In 1980, I was a surly, awkward, pimply-faced teen who was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime: high school.
That was the year I met the lady who quite probably had the biggest impact on my life of anyone I’ve known outside of relatives. She was my Latin teacher, by that time already in her sixth decade of life. I remember her classroom, decorated with dioramas of Ancient Greece and Rome, full of books, and crawling with posters and pictures of her travels all over the world.
I’d taken Latin the year before, but this year was new, in that I actually had the choice whether or not to continue. I remember the conversation at the dinner table as if it were yesterday:
“Why Latin? Isn’t that a dead language? Who speaks it anymore? What’s its use? Couldn’t you better use the time studying French, or at least typing?” (truth in advertising: I’m still a two-finger typist to this very day.)
I don’t remember what I said in response other than to give voice to a vague feeling that this made sense; that Latin was a gateway onto other languages, that a lot of our words came from Latin, and that it was the language of the Church both my parents were increasingly struggling to get me to attend.
They weren’t buying. Then it hit me. This part I remember. “Mom, Dad, all the smart people take Latin – especially the ones that get into good colleges.” “Really?” “Uh-huh. I’ve even heard it said that colleges really like to see two or more years of Latin on your transcript.”
That, apparently, sealed the deal, and I never had to justify Latin to my parents ever again. To a ton of other people both within and outside my school, yes, and that conversation continues to this day.
We began by learning basic vocabulary, which I found boring yet oddly amusing. Who knew that “exit” was a Latin word? Quickly my teenage brain found its way to ways to say “girlfriend,” “kiss,” and “furtively” in Latin.
By then my teacher and I had become good pals. She told me all about The War (World War II), voting for Adlai Stevenson, and how you just kept your mouth shut during McCarthy. She described Ancient Greece and Rome as these paradises for learning and the arts which she and I knew couldn’t be totally true, but enjoyed describing nevertheless.
In short, I was hooked. But not on classics or even history, per se. On something else far more sinister, subversive, addictive, and powerful: learning itself.
In my old Latin teacher, I found my first and possibly best example of someone who regarded education as an end in itself rather than simply a means to some other end. Here’s how it happened:
“Why are you taking Latin?”
“To get into a good college.”
“Very funny. You could have taken French.”
Do you know how incredibly awkward it is to box an adolescent male into wanting to say “because you’re the smartest, coolest person I’ve ever met and I just love you” to his elderly teacher? I opted for a more measured response.
“Well French doesn’t have the same admissions cachet that Latin does.”
“True. But why do you want to go to college?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. It was like asking why you love your father and mother.
“I, well, because, I…” I had no answer. None.
“Probably never thought much about that, huh?”
She smiled. “Listen, think about it some more, and let me know what you find out, OK? Promise?”
It only took me about a day to figure out the answer.
“I know why I’m here.”
“You have to promise me you won’t say a word of this to anyone else.” Believe it or not, I had two responses prepared, and I was scanning her for clues as to which one would be more appropriate. I went with the safer one. “I’m here because you’re the only person I know who’s doing something she loves to do for a living.”
She beamed. I ditched the “I love you, please adopt me as your grandson and teach me everything you know” speech, and saved it for later. Twenty-five years later, as a matter of fact.
From that conversation, I went on to discover Catullus (wow!), take both Latin AP courses, graduate high school, college, and graduate school, keeping in touch with her through lunches at her house, letters, and phone calls. I dedicated my dissertation to her. She came to my wedding, and rang in the new millenium with me and my family.
When I moved away to embark on a career, she and I were both heartbroken but resolved to keep in touch. Shortly thereafter, she took ill and had to be hospitalized. Alzheimer’s quickly set in, robbing her of her most precious gift to me.
I’ll never forget the last conversation we had, about five years ago. She had just confessed to me that she’d forgotten all her Latin. I held her hand and told her that’s OK, that’s what dictionaries are for. She smiled back and brushed away a tear.
That’s when I told her about the two speeches I had prepared that day, and she smiled again. “Likewise,” she said, and then both of us got pretty weepy. We chatted some more, and then we said our good-byes as usual.
Soon thereafter, I became a Dad for the first time and called to share the news with her, only to find she’d taken physically ill and had been transferred to another facility. I called there and found she couldn’t speak. Some months later, I visited and she didn’t recognize me at all.
She passed away a few weeks ago, and her funeral was yesterday. Mothers’ Day will always be a time for me to remember a lady who had no biological children of her own, but plenty of intellectual ones.
Ave atque vale, dulcissima maestra. Rest in peace, grandma. Tell Athena I said hey 🙂