Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Miss Sullivan

Today I got to smile about Miss Sullivan. That's not her name anymore, except in our family where she ranks among the teachers we will never forget. It's a perfect blogonym for her.

She and Big Cuter arrived at The Fancy Private High School the same fall semester. For the next four years, he took the Latin she taught. Since the texts were tales of battles and philosophy and crude poetry, he might have loved it anyway. But the fact that Miss Sullivan was at the front of the room made that love a certainty. 

She came from Harvard, and expected her students to learn the language.  The class had been an easy-A before her arrival; it was culture and readings in translation with some Latin grammar thrown in for good measure. Once Miss Sullivan arrived, though things began to change.

The Latin 3 students were suddenly back in Latin 1, and those juniors and seniors were none too happy about it. We, the five or six freshman parents sitting around the table at Back To School Day, were flummoxed. Without any prior collaboration, we found ourselves agreeing with the teacher and wondering what the fuss was all about. We didn't make many friends among the upperclassmen's parents, but we did find out a lot about Miss Sullivan.

She was neither offended nor impressed with the quibbling. She had been hired to teach Latin and teach Latin she would.  If some of her students required remediation, so be it.  It was an impressive performance by a young woman new to the insular world of our little private school.  She was not to be bullied.  She held her ground.  She was strong and determined and only when TBG and I went up after the the session to tell her how much our son enjoyed her classroom did she begin to relax.

He did enjoy the classroom.  It challenged him while allowing him to show off, too.  He brought his hand-painted miniatures to lay out the Roman army's battle plans. He brought his knowledge of history and conquest to a room filled with females; they were delighted to be given the Big Cuter version of world history.   

By his junior year, Little Cuter had joined the crowd.  My daughter has many talents; speaking with a foreign accent is not among them.  Latin had one great big check on the Take Me in High School side of the ledger - no one knows how it is supposed to be pronounced.  Miss Sullivan assured her that continued stumbling over translations would, one day, lead to a fluid, lyrical reading, filled with deep ideas and delightful cadence.  My girl's face when she came into the kitchen to tell me that she was really reading the Latin homework was ample compensation for those tuition dollars.

Both kids took Latin in college.  Its structure and complexity helped them to organize their thoughts. Deriving meanings of obscure words became simpler; there was Latin behind so many of them.  But, mostly, it was Miss Sullivan who won them over to the cause.

She pushed them.  She encouraged them.  She admired them.

It was that admiration, that ability to find the special something in each of her students that made her special, too.  She valued every contribution.  She listened with her entire being.  She was there for them, though she never coddled them.  Work was meant to be done.  There were consequences for non-compliance.  But mostly, there was joy.

We went to Berkeley to see a production of Ovid's Metamorphosis, replete with nude Echo and Narcissus jumping into and out of a faux pool two rows in front of us.  The kids were blushing bright red, but she had made her point.  If they could read it, they could see it.  They were grown up enough to have earned the right.

Respect for intellect, high expectations for the work submitted, and a genuine delight in the progress and the process made her classroom a very special place.  She's in Boston's suburbs, now, teaching Latin to more young men and women.  Recently, she reached out to her former students, asking them for their responses to her current students' lament - How will Latin ever be useful to me?

Big Cuter's lengthy response included this bit of advice:
There aren't a lot of teachers who can reach out to students from over a decade ago and reliably expect an answer, but she's easily that person for all of us, and those are relationships that are worth cultivating.
I hope each of you had a teacher like this somewhere along the way.


  1. My hubby took Latin in high school too. He has always said it's been useful because all of the romance languages are based off it. My oldest daughter is going into high school in the fall and she was considering Latin because her dad loved it, but she chose sign language. My second daughter may take it though.

    As for having a teacher who helps you love learning--those teachers are priceless.

    Megan xxx

    1. SIR took sign and while Little Cuter can read The Cat in the Hat in Latin to FlapJilly, SIR's language skills have let her communicate before her mouth was able to tell us what she wants. Cracker, more, drink, milk, and, most important - Please and Thank You.
      Both your girls are making wise choices.... hope they get a priceless teachre, too.

  2. I have been thinking about learning Latin as one of my retirement quests. I'm not sure what has been drawing me to it. Surely something I read but I don't recall. Thanks for the extra little nudge.

    1. I will ask Miss Sullivan the best way for you to proceed!

  3. My super young and energetic colleague -- to whom I was sharing these comments, which so warm our hearts!!! -- immediately popped up when I read her Barbara's comment and said, "Here, recommend this book: Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata...Pars I: Familia Romana." We would also say, Is there a Latin course nearby that you can take?....of course, if Reginald Foster is still teaching in Rome in the summer, that would be super fun and fabulous...I am wondering just how early I can get my own kids doing Latin...for now I am settling on their reading Percy Jackson and learning Greek myth. :)

    1. From Barbara: Wow. Thanks to all. This is exactly what I need to know .... where to start. I'm excited.


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