Magistra Bell

I was reflecting on this past semester and regretting that I was unable to host the class at my house for a party afterward, when I began to recall the occasions when I was myself  invited as  a student into the homes of my teachers and professors.   In university, I can remember attending  a few post-course parties at the home of Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy.  I have also had coffee at the home of several of my professors, including Kenneth Graham and Michael Keefer and others whose names now escape me.  I even had one professor, one of those names that I cannot now remember, who conducted one of her classes in her home.  There were many other occasions when I met with my professors socially in more or less public venues, of course, but there were only these very few when I was invited to meet with them in their homes, and these few remain significant to me even today.

As I was thinking about these things, I remembered suddenly an earlier time, almost certainly the first such time, when my highschool Latin class was invited to a Saturnalia party at the home of our teacher, Magistra Bell.   I had taken her class almost by mistake, mostly because it was not French, which still seems like very good reasoning to me these many years later.  I soon discovered that I quite enjoyed Latin, however, not the subject per se, though it was far better than French, but the class itself, the way it was taught, the way that I found myself learning in it. At the time, I would have identified this enjoyment as a product of Magistra Bell’s academic accomplishments.  She had her doctorate, which was not very common among my highschool teachers, and she had published several books in her subject area, including the second unit of our curriculum, the Cambridge Latin Course, and two collections of Latin literature, Amor et Amicitia and Imperium et Civitas.  I have since had the misfortune, however, of encountering many people who, despite any number of degrees and publications, are completely inept as teachers, and I would say now that Magistra Bell’s success as a teacher came from something else entirely, from the same attitude towards her students that motivated her to invite them into her home when no other teachers would.

It was not that there was anything magical about this invitation, of course.  Merely inviting students to your home will not make you a good teacher, and not all good teachers are able to invite their students into their home in this way.  Rather, it is the attitude that this kind of invitation reveals that is significant, an attitude that respects students, as Magistra Bell did, not as peers in knowledge, which could only be a false and unproductive respect, but as peers in learning, as fellow learners who were beginning on the same journey that she was still following, even if she had progressed much further along it.  This kind of respect does not minimize the greater knowledge and experience that the teacher brings to the process of learning, but neither does it assume that this knowledge and experience makes the teacher essentially different from the learner.  Rather, it understands both teacher and learner to be performing the same function, though at different stages and in different ways.

The result of this respect, of this understanding, is that the distinction between teacher and student is no longer of the kind that should prevent them from interacting with each other in ways that go beyond a formal and hierarchical relationship.  While there is a level of respect that will always remain, the relationship between teacher and student becomes of a kind that is open to a certain intimacy and informality, becomes of a kind that is able to offer and receive an invitation, even an invitation to the home.

This way of relating to students is not without risk, certainly, but it is a risk justified by tremendous value.  I recall vividly walking into Magistra Bell’s house, and I recollect, perhaps falsely now, that there were bookshelves that she had built and window coverings that she had woven and pottery that she had thrown, and I remember the books, the many books, and all of this produced in me an impression of someone who was learning and growing and doing things herself, quite apart from the role in which I saw her every day.  Her invitation to me, to come to know her beyond the classroom, even in such a small way, was a real gift, a gift of a sort that had never been offered to me before and has very seldom been offered since.

All of which is to say that I owe Magistra Bell a considerable debt, and that I have now recalled it, and that I hope in the future to repay it by offering the same gift to my own students in turn.

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1 comment
  1. Luke, your teachers have had the most uncommon and interesting names one could think of.

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