Semper tinnitus

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange fondly remembers a former colleague, a teacher who raised the game of everyone around her.

(Lange) It was December 1962. It was my first year of teaching; we were living on the west shore of Lake Champlain in our first decent housing since our marriage. It’s amazing what you could do then on $4750 a year!

There was snow on the ground outside, the temperature below freezing. Just after supper we heard noises in the front yard. We opened the front door. About a dozen students, muffled against the cold, holding flashlights, sang strange words to a familiar song:

“Tinnitus, tinnitus, semper tinnitus. “

It was the Latin Club, caroling in a language that predates Christmas by several centuries. At on end of the line, in skirt, overcoat, and galoshes, stood their teacher, Mrs. Booth. It was our introduction to a school tradition decades old: caroling at the teachers’ houses each Christmas.

Benny Booth was a teacher down to her toes. A Vermonter and Middlebury graduate, she’d begun teaching in the Adirondacks at a school where her father had been (as they called principals then) “professor.” Married but childless, she threw all her energy into eighth-grade English and high school Latin.

I remember being impressed, as I taught my ninth grade classes, at the kids’ confidence in spelling, grammar, and writing. Nobody misspelled height or leisure. Where had they learned that, I asked. “Mrs. Booth!” they cried. Clearly Mrs. Booth was making my job easier. Not only that, but the kids were enthusiastic, as well. I felt an obligation not to screw that up.

She wrote letters in verse. Here’s part of an invitation to her students to an end-of-summer party:

“As the wires hum, please say you’ll come
To our lakeshore hacienda.
One more fling, ere school bells ring
And now this is the enda.”

Her preparation for classes was legendary. There’d be a verse emphasizing some point of grammar, or a story to help spell a tricky word: “Pa was a rat, so he and Ma separated. There’s always a rat in separation.” Instead of hanging out in the teachers’ room during her free period, she tutored whoever she felt needed it.

But it was her Latin club that got the attention. Wearing blue-trimmed togas over their clothes, they were pretty visible. They held toga parties – quite different from the ones in Animal House – and conversed as much as possible in Latin.

Now and then she’d ask me how some student was doing. She knew she’d passed me a good kid and wanted assurance he or she was being handled right. She raised the game of everybody around her. Here’s her last clue to a treasure hunt:

“Find a window large and wide.
Don’t go indoors; stay outside.
Then a ladder you will see.
Climb it quickly, and there will be
The prize of prizes! The chase is done.
I hope you’ve had a lot of fun.”

I’m sure she’s running treasure hunts in Heaven. But she was the real treasure. This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and sometimes I wish… ah, never mind.

Willem Lange is a writer and contractor in Etna, New Hampshire.

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