Miss Lang as teacher (Talk given at the Bryn Mawr memorial service for Mabel Lang, 3 April 2011, by Eleanor Dickey)

Posted April 14th, 2011 at 9:28 am.

Miss Lang was an amazing teacher. In fact, Miss Lang was the most amazing teacher I’ve ever known. I don’t say this lightly. After all, I went to Bryn Mawr, which is full of amazing teachers. And then I went to Oxford, where amazing teachers are not exactly rare, and since then I’ve been at a range of universities all of which have had at least some amazing teachers. But not one of them is the equal of Miss Lang.

That’s not just my opinion. Miss Lang had a cult status among Bryn Mawr students that I’ve never seen the like of. She was the living embodiment of all that our college stood for, and our nickname for her was Athena. It wasn’t just the students who took Greek who worshipped her; practically everyone on campus, that is at any one time about a thousand students who had never taken a course with her at all, knew that she was amazing. And they knew that if ever they had the courage to take a course from her, it would be the ultimate Bryn Mawr experience. Those of us who did have that courage often became addicts very fast. I took Baby Greek in my freshman year, and after that I couldn’t let a semester go by without a course taught by Miss Lang — if she wasn’t teaching one at my level, I always audited one at another level. When I was choosing a supervisor for graduate work at Oxford, I consulted Miss Lang about the Oxford Classicists. I asked her what each one was like until I got to one where she paused and said ‘She’s like me’. That’s the one I picked, of course, and she was a terrific supervisor, though not quite in Miss Lang’s class.

People who missed out on the Lang experience often ask me to explain HOW Miss Lang was such an amazing teacher. What did she do to inspire that devotion? It’s not an easy question to answer. On the face of it, her strategy was to assign an impossible amount of work and terrify the students into doing it. That doesn’t look like a recipe for success, and from anyone else it wouldn’t be. There has to be something else, and to be honest I haven’t managed to understand it 100%, because in two decades of trying to re-create the Lang experience for my own students, I haven’t quite managed it yet. But I think I’ve understood what the key is, and that key is respect. Miss Lang had respect for her students.

In a set of instructions for Wardens that Miss Lang wrote at the beginning of her teaching career she stated that one should always show students respect and never condescend, even when dealing with unimportant problems. That’s a principle she fulfilled absolutely as a teacher. Not in a superficial way, of course; after all she terrified us, she told us we were wrong, she told us we were worse than any other Baby Greek class in the last 40 years, and she frequently told us to shut up in so many words. Her respect for us was shown by really caring about us as people, and by believing absolutely in our abilities. She thought we were all her equals, and she expressed that not by trying to be chummy with us, but in ways that mattered far more: she never dismissed our problems as trivial, even when actually they were trivial, and on the rare occasions when she goofed up she always apologized frankly and sorted things out. Our lives were just as important to her as her own, and there was no effort she would not go to to help us. And I mean NO effort: she gave students substantial sums of money, she gave them her own possessions, and she gave her time so unstintingly that she had nothing left for herself, because she didn’t really have the concept of a self that was distinct from, and more worthy of her attention than, her students’ lives. Of course this side of her character was most apparent outside class, but I think it was also the foundation of her teaching style. Miss Lang’s idea of a great course was one in which she was challenged and she learned a lot, and naturally she expected that we all felt the same way and that we were all as smart as she was, so she gave us courses that were challenging to someone of her intellect. And then if we had trouble, she never thought that we might just not be up to it, because she had infinite respect for our abilities. She just figured that we weren’t trying hard enough, and gave us some, ah, encouragement to do more. Now frankly most of us probably were not as smart as Miss Lang. Certainly I’m not. But when someone you trust has that kind of faith in you, you live up to it, and you do the work, even if it takes you 20 hours to prepare for each class, which to be honest is what her graduate seminar took me. I didn’t think I could do that, but she knew I could, so I did it. And then of course once you’ve discovered what you can do, you realize that you can apply those new-found abilities to everything, and all of a sudden all sorts of things that used to be impossible become possible. If you can get through one of Miss Lang’s Greek classes, you know that with a similar level of strategic planning, determination, and hard work you can write a book, you can survive in the wilderness, you can save a historic house from demolition, you can fix the plumbing, you can win an election, you can run your own business — whatever you want to do. In fact all that will probably be easier than the Greek was. The fact is that by believing in our abilities so firmly Miss Lang caused us to have those abilities in the rest of our lives, and that is the most amazing gift that a teacher can offer.

There are about a thousand of us out there who learned our first Greek from Miss Lang, and many more who took other courses from her. Some of us have continued in the field and are aware every day how much we owe her for the solid foundation of knowledge she gave us. Many others haven’t continued as Classicists and don’t remember their Greek, but I’m sure they all remember Miss Lang vividly, affectionately, and still with a tinge of terror. Some are my friends who can’t be here now, and they have sent me a message to give today. They want, and I want, to say thank you to Miss Lang. Thank you for teaching us so well. Thank you for being such an inspiration and helping us discover abilities we didn’t know we had. And above all, thank you for caring about us and believing in us and making us into who we are now. Miss Lang, we will none of us ever forget you.

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