Ave atque Vale by
10
(20 Stories)

Prompted By Favorite Teacher

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Miss Marion B. Stanhope is my high school Latin III, IV and V teacher. I am the last of my siblings to have her. They have been A students, and she will expect the same of me.

Miss Stanhope was my Miss Chips.

Every day Miss Stanhope is dressed in proper “old school” attire anchored by sturdy orthopedic shoes. She is in her sixties, but sixties look older in the Sixties. Her gray hair is swept up in a loose Edwardian bun. To me she is pretty, but one side of her face is frozen in a droop. I imagine the courage it must take for her to stand before us, so exposed. She wins my heart at once.

The one thing you need to know about Miss Stanhope is that she is formidable but fair, provided you follow

The Rules:

You are prepared. You have done your translation the night before. You may be called upon at random to translate Virgil/Cicero/Horace on demand. There are no excuses. As you begin to recite your passage–and certainly during exams–Miss Stanhope may decide to walk up and down the aisles. She is on the lookout for cheat sheets slipped into notebooks, pencilled prompts in texts, vocabulary words inked on palms. May the gods help you if you are caught breaking The Rules. It is, in retrospect, a fine preparation for matriculation at Harvard Business School, or service in the Special Forces. Or life.

And yet there it is, that twinkle, that half-curve of smile. She doesn’t want to punish us. She wants us to love ancient Rome and its writers as she does. Although I think it cannot be so, she talks about them so rapturously I sometimes wonder if for her the Roman gods actually do exist. She is in every way my Miss Chips.

Miss Stanhope needn’t do more than instruct us, but she does. She supervises our school’s membership in the national Junior Classical League and encourages our participation. The JCL holds annual conferences featuring chariot races and other toga nonsense. It also administers a yearly Latin examination in which her students excel (**college admissions alert**).

Here she is in my brother’s yearbook photo, standing at the left of members of the Latin Club. The Club’s motto is Vincit qui se vincit (“He conquers who conquers himself”), courtesy of 1st century B.C. writer Publilius Syrus. In my yearbook I am identified as the Curile Aedile, an ancient Roman office charged with repairing public buildings, streets, sewers and aqueducts; supervising public decency; distributing grain; and organizing public games. I have no memory of doing any of these things.

Now as a woman I ponder Miss Stanhope’s life outside the classroom.

In the Sixties just about all of our teachers live in town. Not a few have grown up here. And so I look now at the 1940 census and find Miss Stanhope residing in a charming white house just steps from the high school. She is 39 years old, listed as a School Teacher, and described as Head of Household for her mother and a boarder.

I recall a letter I write to her my senior year asking for a college recommendation. In it I reveal my plan to major in Classics and note, in passing, my father’s tough health. I have the letter she writes me back. She is living in retirement in another state now. In her letter she exhorts me not to lose my religion at this college and intimates a different life path for herself had her father not died prematurely. It is unexpected advice and an unexpectedly personal revelation. At age 17 I don’t know quite how to respond. I marvel at the letter’s intimacy then, I appreciate its meaning fully now. It is our last communication.

Oh how I wish dear Miss Stanhope has had a special person to love and to love her. But I realize it may be that, given her profession, her responsibilities and the customs of her time, she has not. No matter. All these years later I rejoice in the certainty that teachers like Miss Stanhope live forever in the hearts of their students.

 

Profile photo of Susan Bennet Susan Bennet
I'm so happy to have joined the gracious Retro family. The basics:
I have a background in marketing and museums.
I come alive when the leaves turn red.
I regret every tech mistake I have made or will ever make on this site.
I want a dog.



Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is a remarkable commentary on a woman who was strict yet fair and set standards for you that marks you to this day. Her demeanor was betrayed by that twinkle in her eye and your devotion to the classics that you both loved.

    The letter she sent you in response to your request (which you still have; I also kept a few from favorite mentors) is so reveling and sets you wondering about options for women then and later. Times have changed, yet are we regressing?

  2. Suzy says:

    Hail and Farewell, Miss Stanhope! I took four years of Latin in high school, and had two different teachers; both were much like Miss Stanhope. We wrote between the lines in our books when we did our translation homework, which helped when we were called on in class. I don’t know if that was allowed or not, but the teachers didn’t walk up and down the aisles to check. Oh wait, in Latin 3 and 4 there were only four of us, so there weren’t any aisles to walk up and down. Anyway, she sounds wonderful, and how nice of her to write to you when you asked for a recommendation. Her father dying prematurely meant that she had to take care of her mother, but maybe she found her someone special after her mother died. Did you check the 1950 and 1960 censuses in addition to the 1940?

    • Susan Bennet says:

      Oh what a nice bond we have in Latin, Suzy! It has saddened me to see this subject nearly disappear from language study. You are right: at the end there were only a few of us left. We were pretty serious and not likely to cheat. (The girl with the jangly charm bracelet had thankfully moved on.) And you read my mind: I do want to check the later censuses.

      Four of the five senior boys in this picture went crimson the next year. Not a bad batting average for Miss Stanhope, or for Latin.

  3. Thanx Susan for your sweet memories of Miss Stanhope who wanted you to love Ancient Greece and its writers aa much as she did!

    Have you gotten that dog?

  4. Marian says:

    I love this story, Susan, having gone as far as Latin II and being bored to tears by Caesar’s Gallic wars. The discipline and life lessons Miss Stanhope imparted are excellent, and her situation with her father makes her totally human. Love your physical description of her as well. My 8th-grade science teacher also had a bun and wore those lady oxford shoes.

    • Susan Bennet says:

      Thank you, Marian. Caesar was a bit of a slog, I agree. As for the shoes, the older I get the more I understand one’s feet can be im”ped”iments to comfort and happiness. Standing all day teaching – I feel her pain.

      I’m afraid I foolishly abandoned Miss Stanhope’s straight and narrow in the spring of freshman year. I had cockily waited until just before finals to tackle hundreds of pages of translation and hadn’t anticipated the amount of new and specialized vocabulary. A disaster. I was so ashamed.

  5. Did Miss Stanhope write you a recommendation? Did you, as you predicted to her, become a Latin major?
    I love your speculation re her personal life, and your wish for her joy despite the strictures of the time. Maybe she had it. Maybe she found a path that worked for her. Maybe she closed that portal early on, and tended to her declensions and ablatives.
    I took Latin for two years in high school, and then in a bizarre twist of curriculum, one year in college (I wanted to write a thesis in my major , English, but a prerequisite was a year of a language in the language, except in Latin they gave the assignments in English–much Ovid in the class; I got a sense of how rewarding Latin might have been had I not been such a slough off student).

    • Susan Bennet says:

      Yes and yes, and then the self-inflicted mortification described to Marian, above. Another field of study proved just the thing, to this day. As for you, the purveyor of Ovid — Gregory Nagy, perhaps? Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    There were many women like Miss Stanhope back in the 60s whose life revolved around their students and who had passion for their work, Yours is a beautiful description of such a woman who clearly touched your and your siblings’ lives. We rarely thought about the private lives of these single women who made such a difference in our lives when we were their students.

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