My Latin Teacher: In Memoriam

I learned this weekend that James Gallagher, the man who introduced me to Classical literature and consequently influenced the entire course of my subsequent life, has died. Recently, the hashtag #MyLatinTeacher experienced a brief bout of popularity, emphasizing the reverence which we (justly) feel for those who first expose us to the wonders of antiquity. I myself did not contribute to the broader conversation online, and blithely assumed that he knew what an impact he had had on me, and was in any event unlikely to use Twitter. Yet, the news of his death made me reflect more deeply on this subject, and I realize that he likely never knew how much that first Classical Literature survey course really affected me.

It would be dishonest of me, and indeed it would be a form of dishonor to his memory, were I to claim that he was one of the best teachers I ever had. Yet, perhaps we put too high a premium on pedagogical excellence in and of itself. Some of the finest teachers I have known have served as exempla for how it’s done in the classroom, yet I would be wholly unable to identify any ways in which these models of educational excellence have affected my life. Dr. Gallagher was not, as far as I could tell, in any sense a man of the academy, as traditionally understood. I think that he had published a few things here and there, but I got the strong sense that he was primarily devoted to his teaching, not out of a sense of duty to the field, but because of the personal pleasure which it afforded him. In fact, I recall now that he told me that he found the prospect of retirement unappealing, and would love to teach until the end of his life; in the event, that is exactly what happened.

His influence over my life was, at root, the effect of pure chance. In the fall of 2004, I was trying to finish clearing out the remaining “core curriculum” requirements for my degree plan, and had resolved to take Astronomy; yet, when I arrived at the campus bookstore, I was dismayed to learn that the textbook for an introductory survey course in astronomy would cost more than $300, at a time when I was, as is often the case with students, not blessed with any sort of pecuniary abundance. Nearby, however, I saw a collection of four books totaling $45; these were for a Classical Literature class which was scheduled at the same time as Astronomy, and which would fill the core Literature requirement. I dropped Astronomy, signed up for Classical Literature, and the rest, as they say, etc. etc.

On the first day of class, I was simultaneously astounded and amused by a silver-haired professor who walked in wearing a felt hat and a bolo tie, while sporting a pony-tail and the most fantastic sideburns I had ever seen; indeed, they would easily put to shame even the most substantial Victorian mutton chops. He told us that he expected that within two weeks, a majority of the students in the room would have dropped the course from the mixed influences of terror and idleness. This prediction was born out, in large part due to the furious pace which he maintained throughout the course. We first read the Odyssey, a work which (in my state of uneducated barbarity) I had never even attempted to read.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

My life was changed forever, and I have subsequently atoned for my neglect of this work in early life by frequent re-reading over the past twelve years. Indeed, my own students now consider me hopelessly cheesy and outmoded in my tastes when they ask me what one book I would want on a desert island, and I respond by telling them that Homer’s Odyssey would be my likely choice. From Homer, we went through a survey of Hesiod, the archaic poets, Greek tragedy, Herodotus, and Thucydides; we then moved on to a study of Latin authors, yet for all of my subsequent interest in Latin, my recollection of this is much more dim. I remember a bit of Horace and maybe some Livy; in truth, the only thing on that Latin side which I remember clearly and distinctly was Sallust, whom I instantly loved. Our survey of Latin ended, finally, with Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, which struck me as a surprising and bizarre work of genius in its own right. At the end of the course, I was convinced that Classics had everything. We had talked and read about poetry, love, art, history, politics, science, mathematics, life, death, loss of faith, startling religious conversion, sex, scatological humor, and countless other things.

Dr. Gallagher’s lecturing style was, as several students noted, often punctuated by a series of long and rather loud “uuuuhhhh”s. This is the sort of mannerism which students pick up on and imitate as a mark of high affection, rather than disrespect, and I occasionally catch myself slipping into this habit in my own teaching. His other rather pronounced habit in the classroom was that of explicitly noting when he was joking. He would often make some wildly outlandish remark in jest, but he was not blessed with the sort of students who could readily detect or appreciate irony, and so he would often add, “In case you couldn’t tell, I was being facetious!” The addendum to this remark, conveyed by his eyes and not his words, was, “…you fucking blockheads!” For all of the appearance of being a cantankerous old man, he was nevertheless the first and only professor whom I ever met who had all of his lectures filmed and immediately available online for those students who “missed class.” I thought at the time that this was an exceptionally gracious concession to the more indolent elements of the student body, and only recently realized that the deeper motivation for this was to keep the clowns out of the classroom. It worked, to be sure. The students who actually attended class every day had generally read the text assigned and were willing to discuss it; test days usually saw the class swell to twice its usual size. Yet, when those same students who regularly skipped class failed exams, he could easily ask, “Well, did you watch the lectures? Did you read the texts?” It is only now, having become a teacher myself, that I can truly appreciate this deep and crafty piece of policy. To be sure, it was also a useful aid for those of us who had an occasional lapse in our notes!

Today, I myself am a Latin teacher, and my frequent contribution to this website would suggest that I spend much of my time outside of the classroom wrapped up in the general nexus of Classical Literature. Most of the working moments of my day owe their character to Dr. Gallagher; my whole life is intimately bound up in the subject which he introduced me to. Now he is gone. I have not kept in touch with most of my college friends, so I know no one else who shares my memories of him. Joel informed me of his death, but knew him in an entirely different capacity. It makes clear that the memory of those afternoons spent with him, in my first eager enthusiasm for the Classics, is just that – a memory. I hope that my recollection of Dr. Gallagher and the heady enthusiasm of those days does not fade, but I know that it must. Until I received the news, I had not realized that it had been twelve years since that first day of my intellectual odyssey. Those were, in their way, some of the most innocently happy moments of my life, but as Heraclitus notes,

ποταμῶι γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐμβῆναι δὶς τῶι αὐτῶι
One cannot step into the same river twice.

The last time we spoke, I had no reason to suspect that I would never speak to him again. It confirms that the Greek notion of τύχη dictating the course of human affairs is entirely correct: it was blind chance which led me to Dr. Gallagher’s class. I was almost scared off by his dire warnings at the beginning of the course. Yet, even though I had other teachers after him, he claims primacy of place in that he made me love Classics. I wish that I had thanked him for it.

vita ipsa, qua fruimur, brevis est
The life which we enjoy is short.

7 thoughts on “My Latin Teacher: In Memoriam

  1. Be of good cheer. Through you, Dr Gallagher’s work continues to touch the lives of new people. Many of your readers I am sure feel as I do that life would be intolerable without one’s daily dollop of Sententiae Antiquae. All best for 2017, Indra

  2. Erik – what a lovely and moving tribute. It illustrates how we often never know our impact on others. I still have tears in my eyes.

  3. A beautiful tribute to an unquestioned giant of the profession. Very powerful stuff, much of which I recognise from being inspired myself to become a Classics teacher.

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