In my Freshman year I took Latin. Teaching Latin to teenagers in Southeastern Kansas in the 1940’s had to be one of the most challenging jobs in Christendom. The Roman Empire was farther from our world than the star Betelgeuse. The school board, however, decreed that one year of Latin was required to earn a diploma from Caney High School. The only teacher qualified to teach Latin was Miss Elizabeth A. Williams.
We knew very little about Miss Williams. She walked to school each day. An intriguing mystery about her was that she went to Chicago every summer to work in an office in “The Loop.” Of course there was not a kid in Caney High School who had any idea what “The Loop” was but when Miss Williams made one of her very infrequent digressions from the business at hand, she often talked about it. We could tell by the light in her eyes that it must be a magical place. Years later when I knew Chicago as an almost second home town, I still could not picture Miss Williams walking the streets of downtown Chicago. In my mind she would have seemed as out of place as a Martian. She never revealed exactly what she did on those summer sojourns. We were left to wonder. However, if any teacher in Caney High School was equal to the task of transmitting Roman culture and language to the heathens of backwater Southeast Kansas in the 1940's it was Miss Williams. She had taught Latin and Math in Caney High School for so many years that it was inconceivable to us that she found joy in anything other than crunching numbers and parsing Latin verbs. She ruled her classrooms with an iron hand a stern voice, and an occasional flash of sarcasm. So fully did she dominate her classroom that even the most hardened miscreants toed the line for her. My next oldest brother, Gene, had excelled in Latin so I entered her classroom with an “Are you going to be as good as your brother?” albatross around my neck. Her hopes died within hours. I detested Latin. Within days, I was seated at the front of the room, next to her desk. We suffered together knowing neither could escape from the other.
Miss Williams taught Classical Latin, as used by Roman Senators and Patricians, not the commonplace version used by lawyers, doctors, and The Church.. We learned that when Julius Caesar proclaimed his triumph over Gaul with the ringing report “Veni, Vedi, Vici,” what he actually thundered was “Wayney, Weedy, Weeky.” And the person to whom he reported was “Kaiser,” not the guy for whom a tasty salad was named. In an attempt to candy-coat the misery of determining whether a noun was male, female, or neuter she taught us to sing in Latin. “Adeste Fidelis” was a cinch. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” came harder. My class got as far as “Mica, Mica, Parva Stella” before building our version of the Tower of Babel.
The only redemption I found in Miss Williams’s classroom was the calendar on her wall. It had a large, color picture of a Santa Fe, semi-trailer truck, (they weren’t called 18-wheelers in those days) parked on a highway, somewhere in the desert southwest. As I sat there drowning in a sea of strange words, my eyes locked on that picture. Like Joan of Arc contemplating heaven while flames licked at her feet, my soul contemplated the glories of driving such a behemoth across the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada, while the conjugations of that long dead language droned in my ears. That calendar was my deliverance. I escaped Latin with a barely passing grade, but my association with Miss Williams didn’t end there.
Miss Williams also took her turn supervising “study hall,” which was held in a large third floor room that seated a hundred or more students. The teacher’s desk was on an elevated platform at the back of the room so that our backs were turned toward the teacher. One day, after passing a note to Johnny Lindsay and giggling at his reaction, I suddenly felt my scalp being removed. The pain was so sudden and severe that I called on The Almighty in a loud voice as I arose swiftly from my seat in an attempt to keep my scalp attached to my skull. For an instant I had no idea what had a hold on me. It was Miss Williams. She had walked quietly up behind me. Now her thumb and forefinger were firmly attached to the sideburns in front of my right ear as she pulled upward lustily. An eagle could not have had his prey in a more secure grip. Startled beyond belief I called upon God in a voice that filled the room. God did not answer me. Miss Williams did. Abandoning Latin, her favorite language she released her talon-like grip. She addressed me in terse English sentences as I stood tearfully rubbing my traumatized hair follicles. Her message was clear and simple. She was Caesar. I was nothing. She had came, she had seen, she had conquered.
"I suddenly felt my scalp being removed from my head". I laughed out loud and couldn't stop for each following line. This was so funny! I can see the scene and feel the pain. OMG! This was a ridiculously funny story. I'm sending this one around.
Glad you caught the humor. There wasn't much humor in it when it happened but from the vantage point of scores of years later the situation was funny.
Having gone to Catholic schools for my 1st thru 4th grades I know all too well the types of punishment doled out to the unruly. I am sure I had ADD before they had a name for it and as such spent most of my elementary years with my own desk right outside mother superiors office. Don, you write well and really build the images that let me know who you are and how you became that person.