By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
The best teacher I’ve ever had in my life was my history teacher in my first year at the Lycée Claude Monet in Paris: Monsieur (Denis) Corvol. Aged 14, I had just arrived from Brazil to spend two years in France with my parents, who were on an extended research leave from their positions as medicine professors in São Paulo, Brazil. I barely spoke French upon arrival, and to say that the first months were tough is an understatement. Many of the teachers seemed to be particularly harsh on me, and one (the math teacher) said in front of everyone in class: “if you can’t solve this problem, and you obviously don’t speak French very well, I wonder what you are doing in this class”.
But there was Monsieur Corvol, whose unorthodox teaching methods included talking about a variety of topics that seemed to have no connection whatsoever with the content we were supposed to be learning (the French Revolution and so forth – for that, he told us to go read the textbook on our own). (Years later I realized he was some sort of Habermasian, emphasizing inter-subjective communication and rational discourse.) When I arrived, he spent some two or three classes talking about Brazil -- what a remarkable country it was, how much the French could learn from Brazil -- in an obvious maneuver to make me feel more welcome, and to invite my classmates to engage with me in more positive ways.
From time to time I remember Monsieur Corvol with much fondness; many of the things I heard from him for the first time still reverberate with me. One of them, which I am reminded of now with the ongoing disaster of the migrant crisis in Europe, was: “Migrants are the bravest people in the world.” Migrants are the people who have the courage to fight for a better life in a new, unknown, possibly inhospitable country; for that, they must be resourceful and determined. Lucky is the country that can count on the drive and ambition of migrants, as a wonderful recent campaign in the UK has also highlighted. The 800 people who died in the Mediterranean Sea, many of whom children, should be remembered as among the bravest people in the world.