Latin is not dead - in fact, at Greencastle-Antrim High School, an attentive teacher and her overachieving students have expanded the once-struggling course.
When Judy Maxwell, now 63, of Waynesboro was invited to teach Latin 26 years ago, she had only eight students in Latin II and 26 in Latin I.
Today, just months from retirement, Maxwell has nearly 250 students in some level of her Latin courses.
“Latin really isn't dead. If you speak any language, it's embedded into it,” Maxwell said.
Although a challenge, students have discovered Latin improves their English. It also carries into several careers, such as medicine, science and law.
When Elizabeth Cowan told her parents she intended to take the course as a G-AHS freshman, she said, “the entire family tried to talk me out of it.” Now a senior, Cowan is completing her graduation requirements and simultaneously interning for Maxwell.
“This worked out higher than any expectations,” Maxwell said. “Some people are born teachers, and this one is a born teacher.”
A born teacher
As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. According to her students, Maxwell is a born teacher.
Cowan recalls family and friends telling her to steer clear of Latin because it was so difficult. But Maxwell's ability to break down a complex topic to its basic concepts has made the language a popular elective at G-AHS.
Even after 26 years, Maxwell still ponders how she ended up teaching in Greencastle.
She started her career at a school in New Jersey while her husband, attorney LeRoy “Tucker” worked in Philadelphia. Maxwell then worked part-time in Waynesboro. The mother of three boys, she was at home with her children when the Latin and German teacher at G-AHS quit.
“(The school) kept calling me, but I was not ready. I had children,” she said.
After three calls, her husband left a note on the table asking Maxwell to go in and consider it. Maxwell said that was the hook - once you get a teacher in a classroom, they rarely back out.
“I remember to this day accepting the job and thinking, ‘How did I get here?'” she said.
Today, she teaches a Latin course every period of every day for the entire school year. Rows of photos depicting those who completed Latin IV are proudly propped up along the back wall.
Maxwell's retirement announcement came as a surprise to many of her students. She said she hoped to teach “forever,” or at least until one of her students returned to replace her.
She's close - Cowan may still be a high school student, but her internship has her studying directly under the pro.
Truly a student teacher
Cowan is getting an interesting initiation to her teaching career. She is one of the only high schoolers to intern at the school where she's a student.
She said she always intended to pursue teaching in college. But it wasn't until Cowan started to help other Latin students that she realized her calling.
“I picked up on it so easily,” she said. “Mrs. Maxwell would send students to me and they said, ‘You ought to teach it because you understand it so well.'”
Charles Rice administers the high school internship program at G-AHS and has placed about 100 students in jobs this year. Positions include education, construction, manufacturing, retail, police and fire services, health care, communications and government agencies.
To take on student teaching at G-AHS, Cowan and Maxwell had to clear a few additional hurdles. Several confidentiality forms had to be signed because Cowan often was working with student grades while she also was a student.
Maxwell said Cowan's professionalism had underclassmen second-guessing her status.
“Younger ninth- and 10th-graders who don't know the seniors think she's my replacement,” Maxwell said.
“I feel it went well. All the students did a really good job of showing respect,” Cowan added.
A new appreciation
For the first time, Cowan realized just how much happens behind the scenes for teachers. Work extends beyond the typical day and often is taken home, she noted.
Cowan even had the opportunity to teach four days of classes for Maxwell when Maxwell flew out-of-state for the birth of her granddaughter.
“At first I was OK with it. But she handed me the lesson plans and it got a bit daunting when I realized it was entirely in my hands for four days,” Cowan said.
A certified teacher was in the room, but Cowan did the work.
“I realized whenever (Maxwell) left, she was up all hours of the night grading tests and was here until 3:30 p.m. every day making sure she had stuff ready for the next day,” Cowan said. “I can't imagine trying to do that with a husband and family ... it all started to sink in.”
Maxwell enjoys watching Cowan experience those challenges at an early age.
“She's lived with this for a year,” she said. “It was fun for me to see her frustration.”
As part of the internship, Cowan must keep a log of her duties, complete monthly reports, discuss what she's learning and develop a picture portfolio each term with information from the internship.
Cowan said her positive experience also has turned other students on to the internship program. Many juniors have approached her for details.
Latin lives on
Whether people know it or not, Latin is a daily influence in everyday life. About 67 percent of the English language is comprised of Latin words and hundreds of new words have been added.
For example, Maxwell said the word computer is taken from two Latin words meaning “to think with.”
“Latin is good for reasoning and logic,” she said. “It helps memorization skills and is excellent in helping to improve vocabulary and grammar.”
Learning the structure of Latin and its relationship to English helps students write and speak the English language better. Maxwell said any student can learn Latin, it's just a matter of how to teach it. She uses different methods to meet a variety of abilities and basically individualize her teaching.
As Maxwell prepares to retire and spend time “being a mother and a grandmother,” she hopes she left a lasting impression on students.
“I hope they remember me as an ethical person who cared about each individual student's success,” she said. Before each graduation, Maxwell said she asks students to write her after making their first friend and passing their first college exam.
“Last year, everyone did,” she said.
Cowan plans to do so from Gettysburg College, where she will major in Latin and secondary education.
“This is what I wanted to do and I wanted to get into the classroom to see it and feel it for myself,” Cowan said.
“She's so good at it. I can hear myself in her,” Maxwell said with a laugh.