I remember, last summer, looking at my schedule for the Fall ’06 semester and noticing that I had the same teacher for both Survey of English Lit. I and Latin. I admit, I was intimidated. I wanted to take Latin because I thought it was such an interesting thing to know, plus, and I never actually told Dr. Schwebel this, I like writing fantasy stories and I thought Latin would be really, really cool for coming up with magic spells, kind of like what J.K. Rowling does, or even for names of things. Stuff like that. Basically, I wanted to have fun with the language.
But I was scared of having a Latin teacher. In my mind, a Latin teacher would for sure be old and grumpy and particular and it made me nervous that my Latin teacher was going to be my English Lit. teacher, as well. What if I didn’t like her? I’d be stuck with her for two whole classes.
But that was before my first day of school. That was before I met Dr. Schwebel.
Dr. Schwebel was anything but scary. True, her incredible energy for dead languages could be a bit overwhelming at first, but she was filled with this intense excitement to be teaching us that was so, so genuine. I mean, really genuine. I've rarely had a teacher so excited about her own subject before, about having students. Dr. Schwebel was a teacher who yearned to teach. She wanted to share her knowledge which, by the way, was simply overflowing. I mean, one thing was definitely clear from the start – Dr. Schwebel was smart. Brilliant. I’ve rarely had a teacher who amazed me quite as much as Dr. Schwebel did.
Dr. Schwebel was also in the position of being my first ever English Literature professor in college. True, I had had another professor for English Composition the year before, but English Literature was something so different, especially in college. In high school, we basically just read books in English class and spent some time discussing them before moving onto the next book. In college, as Dr. Schwebel taught me (and was then confirmed by my other teachers), you don’t just read books. You learn them. In context. You learn about their authors. You study their time period. What were the people like? What was the government like? How much did religion play a factor? What social class was the author in? Did the author have a love life? Was it a successful love life? (And so often, the answer to that last one was ‘no.’ Weird.) So many things to consider that by the time we were done, I was seeing whatever it was that we were reading in a completely different light. A deeper yet brighter light, if that makes sense.
Of course, we were also all amazed by Dr. Schwebel’s Old and Middle English reading skills. I remember thinking it sounded like a mixture of Dutch and Gaelic – not that I actually know what either of those languages sound like, but hey, that was my first impression. In any case, it made studying Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales much, much more fun. I loved Dr. Schwebel’s fun, witty sum-ups of what the text was actually saying. I loved how she used words like “wonky” and how she called all the really ancient authors, “dead dudes.” She used really fun expressions in general. There was one time where she said, “How’s tricks?” (trix?) and I replied, “Who’s tricks?”
Back to the dead language. Our Latin class started out with four people, including me. After the second day, two people dropped. After the third day, the third person dropped. That fourth morning, I felt a bit ill. I’m very shy and I had no idea what to expect going into class and being the only student there. I wasn’t even sure we were actually having class.
I got there before Dr. Schwebel and sat at my usual seat, smack in the center, one row back from the teacher’s desk (so as not to actually be on top of it). I was nervous and anxious – which is really just me all over. I really wanted to continue learning Latin but I had incredible unease about being the only one.
A few moments later, Dr. Schwebel walked in with all her Latin materials and in her usual cheerful, slightly frazzled manner. I already felt calmer and she hadn’t even said anything yet. I remember thinking: if I’m going to be the only student in a class, I’m glad it’s in this one, with Dr. Schwebel. I just knew, right then, that it wouldn’t be weird. It would be great.
Dr. Schwebel very kindly presented to me my options – she would quite understand if I wanted to drop the class - after all, being the only student is a lot of pressure, but if I wanted, she was more than happy to do an independent study with me. In fact, she said it would be a great opportunity for me to learn one on one, especially Latin which is so hard to begin with. We could go at my pace and work around my schedule. I could tell she wanted to continue teaching me. She wouldn’t just cancel the class even though all her students but one dropped. I had about five seconds to decide. My natural self would have declined, would have shied away from being the only one, from having the spotlight constantly on me, from the pressure of having to do well because I, only I, reflected Dr. Schwebel’s teaching in Latin that semester. And I wanted so badly to do her justice.
But I didn’t shy away. Something in my brain told me, “No, don’t drop this class. This is something that may never happen again. Take a chance. DO IT.” So I did. I said I wanted to continue. Dr. Schwebel grinned, said, “Good. I think this is going to be a great opportunity,” and then started teaching.
I loved being Dr. Schwebel’s only student. I had grown to respect and admire her so much, I thoroughly enjoyed having all her attention during that class time to myself. I guess I was being a bit selfish, but who can blame me? Dr. Schwebel had an energy that infected everyone nearby. It woke me up during her class, even if I’d only had a few hours sleep the night before. And no matter how hard Latin was, no matter how much I complained to my friends afterwards about how Latin was ruling my life, no matter how hard I worked and how often I wondered how much easier school would be if I wasn’t learning an ancient, dead language, I have to say, it was one of my best experiences at Stern. It really, really was.
I remember one time, when I first found out that Harry Potter had been translated into Latin, Dr. Schwebel got excited with me and exclaimed, “I know! Isn’t that neat?” I was just impressed that I was actually talking to one of my professors about Harry Potter. Dr. Schwebel was like that. You could talk to her about anything, really, even if it had nothing to do with class. And we'd sometimes have the silliest debates in class. For instance, one time in English class we were talking about meter in poetry and we got into a debate about the word 'bumblebee' - is it 'BUMBLEbee' or 'bumbleBEE?' Or rather, is it a bee that bumbles or a bumble in bee form? (Personally, I think it's BUMBLEbee, but a nice amount of the class thought it was bumbleBEE). But the best part of that debate was that we were all having a good time. Everyone was having fun - even those who weren't English majors and who probably didn't even like (or didn't think they liked) poetry. They were suddenly getting what it was all about and *gasp* enjoying it, too. Imagine - for some people, for those who hated English and were only taking the class to fulfill the English requirement....poetry? Enjoyable? Dr. Schwebel was excellent at making everything interesting. Even sonnets. Even Latin. Everything. She had a real talent.