Thank you, Mrs. Duncan

veni vidi viciThis morning, while sitting at a red stoplight waiting for it to turn green, I stole a quick glance to my right. A largish commercial panel truck had pulled into the lane beside me and I was curious to discover the nature of its business.

I mean, what else do you do while you’re sitting at a stoplight?

The sign on the side of the truck read, “Steller Landscaping, Inc.” and then provided a short description of their services, a phone number, and a web address where I could find out more, had I been inclined.

“Steller,” I thought to myself, was probably the last name of one of the owners of the company.

But then… since it was a rather long light and I had nothing better to do… I did some additional pondering. I thought, “You know… if they just changed one letter of their company’s name, they could be STELLAR Landscaping. Then they could bill themselves as THE STARS OF THE YARD!”
And then – mercifully – the light turned green. I got back to the business of driving and forgot all about trying to help Mr. Steller market his landscaping company.

It was only much later that I realized I owed a huge debt of gratitude to Mrs. Helen Duncan for that little stoplight epiphany.

Mrs. Duncan, you see, was my eighth grade Latin teacher. Helen Duncan… all 4 feet 10.5 inches of her… was the spritely little lady who worked her fingers to the bone every day to try and transmit a tiny spark of her limitless passion for the Latin language into her sullen eighth grade charges. Meanwhile we students did everything in our power to resist her beckonings and pleadings… content just to pass the tests and move on with our lives.

It was in Mrs. Duncan’s class where I first learned that the Latin word stella meant “star.” I also learned that it was the root word in the word “constellation,” and that when you call something stellar you are saying it is “star-like.”

And then I began to think about similar linguistic tid-bits that have stuck with me through the years… most of which can probably be traced back to Mrs. Duncan’s eighth grade Latin class. I can tell you – with nary a glace at the Etymology On-Line Dictionary – that the word “doxology,” for example, means “praise words.” I can also tell you that when we call something “dilapidated,” we are basing that on the Latin word lapis (stone) to say that it is in a state of being “de-stoned.”

And on and on… ad infinitum. Which, incidentally, is Latin for “to infinity.”

Today I like to think of myself as something of a word-lover. I love exploring their meaning, seeing the way they unlock new mysteries and create others. I am endlessly fascinated at the power of words to persuade and to change hearts and minds. And it may not be too far-fetched to say that my choice of profession (United Methodist pastor) is fundamentally derived from this love of words.

And it is also entirely possible that I have Mrs. Helen Duncan to thank for all of that.

Sadly, however, it is too late for me to thank her face-to-face. She died in 1988 after a long and happy life imparting her singular passion for a dead language to reluctant middle-schoolers.

And so as I look out and see parents all around me sending their children off for a first day of school, I bow and say a prayer of gratitude for the teachers who will be receiving those children. I know they will encounter all manner of obstacles and challenges as they pour passion, knowledge, insight, and humor into the young brains assembled there before them. I know that many will complete their first day and first week utterly exhausted… wondering how they will make it through the year (forgetting, of course, that they just had three months of vacation!)… questioning whether they are making any difference whatsoever.

And so while I cannot say thank you to Mrs. Duncan anymore, let me say “thank you” to the men and women who are teaching my grandchildren, your children, and all the children of the world today.

Your work changes lives in ways you may not ever realize.

You are a blessing.

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