Plato Center, Illinois and the Story of Miss Lydia Jean Stafney The story goes that Plato Center, along with other Midwestern towns with ancient honorifics, such as Homer, Cicero, or Vergil, used their names as drawing cards to entice school teachers from the East. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the plains were plowed in northern Illinois, farmers who had moved there needed someone to teach their children the ways of civilization, not merely reading, writing, and arithmetic. So they would build a schoolhouse and advertise back East. But who would want to leave Boston for the plains? Naming someplace Plato Center seemed to be just the ticket to entice a teacher into thinking that here was a citadel of learning after all, amidst the corn and wheat. Respect for ancient Greece or Rome was part and parcel of our heritage from Europe, caught up in an enthusiasm for the ancient world at the time our nation was first founded. As new styles and allegiances brought changes along the coastal cities, that colonial classical heritage still prevailed in the country. To the settlers of the Midwestern plains the American Republic could be seen as just another version of the Roman one, with a need for constant vigilance to avoid yet another great decline. Besides, working in the fields brings you into daily contact with the past, together with a sense that the soil was more fertile once, in some Golden Age of Grain. Today Plato Center is more a memory than a village. The railway shipping dock is weathered bare. The General Store is no longer operating, with its combination of post office and dry goods. But a few old homes remain, along with an old gas station and a new school catering to the local area, growing new homes where once fields were furrowed. Many farms remain. The cemetery is the place to go to see the history of the town. Walking past the tombstones you can date the immigrations of farmers and of merchants, as each tried their luck in turn, with names etched on the stones from successively different countries further east in Europe. Then there are the smaller tombstones, designating the many graves of children, felled in waves by childhood diseases, influenza and diphtheria. Some were old enough to have studied in the now vanished one-room schoolhouse. I expect they learned Latin there, and I wonder who their teacher was. I can imagine some young schoolmaster or schoolmistress from Boston or Philadelphia, thoroughly educated in classical languages, having come by coach and horseback. I can imagine the disappointment that teacher must have felt, discovering the plainness of Plato Center and its isolation from the glory that was Greece and Rome. The only choice such a teacher would have had, in order to continue with her mission, would have been to make that altogether ancient world come alive in Plato Center, like a seed sown in the soil. To succeed at such an effort would also have required her to respect the ways of this new land, just as its people respected her. A century after Latin was first taught in Plato Center, rural high schools across Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa have continued to teach Latin. And going back to the nineteenth century, there have continued to be Latin contests, much like old-fashioned spelling bees, only now pitching little towns against the suburbs and the cities. These small towns still often win, having the most dedicated Latin students. And there was a time when the best Latin teacher in the state of Illinois came from Batavia, some fifteen miles east of Plato Center. "Mica, mica parva stella." Twinkle, twinkle little star. Such was Lydia Jean Stafney's first Latin lesson in the Fall of 1958. She had replaced Miss Prior, who it was rumored had arrived to teach one morning still wearing her nightgown visibly trailing underneath her dress. How sensible it was to wear her nightclothes in the daytime, since she wouldn't have to change into them again at night. That is a sentiment many a worn-out teacher can appreciate, especially in the months of May or June. In rural Batavia, Latin was what you took if you had any ambitions to leave the town and go to college. There were four years offered in the high school: Latin I for grammar, Latin II for Caesar's Gallic Wars, Latin III and IV for Cicero and Vergil, with these last two classes mixed together in one class of five or ten. Now, I grant you, it was a language no one spoke, unless you were a monk, but no one spoke any other foreign tongues in Batavia, except for Swedish and Norwegian, which weren't offered in the schools. French was also given, but girls mostly took it. German had once been taught, until World War I made teaching it subversive. So, there we were in Latin class, assuming everyone in college had to study Latin too. First of all, there were the Adams twins, Art and Andy Adams, students of astonishingly clever intellect. Art now teaches business at the University of Louisville, while Andy finally retired from teaching Latin at Miss Stafney's alma mater. Then, of course, there was Honest Paul, who used to crib on his translations with notes inserted in the pages of his book. One day someone tripped him, as he was getting up in front of class to translate. He dropped his book, and the notes came flying out. Miss Stafney was mystified by his subsequent translation of an altogether different portion of the text, from a page he had hurredly retrieved. We called him Honest Paul thereafter. Since then he made amends and became a devoted social worker. Patty Roets became a clothing designer and Caryl Egerton a police dispatcher and rancher, Rodney Ross an archivist and Ron Leone a chemist. Pat Seaman got her Ph.D. from Texas. Another Latin student, Ralph Beck, ran for mayor of Batavia and later became the city attorney there, while Mary Holman is the one I came across again in Paris, after living in Algeria and then Japan, fluent in French, Japanese, and Arabic. She is now living in Maine, running a Middle Eastern restaurant with her Algerian husband. Terry Klopcic became a nuclear physicist working for the Defense Department. John Elwood became an engineer, subsequently a college teacher, though then all he really cared about was his apiary. I am a philosopher, having engraved myself in Miss Stafney's memory as the only student who ever volunteered to translate every single day. To make a dead language come alive requires co-operation from the students and from circumstance. Miss Stafney put it all together. For one thing there was our local chapter of the Junior Classical League, and our annual "slave auction," where upperclassmen in Latin II or III or IV would bid for freshmen novices to carry around their books, until they would be freed at our annual Spring banquet. By the time I was a senior and had accumulated sufficient capital, I spent it all on the prettiest Latin student in the freshman class. I wound up tutoring her and conjugating verbs for her. She wound up a cheerleader and ditched me for the captain of the wrestling team. But she got an "A" in freshman Latin, something I took pride in, despite a disappointed heart. To earn money for the banquet we hustled every game in town, from serving hot dogs at basketball games to decorating Homecoming floats for hire. We came in plain white togas to the banquet; it was years before designer sheets. And we came as our favorite Latin heroes: the Adams twins came as Rome's founders, Romulus and Rhemus, while I came as Cicero. It was the statewide Latin contests that fundamentally transformed our lives. As athletes trained their bodies, so we trained our minds. Yet the sense of competition was merely the incentive Miss Stafney employed to entice us after school to read books on Roman history and do endless sight translations. At one point we had memorized all the Latin mottos of the various United States, not to mention the first hundred lines of the Aeneid. Soon things escalated among those of us entered in the contests, and over one summer we began to write our own Latin compositions to each other. And as our high school basketball and baseball teams began to go Down State, so we won first place prizes in the district, regional, and statewide Latin contests. Latin prizes were our incentive, but it was what we learned in preparing for the contests that proved so important to our lives. Mental discipline, like physical prowess, only comes with exercise. Just as the aspiring basketball player spends hours every summer shooting baskets on his own, so we spent that same amount of time with vocabulary lists and Latin passages to read. It was also the first experience any of us had had in pure intellectual excitement. Study was no longer something you did for someone else, but something you did because you wanted to. Lydia Jean Stafney taught us that. Except for Kenny Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals and Dan Issel of the NBA, most of Batavia's great athletes never left the town, and the high points of their lives were sometimes over by the time they were eighteen. With Miss Stafney's students it was different. After all, how can you keep them down on the farm, once they've read some Cicero and Vergil and been to ancient Rome, if only in their minds?
More information about text formats