Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Beloved Teacher Holds Court

I have been blessed to be a student of more extraordinary teachers than would be reasonable to list in a blog post. From Kindergarten through graduate school, I could count on one hand the number of teachers who were so mediocre as to leave no lasting effect, and I certainly never had one that was outright bad. My study of Latin and Classics includes a roster of some of the finest teachers and scholars in the field, including Joyce Woller, Alice Ranck Hettle, Marcene Holverson Farley, Betty Rose Nagle, Martha Vinson, Mark Damen, Louis Perraud, Tim Long, Ted Ramage, Jim Halporn, Eleanor Winsor Leach, Michael Gagarin, M. Gwyn Morgan, Gareth Morgan, Tim Moore, Andrew Riggsby, William Nethercut, Douglass Parker, Lesley Dean-Jones, and Peter Green. Of these wonderful teachers-turned-colleagues, three have stood out as mentors and deeply important friends.

Tim Long, my professor for Greek as an undergraduate, remains a close friend with whom I converse often on everything from a point of Greek or Latin grammar to issues in education to the side-splitting hilarity of P.G. Wodehouse. Though we may not communicate as often as Tim and I do, Marcene Holverson Farley, a Latin teacher in Illinois, was my Latin teacher for my senior year in high school. We have remained good friends and colleagues, and it has been my pleasure to speak at her school on several occasions. She is the one who will always wish me a happy Ides of March.

The third in this trinity of Classical mentors is Alice Ranck Hettle. Miss Ranck, as we knew her in high school, taught Latin in Indiana for more than forty years, but her longest run (1952-1986) was at New Albany High School. Shortly before her retirement and marriage to her high school sweetheart, Miss Ranck was named the teacher of the year by the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. Although I was her student only during my sophomore and senior years, it is safe to say that I would not be living the life I am were it not for her.

After having walked to the high school each day from our junior high with a friend to take Latin I from Miss Woller, I enrolled in Latin II as a sophomore, expecting it to be similar to the pleasant experience I had enjoyed in first year. Was I ever in for a shock! At the end of the first day in Miss Ranck's class, I thought perhaps I should drop the class. She talked so fast! I feared I could never keep up. I stuck with it, however, and my life has never been the same. Her exacting demands brought out the best in all her students. She gave us the most solid foundation in grammar and inspired in me a love of the language that continues to this day. It was an off-hand comment she made one day that Antioch was the first place in which anyone was called by the name "Christian," however, that inspired me to teach Latin. I had always known I wanted to teach and certainly loved Latin. Her comment showed me a way to live out my Christian faith in this context.

I have remained in contact with her over the years, and I recently had the pleasure of seeing her again at her assisted-living home in Michigan. My wife, our two children, and my mother made the six-hour drive, and those who know her would understand when I say that I hardly know where to begin describing what it was like to spend the day with this force of nature.

Although she still drives, she struggles a bit to get around, but then again, most people on the brink of 89 will have a few physical challenges. Mentally, she is as sharp as a tack. We spent our time recalling stories of past students, and for almost every one she rattled off their collegiate studies, work experience, and present location as if she were reading their resumes. She sat in her easy chair and held court, magistra ex cathedra as it were, while we sat around her and joined in the fond remembrances.

Ever the Latin teacher, she fills her room with figurine copies of Classical sculpture and books of Latin and Greco-Roman history and culture. These sit comfortably alongside countless pictures of her family and evidence of her fondness for Indiana University and Celtics basketball. (She earned her Master's degree at I.U. after taking her Bachelor's at Earlham.) True to the tradition of Roman hospitality, she had gifts for everyone, including the children.

As I listened to stories, some familiar, some new, I was reminded of what I have been called to do as a teacher. Without a doubt, Miss Ranck is from another age, but this was true no matter the decade in which she taught. Familiar with the stats of professional basketball players and capable of telling a student in the 1980s who extolled Springsteen that she, too, liked "Mr. Bruce," she nonetheless has always exemplified what it means to be cultured and refined. Never elitist or effete, she could show the most unmotivated student what he could achieve if he but tried and supported those who were blessed with only one talent as if they had five. Hers was a standard that transcended any particular time, classroom, or student. It was the standard of truth, goodness, and beauty that was first breathed into man in the garden, polished by Phidias and Cicero in the Classical age, and carried on through the 20th century by a midwestern Latin teacher.

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