“I can see you thinking”: an Open Letter to my Teachers and Mentors, part 2

“I can see you thinking,” Mr Geiss would say as I reached to the back of my brain for Latin vocabulary translations. Flavia et Cornelia were doing something along the Appian Way, maybe hanging out with Sextus while their Dad Cornelius was in the Senate debating some Romans. I don’t remember much about 4th declension nouns or the laundry list of vocab words that he would make me memorize from our text, Ecce Romani, but I do remember the long walk through the hallway of pubescent 7th grade boys in my Catholic school uniform. The only 13 year old girl amongst a sea of hormones, fart jokes and strange games involving hitting ping pong balls as hard as possible at each other. Welts are not attractive, boys.

The summer after 6th grade, my mom enrolled me in summer school for Latin at a private boys’ middle and high school that should have been a boarding school on the east coast. It was like Dead Poets Society minus Robin Williams and plus a Benedictine Monastery. My mom said it would improve my SAT scores. I showed up to class with the boys who’d failed it the year before. I was a nerd. I don’t remember ever getting less than a B on anything at that point. I did my homework on time — in the summer, when it wasn’t required. These guys talked about prank calling other girls and tee-peeing their houses. Eventually they’d start prank calling me (because in the mid 90s my phone number was in the white pages; I certainly didn’t give it out) and saying grotesque things as boys that age do. My dad had to call their parents to stop it. I don’t know if the calls or jeers in class the next day were worse.

Once summer bled into the school year, my mom made arrangements for me to continue taking Latin once a week with Mr Geiss. My mom would pick me up after school and drive me to the boys’ middle school. They had extended days with PE in the middle of the day so they were in classes until about 5pm. Joy for me.

I’d meet Mr Geiss in a small conference room that was usually used for detention or other punishments. It was about halfway down the long corridor of the middle school. I’d always pray that the boys were in class when I arrived. Sometimes, if we were running late, I’d hit the bell and crossover between classes. The raging hormones would fly out of classrooms, doors slamming, and a wave of heat and stink would come over me. It all seemed quite the juxtaposition with them in their blazers, khakis and ties.

Mr Geiss would usher me quickly into our room and would take a few moments to get settled in. Usually I was still hyped up from school. We’d take a few deep breaths and get focused. We’d start with vocab recall. “I can see you thinking, I know it’s in there, he’d coach. Then I couldn’t remember the translation for loquor, one of the most basic words in Latin.

“Are you a loquacious girl, Elizabeth?” Mr Geiss would ask, hopeful this would spark my memory.

It seldom did. More often, I would breakdown crying out of frustration and intense anxiety for getting things wrong. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t always prepared with my homework. I was in other accelerated classes with lots of homework, playing tennis competitively in the evenings and weekends and trying to keep the peace in the house while my mom was very ill. I usually made lunches or got the Cub Scout uniform ready for my younger brother each night.

I regret never having the opportunity to tell Mr Geiss how much he helped me through the most difficult time in my life. It was middle school, which is already awful for any child (God help me when my boys get there), but I was also trying to cope with my mom’s severe illness, the death of my (step) brother’s mother, and the aggressive cancer that was taking my counselor, Mrs Rose, from me simultaneously.

I’m not sure if Latin helped my SAT scores, but my mom was right. “The discipline will make you stronger” she’d advise. Indeed, showing up every week for my session with Mr Geiss saved my life.

Rest in peace, Mr Geiss. And thank you from my innermost being.