My former French professor from the University of Michigan-Flint passed away yesterday. Matthew Hilton-Watson collapsed while he was teaching a class and died on his way to the hospital. He had been suffering from pneumonia. He was only 40 years old.
He was one of only two full-time French professors at the smaller Flint campus. He was the director of the International & Global Studies Program and recently created a new minor in French & Francophone Studies, with most classes being in English so that those with little knowledge of French could still learn about the French-speaking world. He was also involved in promoting awareness of the French-Canadian presence in Michigan and the preservation of endangered languages.
I met him in 2000 as a freshman, and took classes with him every single semester. I was lucky enough to have my best friend, Brad, in class with me, but having Matt as a professor was an added bonus. I looked forward to each class – even the literature classes that I thought I would hate. I lost my voice almost every week during phonetics class because I was trying so hard to imitate his near-native accent. His enthusiasm for teaching the language, and spreading knowledge and appreciation of all Francophone cultures, made me want to become a French professor too. I wanted to motivate others to learn French and discover how rewarding learning a second language really is. In short, I wanted to be just like Matt.
And to his students, he was simply Matt. Not doctor or professor, just Matt. He was our friend, our mentor. He was the reason why I majored in French. He was the reason why my pronunciation improved so much. He was the reason why I studied in Quebec and fell in love with Montreal. He was the reason why I moved to France.
I e-mailed him sporadically after I left Michigan to see if any of his students would be coming to France as assistants, or to get advice on what to do with my life here. Just two days ago I had asked for the reading list for his new spring course on Francophone Cultures of the World so I could pretend to be his student again and learn something new. And then I checked my e-mail this morning and learned that he was gone.
Sarah, Alexander and Catherine, my thoughts are with you.
Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. Celui-ci voudrait souffrir en face du poêle, et celui-là croit qu’il guérirait à côté de la fenêtre. Il me semble que je serais toujours bien là où je ne suis pas, et cette question de déménagement en est une que je discute sans cesse avec mon âme.
This life is a hospital in which each patient is possessed by the desire to change beds. One wants to suffer in front of the stove and another believes that he will get well near the window. It always seems to me that I will be better off there where I am not, and this question of moving about is one that I discuss endlessly with my soul.
Charles Baudelaire – Any Where Out of the World
(One of Matt’s favorite quotes)