“Mom, what was it like taking two years of Latin?” my teenager asked me as he put down his Roman history book. “Can you still read it?”
“Not really.” Old words flittered through my mind: hic … hunc … huius … huic … hoc. I couldn’t recall what they meant but I could clearly picture my magister — that’s Latin for teacher — standing in front of the classroom and leading us in chants. “I don’t remember much Latin,” I told my son, “but I do remember Mr. Stansell. He was one of my favorite teachers.”
As soon as I mentioned Mr. Stansell, the stories poured out of me like water flowing down an aqueduct. “He was deathly pale,” I explained, “like he never went outside. And he was tall and thin in a way that probably would have been handsome if he wasn’t wearing thrift store suits that were 20 years old.” I paused for a moment, shocked at my unkind reflections.
“There’s nothing wrong with any of that,” said my son.
“No,” I agreed. “There’s not. The important thing is that he was such a wonderful teacher.”
Mr. Stansell filled Latin class with jokes, mini history lessons, raps and chants. He taught us to count by shouting at the top of our lungs when we got to the number six, in a way I’m sure made the principal seethe: “Unos … duo … tres …quattuor … quinque … SEX!”
Magister taught us not just about Latin, but how all romantic languages were connected. “The French screwed up Latin,” Mr. Stansell used to say, “and the British mispronounced it.”
“’Sinister’ means left in Latin,” I tell my son. “Too bad you and your sister are left-handed.”
He rolls his eyes. “So you do remember Latin.”
“I guess so,” I admit. “This one time the smartest, most perfect boy in school threw up. The whole class was stunned. When Mr. Stansell came back from escorting him to the nurse’s office, Magister looked at us with a wink and said: “Vomito …vomitas … vomitat … vomitamus … vomitatis … vomitant.”
After talking with my son, I turned on my computer to search for Mr. Stansell. That’s when I realized the horrible truth. James Julius Stansell IV passed away on April 9, 2019, at the age of 73. Perhaps because he was an only child, unmarried and had no children of his own, there was no obituary.
A lifetime of dedicating himself to students, and he didn’t get one sentence. Not only that, but there was barely any online record of him having existed at all.
It was so unfair, so … horribilis.
Mr. Stansell didn’t just teach me a smattering of declinations and conjugations, he taught me how to engage with the trickiest audience of all, teenagers. Tell stories, incorporate jokes, don’t be too serious — these are all lessons I learned in Latin class. Magister taught me other things, too, like how it’s OK to be true to your passion, even if that pursuit is something really weird, like loving a dead language.
So here’s to you, Mr. Stansell, and all of the inspiring teachers who enrich our lives forever. ”Macte virtute sic itur ad astra.” Those who excel thus, reach the stars.
Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at email@example.com.