Why did I love Latin as a 14-year old? I am thinking it had much to do with my strengths in verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, but I am sure it was more than that. Mrs. Elisabeth McNair was a dynamic teacher. As incoming freshmen, we had heard she was tough. She gave killer tests and you had to learn to translate out loud in class, but if you were on the advanced track at Central High School in the 1980s, you took Latin from Mrs. McNair or should I say, Magistra McNair.
She used many tricks to breathe life into a dead language. First of all, she told incredible stories! I am sure I had read some Greek and Roman mythology in middle school, but nothing compared to the stories she told us. I’ll never forget the way she “explained” euphemistically that Zeus visited the many consorts with whom he produced most of the Greek heroes and demigods. She always put great emphasis on the word “visited” and added a wink-wink so our teenage brains knew exactly what she was talking about. I could sit listen to her tell stories about mythology or Roman history or Roman daily life for an entire class period and never get fidgety.
Her storytelling ability was just one way that she pulled us into the dead language that only people in Vatican City were still using. She also used songs--lots and lots of songs. We learned Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (Mica, Mica Parva Stella), Row, Row, Row Your Boat (Duc, duc, remos duc) and many more. My favorites were the Christmas carols. We learned the traditional Adeste Fideles with the “correct” Latin pronunciation with the v’s pronounced as w’s; I have to admit I still sing it that way at church at Christmas and get some strange sideways glances. We also learned The Twelve Days of Christmas which I can still do today with a little brush up on my cardinal and ordinal numbers in Latin. She also had lyrics to songs such as Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and Little Drummer Boy which we also learned with gusto (from the Latin meaning to taste).
Magistra McNair also used many different teaching strategies to get us to remember the boring stuff in Latin. We chanted the declensions over and over again to the point were were almost rapping. We wrote verb tenses in different colored chalk on the board (a trick I would use later in my career as a Latin teacher!). She used a bodily-kinesthetic Conga line to teach use the reflexive pronouns--sui, sibi, se, se. And you kicked on the se, se and over 25 years later I remember this so vividly I can see myself and others as 14- and 15-year-olds conga-ing around the Latin room at Central West. I remember thinking as a high school freshman how cool it was that someone “so old” would use this method of teaching with us. I now realize that she was maybe in her 60s when she was my Magistra. Now that I am in my 40s, I have to say that 60 doesn’t seem so old.
|Magistra McNair preening for the camera|
Magistra McNair also had use create our own Latin vocabulary flash cards. At first, many of us groaned and complained over having to do this tedious task because we had to put the Latin word and definition PLUS an English cognate (related word). A couple of years later when taking the SAT and ACT verbal sections, we all understood why Magistra had made us do it that way. Even all the mythology stories she told us would be useful in many a literature class in my college career and I am sure I would not have done as well on the Miller’s Analogies Test without my knowledge that I learned from Mrs. McNair.
Mrs. McNair was also the major reason that I decided to add a Classics/Latin major to my English major when I was in college. I had a knack for all things Latin and she helped me develop a sense of confidence in my ability to teach a foreign language. Apparently, I chose well in choosing the Latin and English teaching combination. I was astounded when I was offered 30+ jobs during a UA Red Day job fair during my junior year. I finished my degree and ended up teaching Latin and English for 10 years--one year in Atlanta and nine years at my alma mater (nourishing or other mother, thank you Magistra). I became Central’s Magistra in the 1990s and I still have former students who address me as Magistra on Facebook. I taught Latin in the same room that I learned it from Magistra McNair. I often found myself saying things that she had said to my class years before; it sounded both strange and right coming from my mouth.
|That would be me as Magistra in the red toga on the ground.|
Mrs. McNair is now in her 80s and doesn’t remember present things so well. She has an apartment in an assisted living facility in Tuscaloosa and one of her children visits most everyday. Although I have told her that I am now an Assistant Professor of Technology at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, she remembers that I teach Latin to high school students. She always asks what mythology stories I tell and whether or not I am currently reading Julius Caesar’s Gallic War with my Latin II class. Even though for her time has stopped somewhere previous to 2011, she can still recite the first stanza of the Aeneid in Latin and the proper meter and she remembers where I sat in Latin I, II, and III and why I didn’t take Latin IV. Magistra McNair was an awe-inspiring teacher.
Te amo, Magistra, hodie et semper. (I love you, Magistra, today and always.)
PS Also special thanks to Bill McBride for preserving these wonderful memories and posting them on Facebook. You rock, Mac!