Monday, March 15, 2010

Robert Mitchell, RIP (May 27, 2009)

You may never have heard of Robert Mitchell. But it doesn’t matter. This account of him, written by one of his students, places him in that instantly recognisable band of wonderful, slightly wacky Latin teachers, who inspired so many of us with our enduring love of Latin.

by Esther Mobley
Newton North ‘07

The loss of Robert Mitchell on Wednesday is more than the loss of a beloved teacher and friend: it is the loss of a member of an endangered species.

Mr. Mitchell was a Latin teacher at Newton North for the last twenty years. His history prior to that is a mystery. Whenever we asked, hungry for a personal anecdote, about his childhood, he would tell us, “I was never a child.” And indeed this was not hard to believe. Mr. Mitchell, it always seemed, was somehow super-human. He claimed to read a book, an average of three hundred pages, every day. The human brain, he always said, can’t really retain more than twenty-two languages – and that’s how many he knew. On one particularly energetic day, upon learning that none of us had ever read Chaucer, without which English literature is meaningless, he said, he gave us a beginning lesson in Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Mitchell woke up every morning and swam three miles, then ran six more. We learned of his exercise regimen on our very first day of class, when he hurried into the classroom five minutes late, drenched in sweat from his head to his feet (on which he refused to ever wear socks), panting and out of breath. We waited for an explanation for his appearance, an apology for his tardiness, but instead he began: “My favorite authors are Herodotus and Dickens.”

Once a student casually asked him if there was a translation of the Gettysburg Address in Latin. There was not, and so Mr. Mitchell came into school at six o’clock the next morning and translated it himself, from memory, unaided by any dictionary, within a matter of hours. He filled Room 318’s two wall-length chalkboards in his narrow, near-unintelligible calligraphy.

He realized, more completely than any I have ever witnessed, the Juvenalian formulation of mens sana in corpore sano.

In reality, Mr. Mitchell was not super-human, but rather one of the few surviving members of an ancient species, the Romans. What other type of human being achieves his level of discipline, bodily and mental, for free? The rest of us always seem to be working for pay, or at least nominal recognition. But Mr. Mitchell was born with an inborn sense of pietas, in the Virgilian sense of the word. Pietas can’t be translated as piety; it’s more than that. It’s an absolute devotion to deity, to duty, to discipline for the sake of discipline. He was a mystery to us not only because of his refusal to divulge any details about his personal life, but also because the pietas that governed his words and deeds is absolutely foreign to our modern American consciousness. This exotic quality made us infinitely curious about him: his insistence that he was never a child sent us on a desperate search for evidence of his childhood.

I asked him once why he never married. The answer, essentially, was that pietas was more important than marriage. He told me that he had had several proposals, but that he could never be eternally bound to another person. He reminded me that Aeneas, the archetype of pietas, sacrifices his own happiness for duty when he abandons Dido in Book IV of the Aeneid. Aeneas can’t get married and hang around in Carthage; he has to go found Rome. In a sense, it was Mr. Mitchell’s lifelong endeavor to be a custodian of the civilization that Pius Aeneas founded: with every word he spoke, he was trying to keep alive a tradition whose death in our modern world is imminent. The eulogy for the Latin language – not as the Roman Catholic Church speaks it but as the ancient Romans wrote it – has already been written. Were it not for people like Mr. Mitchell, Latin could die within a generation.

He left school a few months ago to begin treatment for melanoma. None of his students knew that he was leaving until he had already left. On his last day of class, there was no mention of himself or of his condition; the subject was Latin, and he assigned his students thirty lines of translation for the next day. Now it is up to those who knew Mr. Mitchell, and those to whom he gave the invaluable gift of his knowledge and presence, to commemorate him as he would not commemorate himself.

Accipe fraterno multa manantia fletu, / Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Esther Mobley graduated from Newton North in 2007, and in the fall will be a junior at Smith College. This summer she is an editorial intern with the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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