She's the queen of conjugation, the doyenne of declension, the goddess of grammar.
She's the lady of Latin.
She's Betty Merrill.
With her yardstick scepter and assistance from The Fates, she has been ruling the roost in Latin classes for 35 years now, bestowing gifts from the ancient world on hundreds of adoring high school students.
Some say she's the reason the Roman poet Horace coined the phrase "carpe diem."
Seize the day she does, every single day, for she believes every minute, every second, every verb, every noun, every lanky boy and every giggly girl count in the magnum opus of her life--drilling Latin into the brains of teenagers.
"They don't know it, but Latin's gonna save the world," she declares.
Alas, even queens must retire, and so it is with Betty Merrill. Last week at the city's James Monroe High School, she gave her last exam to weary fifth-years reading Catullus, to bleary-eyed translators of Cicero, and to shell-shocked grammarians of Latin II.
She transformed her final class of fresh-faced first-years into budding scholars with a new appreciation for a foreign language and a better understanding of the language they speak every day.
It's been a bittersweet year in Room 111 at James Monroe High School, where Merrill has reigned supreme for the past 17 years. Come September, one of her former students at JM will take up Merrill's yardstick scepter to become the new Latin teacher.
David Blosser says he's honored--but awed--to be following in her path.
"She inspired me with her enthusiasm, and I majored in classics and became a Latin teacher because of her. Those are pretty big shoes to fill."
Indeed they are. Merrill's students consistently rank at or near the top on state and national Latin exams, and this year marked the 11th out of the past 13 years that the program was awarded the plaque for being first place in the state by the Classical Association of Virginia.
On the National Latin Exam this year, 77 of her 85 students received scores placing them in the top two categories: summa cum laude and maxima cum laude. On the state exam, 10 students won first-, second-, or third-place awards.
Students, colleagues, and parents say the success stems from Merrill's high expectations and rigorous--even relentless--approach.
She starts teaching before the bell rings, teaches through announcements over the loudspeaker, teaches into the sound of the ringing bell between classes.
"Keep your seats," she says if she isn't quite finished when the bell rings.
She gives daily quizzes--yes, daily quizzes, the thought of which sends Latin I students into fits of anxiety till they get used to them and realize the quizzes simply reinforce what they learned the day before.
She thinks nothing of assigning third-year Cicero students 20 or 30 lines of translation a night, consigning them to two or three hours of homework in her class alone.
She gives homework on weekends and holidays, and you'd better get it done before class because she might call on you for an oral translation. And nobody wants to flub a translation and disappoint Mrs. Merrill.
Latin is anything but dead in Merrill's classes. She's a serious taskmistress, but she also makes learning fun.
"The Fates" actually choose students to perform orally in class, she says.
They're her index cards, one for each student in class, which she shuffles in preparation for random selection of students to translate a sentence or line or two of poetry.
But as the ruler of Room 111, she has been known to intervene with The Fates, causing The Fates to require the perpetrator of some act of mischief to translate an entire passage, while his fellow students giggle in the background.
As her students have come to know, Merrill doesn't leave anything to chance. She gladly chose a windowless classroom at JM to minimize distractions.
Inside Room 111, it never rains, it never snows, and nothing ever happens to draw students' eyes away from her performance at the head of the room.
But she knows that sometimes kids tune out, and she's ready for that, too.
She's covered the walls with artwork and calligraphy, there's a timeline of Roman history around the ceiling, a mural of Olympic gods on the back wall, Latin expressions all over the place.
"They might as well have something they can look at and learn from when they tune me out," she says. [more]