be assigned by the shower door and your name would be checked off as you entered the shower. We were required to remain in the shower for no less than five minutes. The showers were a mere symbol, as you will see, of a life that was designed to teach us discipline and structure. 

Our lives were controlled by a very strict schedule. After our showers we would assemble downstairs for 20 minutes of exercise led by the gym teacher, and then it was off to get dressed for breakfast. After breakfast we would attend meditation where we would be lectured either by John or a local pastor about God and improving our lives.  If it sounds like Hogwarts, I guess most English schools are about the same whether for wizards or boys like me.  The homily was pretty long for boys, about thirty minutes and then it was off to classes that started promptly at nine AM. We had three classes in the morning, then lunch. After lunch we had two hours of sports--skiing, ice skating, walking or running, all decided by the gym teacher.  We Aiglon students were not often consulted about matters of curriculum or scheduling; having attended only one English style school, I cannot say for certain that it was typical but I did see “Good-Bye, Mr. Chips,” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” which tend to verify that the undemocratic state of affairs at Aiglon is somewhat typical in the English education system, not that those characteristics are necessarily bad. 

When we returned from sports, we had tea. This is an English tradition whereby you could have a beverage of their choice along with stale bread and some jam. Then it was back to classes from five PM until seven PM. We would then break for dinner. After dinner we had study hall from seven fifteen until bedtime which was at nine thirty.  All of this was very different from La Villan; when you went to bed at night there you could put your shoes out in front of the door and find them magically polished when you arose the next morning. At La Villan, when we went to classes maids would come into our rooms, make our beds and do general clean up. This new routine under Corlette at Aiglon was a disaster. How was it that with such a tight schedule we were able to do choirs such as making our own beds, and polishing our own shoes.  A letter home was also required like in YMCA summer camp in the States.  Altogether it was cruel and unusual punishment, a distinctly American concept, I learned, of which the staff and faculty at Aiglon had no knowledge. 

              In John’s school every student was assigned a rank that one acquired as in the military. These ranks went from sweater, to badge, to brevet and then to prefect. The lower the rank the more you had to put up with the demands of the students of a greater rank. I made it to badge which put me at the mercy of a lot of kids but I was probably a frustration to the staff because I had no real ambition to rise any further; to this day titles don’t mean a lot to me. My conduct alone probably kept me at the Aiglon equivalent of PFC.   When one misbehaved, he was given a pensum which meant copying in long hand sixty lines out of a history book. I had so many pensums that I could not have kept up with a computer and heavy duty HP printer so to resolve the problem they had me run five kilometers at four thirty in the morning. As time went on my conduct did improve; I enjoyed neither the running nor the hour and to this day can still do without both. I was also called into John’s office practically on a daily basis about why I was so rebellious.   He even went so far as to offer my the rank of brevet if I would just improve my conduct a little bit and spend more time cracking the books instead of using what little free time I had to run to La Villan to visit my former schoolmates.

              Once a year we would have “Sports Day.” It was huge. Most of the parents (never mine) would show up just for this event. Every student would choose whatever piece of apparatus he might prefer in gymnastics and do a routine of sorts. Sports Day started at seven in the morning and went until five in the evening. Trophies would be handed out and at the end of the day most of the students would be taken to dinner with their parents. No one was ever excluded from going out to dinner with the exception of me. I certainly did not have parents there to take me out or any relatives.   I was not the only one in that boat. But the other students whose parents were not there got taken out by their roommates’ parents. I did not get along very well with my roommate and so I was the only student left behind. While sitting in my room feeling very sorry for myself, I was surprised when Mr. Corlette came in and advised me that he was inviting me to dinner and would I please clean up a bit and get ready to go. I cannot express what a privilege this was. Students periodically were invited to sit at his dining room table with him at dinner time and that was a big deal.  Here I was, in my opinion one of his biggest problem children, and he was taking me to dinner at a fancy restaurant. To some it might seem like a small thing but I probably will never forget that single act of kindness and compassion. John made sure each of his students was cared for in a way a parent might but most parents do not have 60 children to attend to; he probably did better with sixty than my parents did with three but that is another story. He might have been a very frail, physically weak man but in the eyes of his students he was a powerful giant.  I will never forget this man who made an indelible impression on my life.  To this day, my wife and friends will tell you, I am rebellious and if John Corlette was still around and I was still under his tutelage, he would probably still be having me run three miles at 4:30 in the morning. 

              Sports were a huge part of Aiglon College, as one can tell from hearing about Sports Day and our daily schedule. John felt being mentally and physically fit were equally important. As a result we were required to do many things other schools did not do. Every student was required to have a bicycle. Within two weeks of the new school year bikes were shipped in from a local sports store and you could select the color that you preferred. Mine was silver and for me and most of the other students a bicycle was equivalent to having a car. On our off times we could ride to Villars, a town about one kilometer away from the school.  Besides being able to use it as transportation we would be sent on overnight trips where, as an assignment, we had to select a route that would keep us on the road for three days. We were allotted a certain amount of money and that was it. We were checked before we left to make sure we did not have any additional cash. That was never a problem for me because I spent everything I had as soon as I had it, not a particularly positive trait for a future banker. We were issued tents and utensils but no food. From our allotted money we would have to buy our own and make sure that we budgeted well for the three days, or we could become very hungry. We were assigned groups of three.

              Once a year we would fasten seal skins to the bottom of our skis and climb for three days up a mountain, staying at a little chalet that had just one bed. The bed was about 20 feet wide and made  from wood only with no mattress. We had our sleeping bags but very little heat. We all slept on the same bed, lined up like dead fish and probably just as smelly.  The next day we would climb to another chalet structured the same way and so on. The fourth day we would ski down to the bottom. As an avid skier, the rush I received from the trip down can only be described as awesome, even though in those days awesome was not nearly the overused   word it is today. It was all virgin snow and the faster you went the easier it was to push the snow away as you rode closer to the top. It was one of the finest adventures that any boy or girl could ever want. I am sure it had a lot to do with building character, one of John’s main goals for his students.

              On weekends, after our Saturday classes, we were allowed to go camping. We could check out all the camping equipment we needed and take off. Again we were required to go in groups of three. And once again we were allotted enough funds for our food and had to be careful. We were not given a lot of money so at the store, we had to be extremely frugal. As growing teenage boys, we had huge appetites so we cared less about the quality of the food than the quantity.

              A few times a year we would be taken on bus trips to different cities and towns to visit museums and other cultural sites.   These were always at least three day trips and prior to leaving we were required to do research on every place we were to visit, turn in reports, and be graded on them. So by the time we got to where we were going, we had a great sense of what we could expect. I hated the reporting part but as I look back on it today, I can do nothing but appreciate why it was so necessary. I find it sad that I don’t do that now when I venture away on a trip.  Or budget my money that well, for that matter.

              Aiglon College gave every student who ever attended there a well rounded education. Being discarded by my parents was a horrible thing for me but when I look back on all the things I learned and did, I am sure that had it not been for John Corlette’s drive to give every student as much as he possibly could that my personality would have developed in a very different way. I never have given my parents any credit for sending to Aiglon. In 1962, because of my inability to accept how much I was learning and how well my future was improved, I begged my parents to send me back to La Villan. At sixteen one does not realize what he is giving up, all for the sake of having an easier life and being in a co-educational school. My parents agreed and back to La Villan I went. As I think back on it now, I am sure it was an absolute insult to John because La Villan was a dying school and within two years after I left it was history.

              John was not without his own problems. I think he suffered from anorexia. His diet was entirely  different from that of the students. He ate extremely small portions of what appeared to be a pudding like substance. He would eat as little of it as possible. He would call it his regimen. A few students, thinking that this was a healthy diet, asked if they could join him in eating the same food. He agreed and they were all seated at the same table with him. Shortly thereafter two of the students suffered from malnutrition and at that point the project was abandoned. It was rumored around Chesieres/Villars, when I went back for a visit shortly after his death that he actually died of starvation. Of course in those days little was known about eating disorders and it is extremely sad because John surely had one. He was only 66 when he died. 

              Aiglon College is now known around the World. There is not any literature about Aiglon College that I am aware of that does not have a great deal about JC, as he is now called. It is my belief that without the drive and dedication John put into what was then his “little school,” that Aiglon would not be around today; it would have died with him.

              For the students that are now attending Aiglon College, I can only say JC lives on within their class rooms but it is too bad they will never have the actual experience of a great man who gave his soul to run a Boarding School in Switzerland, who started with just a few pennies and grew it into an institution that will live on for many years to come. 

              Thank you, John Corlette. I am sorry for both of us that I returned to a failing and probably inferior school. I know you cared and I know I missed out on a great opportunity to finish my four years of what we call high school in the United States. They say one does not truly die until the last person on Earth forgets you. I think you have a long time to live.  I loved him in my own way and am honored and pleased to have been asked to contribute this essay in his honor and memory.

Steve Groves

Post Falls, Idaho

August, 2011


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