A tribute to longtime Aiglon English teacher "Teddy" Senn
Teddy Senn was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1928 and moved to the UK as a teenager. He acquired English as a second language but learned to speak it flawlessly. He arrived at Aiglon in the 1960s and taught English language and literature there for several decades. Actor Michel Gill (House of Cards, Mr. Robot) credits him with first getting him on a stage, to perform a Shakespearean play. The following is an obituary for Teddy written by Wall Street Journal editor Eric Gibson, one of his students. It gives the reader a good sense of the sort of education young men and women received at Aiglon back in the day.
Gustav Theodore "Teddy” Senn (1928–2013)
There's a memorable exchange at the beginning of "A Man For All Seasons,” a play filled with memorable exchanges, and one that Teddy taught at O-Level [a British standardized exam]. It occurs between Sir Thomas More, the doomed protagonist, and Richard Rich, a young opportunist who sees More as his ticket to fame, fortune and power at the court of Henry VIII.
Recognizing that Rich is bad news, More tries to steer him out of his orbit into teaching, assuring him that he would make "a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.”
"And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks. Replies More: "You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.”
Teddy was not a world-renowned figure—nor did he wish to be. But as the postings on Facebook and the many e-mail exchanges in the wake of his passing have attested, to his students Teddy was a legend, one of that rare breed of educator whose mark and memory stay with you down the decades.
Gentle, courtly, erudite, and possessed of an impish wit and a taste for the well-turned pun, Teddy arrived at Aiglon with his family in September 1966. Over the next 33 years he would teach O- and A-Level English and serve as a Houseparent in Alpina, Clairmont and Exeter, Deputy Headmaster and Senior Master. Retired, he undertook to write the official history of the school. But this brief sketch scarcely captures the extent of Teddy's contribution. He was one of the Aiglon stalwarts, that group of singular personalities who, along with John Corlette, did so much to define the character and tone of Aiglon in its early decades.
As a teacher, Teddy did double duty. On the first day of our Fifth Form O-Level English Literature class, he announced that since exam success depended not only on what you knew but how you expressed it, he would cover both. So where other teachers would have confined themselves to the explication of Shakespeare, Milton and the other assigned texts, Teddy coupled that with instruction in expository writing. Our papers would come back marked up with notes to use fewer words, choose more appropriate ones, avoid repetition, eschew the likes of "very” and "nice”—"meaningless words,” he called them, dismissively—and much else. It was hard going, but this revelation of language as a precision tool as well as a marvelously rich and supple creative instrument instilled in some of us a lifelong love of words and writing. Even without igniting that spark, Teddy's injunctions equipped his charges with an indispensable skill. The written word still matters, even in the age of Twitter.
But what made Teddy's teaching unique was its moral dimension. There was no separation between who he was and what he did for a living. He didn't puncha clock; English literature was the warp and weft of his life. It shaped his worldview, informed his Meditations and inflected his personal interactions outside the classroom. This meant that, more than simply communicating a body of knowledge, Teddy imparted a set of values. You need to know this canon, was his unspoken message. It is a bedrock of civilization. We all have a stake in keeping it alive.
Then there was what you might call the Joseph Conrad factor. The author of "Lord Jim” and other masterworks was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland in 1857. He didn't become fluent in English until he was in his twenties, but went on to become one of its greatest prose stylists.
English was Teddy's second language, too. He was Swiss, and had started life speaking Swiss German. Yet to us young tyros he seemed to know every word in the Oxford Dictionary, and was so intimately familiar with Shakespeare that, as a group of us demonstrated one day in a brief, after-class parlor game, when quoted a single line of dialogue he could instantly identify the play, character, act and scene to which it belonged. Faced with such a sweeping command of your own language and literary culture in someone not native to them, you felt a certain pressure to step up your game.
Teddy could have taught at a university but undoubtedly shaped more young minds by getting to them earlier at Aiglon. At a reunion in the late 1970s I found myself chatting with Mike McCabe and Richard Sears, two graduates of my era. Mike was then on the staff of a U.S. Senator in Washington, Richard was a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and I was beginning my career in arts journalism in New York. The conversation turned to our old English teacher, and soon we were comparing notes on his influence. One saw the same thing in the recent testimonials on Facebook. Dozens of different people, dozens of completely different lives, each one touched in some way by Teddy. Not a bad public, that.
Godspeed, Teddy Senn.
Aiglon College, Class of '72