Jan Trembley (editor, Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin)

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 8:41 am.

Psammites

Mabel L. Lang: The Sand Reckoner

I got to know Mabel L. Lang as a co-worker and conspirator of sorts the summer after my sophomore year, 1973. I was 19 and didn’t grasp her stature as a scholar enough to be intimidated or deferential; I simply spoke to her as if she were a peer. This audacity must have amused her and at the same time appealed to her humility. We were both country girls who loved animals and were drawn to Art.

I had taught myself some Greek in high school and bought a copy of Goodwin’s grammar on my first visit to Bryn Mawr, but for my freshman year I decided to start German instead and continue with Latin. The College Guide entry on Bryn Mawr had described “a female professor” who knit while using an abacus and deciphering Linear B. I passed this “Miss Lang” occasionally in Classics corridor of Thomas on visits to Mrs. Michels’ office and saw her walking across campus in her signature sneakers or sandals and pastel skirts. Other students spoke of the terror of being called on in “Baby Greek.” I saw on display the striped socks with Greek words that she knit for “the boys,” Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Dickerson. I heard that she had gone for rides on the back of a motorcycle and that she was a menace behind the wheel of her champagne-colored Mustang, having taken up motoring a bit late in life. Still, she seemed to me a fairly tame apparition.

In the summer of 1972, I got a year-round work/study job as editorial assistant in the Office of Public Information. Drafts and corrections went back and forth for press releases, the course catalogue, Bryn Mawr Now, and materials for a fund-raising campaign; my encounters with administrators and faculty were much less formal than in the classroom, where we were still addressed as “Miss.” Mabel was in the office frequently for one project or another. Public Information Director Michelle Osborne, extroverted and exuberant, was her great admirer, taking her classes in history and mythology.

Mabel and I teamed up to create a pamphlet on classics and archaeology at Bryn Mawr, one of a series being produced by Public Information for Admissions. Mabel wrote the copy, which we typed out in columns on her tiny field typewriter. Using the format of her Agora picture books, we pasted up a dummy on cream paper with my mockups in watercolor and ink of murals, vase paintings, statues and inscriptions. We planned and reviewed our work in the cool of her office or on the circular bench around the big tree in front of Thomas. When I finally got to Greece eight years later, I remembered the smell of the dust on our sandals, the shrilling cicadas and the heat of July and August. We were both crushed when our superiors found our efforts a little too “cutesie,” but we defended them, and the final publication reflected most of our original work.

After taking Greek philosophy in the second semester of my sophomore year, I was anxious to catch up in Greek, and with the encouragement of the instructor, John Mulhern, determined to work my way through Fobes’ Philosophical Greek over the summer. I don’t now recall how Mabel was brought into the project, but she agreed to correct my work, and Chase and Phillips was added. That summer, my father, who worked on the other side of town, dropped me off on campus before 7 a.m. I would go to Thomas Great Hall, study my lessons for the day and write out exercises or translations until reporting for work on third floor of Taylor. During my lunch hour, I went to Mabel’s office, and we would discuss the exercises she had corrected and do sight translations from the New Testament. “Do you even know what you’re reading?” she snapped, when I translated that St. John was dressed in “chameleon skin” rather than “camel hair.” But she was patient and encouraging, and by the end of the summer, we had read the Apology, Crito, and some Herodotus. The farther along I got, the more exhilarated I became and pushed myself harder. Later, I took a dark view of this, wondering if I had done it for praise, taking on the subject that was Bryn Mawr’s Holy Grail for so many. Now I don’t think so at all. I received a precious gift, and once I became a teacher myself, I understood the joy of having an eager and able student.

Mabel was a fountain of erudite and hilarious “ditties” with forced rhymes and meter for roasts and gifts and Faculty Shows. I began to understand these and the goofy knitting projects. She would not humiliate herself by attempting creative profundity, setting herself up instead to amuse. In her scholarship, she stuck to the facts. And yet, it is in her teaching and writing that, Hermes-like, she created Panofsky’s “infinitesimal calculus,” integrating the measure and mystery of a past time. There is a Greek Tea poster of a pair of yellow rubber boots with rainbow wings on the ankles. That was Mabel.

In her 2003 presentation to emeritus faculty on Taylor Hall, I believe that Mabel unwittingly described herself: “truly protean despite its staid stateliness,” “an ‘off with the old and on with the new’ kind of abandon somewhat at odds with its stern profile.” And her presentation for the same group on Faculty Shows: “what good sports … we were and how much fun we all had together.” says it all. Thank you, Mabel.

Filed under: Uncategorized by Languages

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