Alexander Pearson (Classics teacher)

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 8:35 am.

Mabel used to wear a hand-knit sweater with a black spider web woven on the front. In the middle of the web was a black spider, and off to the side was a fly. I felt a good deal of solidarity with the fly.

When we read Thucydides’ description of the rebellion against the Athenians on the island of Lesbos, the first thing out of her mouth the next class was, “what are we to think of these revolting Lesbians?” She was not inclined toward humor, so none of us laughed, although if one of us had been reckless enough to let out one single giggle the rest would have fallen in. She would not have joined us.

She talked with me about an article she was submitting to a journal on a very subtle stylistic habit in the Iliad. Not an earth-shattering topic. “I always submit my articles anonymously,” she said; “I don’t want them reading it and saying, ‘ah well, the dear old gal’.” It was published.

While I was writing my master’s thesis with her, she would have me come in once a week and simply read aloud whatever I had written. It took a long time, but, in a way it was very efficient. I got immediate feedback. While writing back at home, I felt I was writing letters to a specific audience and could hear her voice commenting on my work. Writing became a daily habit and came more and more easily. At the end of the exercise, she had already read – or rather listened to – the whole piece, so there were very few revisions. I finished a month early.

A local minister, 40 years Mabel’s junior and quite athletic, approached me at a party and said, “I hear you studied with Mabel Lang.” His eyes grew wide when I said yes. “I’ve hiked in England with her and she’s very hard to keep up with.” I agreed.

To fortify her German, she read German translations of the novels of Jane Austen. Having read them in English over and over in her youth, she had them essentially memorized. She just had to fit the German together into what she already knew were the sentences.

One of my proudest moments was when, in Thucydides class, she handed out an inscription that was missing a fragment. She pointed out that the missing space was about big enough for two letters: “What would they be?” she asked. We were silent, afraid to reveal the shortcomings of our Greek. Then I heard my own voice saying, “an” — the tiny, untranslatable particle with such charming subtlety. She looked about as astonished as I had ever seen her — not very. But she did have to pause if only for a breath at this blink of intelligence from a graduate student. Then she said, “right” and moved on. I felt triumphant.

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