Christiane Hilaire: The Transformative Impact of a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant

December 25, 2013
Christiane Hilaire

Christiane Hilaire, 1958-1959, Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant from France (photo courtesy of Bloomfield Hills High School and Penny Shaw)

During my sophomore year at Bloomfield Hills High School in Michigan in 1959, I was blessed by having Christiane Hilaire, a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant, as my French teacher. While I was already fascinated by the peoples and cultures of the world, as I had had two pen pals, in Germany and Japan, since age ten. It was Christiane, though, who inspired me and helped me center my education and career toward an international focus.

For an adolescent of fifteen, Christiane, at age twenty-three, became an easy role model. I was captivated by her unique looks and her mannerisms that appeared different and intriguing to me. I loved the way her English had that certain charm of non-native speakers who often translate directly from their native language.

She shared with her students not only the grammar and vocabulary of our textbooks, but personal stories of the village where she grew up. She taught us French songs, showed French movies, and explained history and customs that were meaningful to her. In short, she had a talent for teaching.

In the spring of that year, I read an article in Holiday Magazine about the city of Grenoble, France, including its university. I immediately wrote for information about programs. In the package that arrived, I was notified that I had already been accepted! What a thrill for a sixteen-year-old. It was an intensive French language program for international students. I asked my father if he would pay for me to go to Grenoble for my freshman year of college and he agreed!

By my junior year of high school, Christiane had returned to France, but we continued our friendship by written correspondence. By the summer before my senior year, however, Christiane had returned to my city and married  a U.S. citizen. As the couple had only one car, I often took Christiane shopping with me. With our frequent shopping trips, our personal friendship quickly deepened.

Sadly, this story became tragic. In June 1961, about three weeks after my high school graduation, Christiane, aged twenty-six, and her unborn child were killed in a car accident. My devastation was overwhelming and lifelong—I often think of her, especially every June. It has now been 52 years, and if she had lived, she would be seventy eight-years-old.

Despite this, I went to France in September as planned. Six weeks after my arrival, I spent the All Saint’s Day holiday weekend with Christiane’s  family in Treignac, a small town near Toulouse. Staying in her room, my eyes gazed at her belongings—shoes, books, and knickknacks, never to be used again. I went to the village cemetery where she is buried to see her gravestone.

Through these experiences, Christiane’s influence directed me to study French, eventually resulting in a Ph.D. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, after which I became a foreign language teacher. I taught French to undergraduates at Michigan and to Peace Corps volunteers going to French West Africa. Still, after 20 years of studying French, I was disappointed that my French wasn’t perfect, and started teaching English Language Learning (ELL) for foreign students and immigrants at major U.S. universities. I also taught ELL in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for a year, where I picked up some Spanish. As I modeled myself after Christiane, I had a very interesting, useful, and pleasurable working life.

In 2001, I unexpectedly became disabled from a rare neuromuscular disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome (French paralysis for a French major!), and have been living in a nursing home in Massachusetts. Yet here again, Christiane’s direction has paid off. A large proportion of the staff is of international origin. Not only can I speak French to those from Haiti, and Spanish to people from corresponding countries, I can assist the staff in improving their English. Of course, my interest in international cultures means I can have very substantive conversations.

Lest any reader of this article have concern for me, I am leading a wonderful life—leaving my facility to be an active advocate and policy advisor on elder, long-term care, and disability issues in Massachusetts. My interest in the difference of other cultures, first shaped by Christiane, also helped me develop an interest in human diversity of all kinds.

In conclusion, I would like to thank all those who are part of the Fulbright Program, from staff to participants. Three of my living friends are Fulbright alumni, as a graduate student, a doctoral researcher, and an exchange scholar. This important program has benefited not only me, but the whole world.

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  • Reply Mary A Ferguson December 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    This memoir of a French teacher is very moving and I know it to be true. Fulbright has also played a major part in my life, when my husband won an award to Hamburg in 1957, close enough to the war years to find that city still recovering. He was a professor of American Literature and we had many students to our house, including some to bsbysit for our three children, two of them in German elementary schools. All of us were greatly influenced by that wonderful experience. My granddaughter was sble to enter a special program in German here in Pittsburgh; my experience and her mother’s helped her prep for an entrance exam and she quickly passed. Now she’s finishing six years of Mandarin Chinese study–all stemming from that early excellent experience with German.

  • Reply Phyllis Valentine December 25, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    This article speaks to many areas for me: the often life-long inspiration provided by cultural exchange, French language and culture in particular, activism in its broadest sense, and what financial support can do to further it all. And there’s a personal level also: Penny and I were fellow grad students those many years ago, after my Peace Corps service in Senegal. I too met several who had rec’d Fulbright awards; those people continued to give back to society in interesting ways.

  • Reply Shannon Nakai January 2, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    Your story is inspiring, not only by the enriching friendship you forged with an unforgettable role model, but also by the multi-faceted way in which you implemented a love of language into international education. As an English major who studied French, I receive a lot of light-hearted shoulder-cuffing about my “useless” projected career goals, but a year of teaching English in Turkey was not only invigorating and challenging, but enlightening in the sense that I discovered how many doors open across the globe in the linguistic classrooms and how many friendships are founded based this mutual passion. Your story is a testament to that.

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