I recently learned that my high-school Latin teacher, Ethel Mae Emmons, passed away last week at the age of 94. Perhaps because I studied under her tutelage for four years, she was one of those strong, memorable teachers that one has the privilege of meeting now and again.1
Mrs. Emmons (Magistra, as she preferred) also taught my older brother Ted (graduated in 1972) and Mark (graduated 1975). Ted was a superb student and a scholar who went on to major in Latin at North Texas State University before attending Oxford University. Mark was not. Mark, in fact, remains one of the few students who ever made Mrs. Emmons cry. When I arrived in Latin class my freshman year, she said, “You’re Ted Campbell’s brother, right?” and smiled broadly. Then, she thought a second and said, “and Mark’s brother, too?” I said yes to both, and she told me to move to my new seat: front row, immediately in front of her desk, where she could, as she so politely put it, “keep an eye on me.”
We learned basic Latin, but she also had a fun side: we learned Latin version of football cheers, for example, and we sang Latin carols at Christmas. We had a Latin Club that attended the state Junior Classical League conventions. I took a first place in Roman History my senior year, and fellow students won the slogan/bumper sticker competition (“I’m a Latin lover”). We also got extra credit for translating things into Latin; my everlasting fame came with my version of the Oscar Mayer bologna song (click the audio player to hear it):
mi bolognae habet nomen, est O-S-C-A-R
mi bolognae habet cognomen, est M-A-I-E-R
amo edire id omnes die, si quaeres mi cur dices,
“ob Oscar Maier habet via B-O-L-O-G-N-I-S!"
My four years of Latin in high school were followed by two more years in college, and I can still, on occasion, understand the inscriptions on court houses and funeral memorials.
Requiescat in pacem, Magistra
I have to admit some surprise that she was still around; when we were in high school, we were convinced that she had been a native Latin speaker. ↩︎