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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

In memoriam

July 25th, 2007 (12:30 am)

current mood: pensive

Juanita Ponte, longtime languages teacher at Boston Latin School, dead at age 62

This is hitting me pretty hard. Ms. Ponte was one of my favorite teachers from high school, although there were times back then when you'd never have heard those words pass my lips. It's... well, complicated.

I had Ms. Ponte for three years back at BLS. When I first had her, back in tenth grade non-honors Spanish, I hated her. Ms. Ponte did not have a particularly kind attitude. She was extremely strict and refused to tolerate any behavior that she considered inappropriate, and although that certainly included straight rudeness, it also tended to include students who had been inadvertently inconsiderate or disruptive. She was also an extraordinarily brilliant woman who had little patience for those who weren't as brilliant as she; that's a quality that's better suited to a career teaching at Latin, the premier public exam school in Boston, than it would be to any other public school in Boston, but she still tended to be dismissive and sometimes mocking towards students who didn't catch on quickly. She wasn't a teacher who reached out to struggling students and helped them to achieve; she was a teacher who demanded that they achieve and more or less dismissed them if they didn't. She wasn't going to sit down with you and have a warm discussion about your life and how you could do better in her classes. If you wanted to do better, you needed to do the work. Period. The great majority of students at BLS thought she was a complete bitch, mostly because she seemed to dislike students by default and then later warm to the ones who proved themselves to her. These are not traits that lead to a teacher being well-loved among students, and she wasn't.

The first year I studied with her I initially wanted out of her class, even asked the assistant headmaster, who I was kind of buddy-buddy with, to transfer me out. The assistant headmaster said oh, she's terrible to her students, but she's a very good teacher. She refused to transfer me out. From where I sit now, I'm very glad she refused.

Because I learned in Ms. Ponte's classes. Of all the teachers I ever had, she was the teacher who challenged me the most and taught me the most. That first year, most of the students who were proficient in languages were in the honors class, and she did not like teaching a non-honors class, for reasons that should be clear from the first paragraph. But she taught. Oh boy, did she teach. I have never had a teacher who taught so effectively and so flawlessly. She designed her assignments very carefully to teach all aspects of the language, and it worked. We studied out of the standard text, of course, but the tests she devised were challenging in just the right way: in order to pass those tests, you had to really know the language - no shortcuts, no rote memorization, you had to internalize the material - and if you'd done well on a test, that meant you knew your stuff. We worked beyond the textbook as well: we read from the works of notable Spanish-language authors, provided the language was simple enough for students at our level to grasp. We had monthly oral presentations in which we would find a news story pertaining to a Spanish-speaking country and tell the class about it in Spanish. We did a Spanish-language video presentation. This was all way beyond what most teachers at BLS did. Many, many of the teachers there relied on the fact that their students were smart and were going to do well on all the standardized tests no matter what, and those teachers would cut corners in their teaching. There were some teachers who were creative and some who taught from the textbook and some who didn't teach at all and figured their students would scrape on through. But I never had another teacher who was as good at what she did as Ms. Ponte. The woman taught.

At the end of my first year with her she approached me and asked me to be in her Spanish honors/AP class, a two-year commitment. I accepted. That became the best course I ever took at BLS. We studied Spanish literature by Borges, Lorca, Garcia Marquez, Ana Maria Matute, and Miguel de Unamuno. The authors were selected by the AP curriculum but the rest was up to the teacher. She did a phenomenal job of teaching those authors. She was a brilliant woman who loved Spanish literature, and of all the AP courses I took at BLS that is the only one that I found to be truly college-level - and when I say college-level, I mean that the way she presented the material would not have been amiss at the college I later attended, which was Harvard. I don't know why she ever became a high school teacher when there is no doubt in my mind that she could have been a great college professor, but it was to the gain of her AP students for sure. She was so intellectually involved with the material; her excitement and passion were clear when she'd be delving into some of the finer philosophical points of Borges or Unamuno. She was one of the best poetry teachers I've had in any language. And with the honors class, in a direct 180 from the way she'd been with the non-honors class, she was patient. She'd work with the class until we understood the themes of the work, but she'd never give us an interpretation flat-out; she worked with us to try to help us develop our own perspectives. Given that we were studying authors who are challenging when read in one's native language, teaching them so well was no small feat. I still remember the class she taught on Garcia Marquez's short story "Monologo de Isabel viendo llover en Macondo" (translated in the collection Leaf Storm as "Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo"). In English, it's not one of his better-known short stories - I don't know about in Spanish. But I just remember studying it under her guidance and being drawn into the eerie, compelling atmosphere of the story. I remember her talking at the end of the class about how the story haunted her. I remember being haunted by it too. And, in general, there is no other class from which I have retained so much of the material as I did from that class. There is no other teacher from whom I learned so much. At BLS I studied four languages (including English) under dozens of teachers, and she set the standard that no one else could quite meet.

I warmed to her over the years, as she did towards me. She warmed towards several of the students in the class, really; I wasn't the only one who liked her in that class. Yet she was never going to be a kindly teacher you'd run to in times of trouble: I remember one day I was at the school after hours, and she was working in her classroom, and I had nowhere in particular to go so I asked if I could sit in her classroom until my appointment a little later. I was shocked and hurt by the vehemence with which she said no, absolutely not, there are plenty of unlocked classrooms in this building and you don't need to sit here. Of course I didn't; I just liked her and didn't see the harm. But that wasn't the way she was. Her passion was for the teaching, not for the students. You had to take that for what it was.

I think part of the reason I was drawn to her was her brilliance. Why was she teaching high school? As her obituary notes, she was fluent in four languages. Her intellectual acuity was razor-sharp; she was as brainy as anyone I've met, and I have spent a large portion of my life being overawed by other people's brilliance. And I've always found her fascinating as a woman who made some pretty trailblazing achievements. She was the first female teacher to teach at BLS - it was an all-male school for both students and teachers for a very long time. I can imagine what it must have been like to be the first female to join the old boys' club that Latin School had been, especially given BLS's complacently prideful attitude towards its history and traditions (it's the oldest public school in the country, and it spends a great deal of time telling you how many signers of the Declaration of Independence went there. Got a BFF relationship with Harvard, claims Harvard was founded initially to give BLS students somewhere to go. You get the idea.) I imagine she pissed a lot of people off, because she just did not stand down or give in to anybody when she knew she was right, and she was smart enough that that was most of the time. The obituary gives the teachers' and the administration's perspective n that.

This is getting really long, and I know it's not that interesting. But here's a final thing I want to say, which will sound really bitchy initially, but it ties in to a lot of what I want to say here. Six months ago or so another longtime BLS teacher died, Inez Middleton. Ms. Middleton was a teacher who was beloved by the students. She was the polar opposite of Ms. Ponte (I always found it amusing that their classrooms were directly across the hall from one another): she took the students in as family, listened to their troubles, counseled them. She spent a lot of class time talking about sex and drugs in ways that teens could relate to. And when she died there was a tremendous outpouring of grief from the students: scholarships started in her name, Facebook memorial groups up the wazoo. The only problem with Ms. Middleton is that she didn't teach. I had a lot of issues with Ms. Middleton, which I'm not going to get into because my point here is not to rag on a dead woman who was well-loved by so many people, but here is the one that's relevant here: she did not teach. She didn't read most of the books she assigned (representative question aimed at the class, taken from the unit on Tess of the D'Urbervilles: "So... what do you think, did Tess get raped?" Asked because she sincerely didn't know.) She didn't know her subject and her classes were generally not English classes so much as a free-for-all for students to talk about whatever they wanted to. And that's valuable, I know - many students will testify that she helped them not to slip through the cracks, which is huge and deserving of every word of love and gratitude ever spoken to and of her. But I feel like it's teachers like Ms. Middleton who get all the credit for being good teachers (she'd won tons and tons of teaching awards), because students love those teachers. And Ms. Ponte was not widely loved by her students, and her death is not going to receive the outpouring of grief and heartfelt sentiment that Ms. Middleton's did. And that is what it is. But I wanted to write about Ms. Ponte; I wanted to say the things that are on my mind about this woman who taught me so much and inspired me to delve more deeply into literature and to love the authors she loved. I don't want to idealize her, but I wanted to talk about her. I wanted someone, maybe, to know her as I knew her. Not very well; I never knew her as a woman, only as a teacher. But she was an extraordinary teacher. Although I know this entry will be skimmed by most and dismissed as boring by many others, I really just wanted to say it. She's a teacher who left a deep impression on me and whom I will always remember.

I am feeling very sad right now. I have thought of her so often in the years since I graduated high school - I've never lost the passion for Spanish literature that she instilled in me - that I had more than once considered writing her a letter to tell her what her classes had meant to me, because I suspect she didn't get a lot of letters like that. I never got around to it, and now she's dead. People, if any of you are stalling on doing something like that, please do it now. It really, really sucks to know that I could have written her a letter that would have given her a moment of happiness in the months when she was so ill and that I didn't get around to it. I have had little exposure to death in my life, no one really close to me has died, and this is hitting me hard - the first time I've really experienced the reality that sometimes people die before you get to tell them what they meant to you.

"Rest in peace" seems a terribly facile thing to say. It says in her obituary that she was a devout Catholic. I hope that in death she has found that whatever ultimate meaning she sought in her religion is real and true. I hope... I don't know what I hope. Only, selfishly, that she knew on some level what she'd meant to me and to other students who cared about her. I hope someone else wrote her the letter that I didn't write.


Posted by: Jessica Allan Schmidt (jpallan)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 04:54 am (UTC)

I had a teacher like that who taught me to love math. I'll never forget her. Miss O'Keefe. I have no idea if she's alive or not. This was only twelve years ago, so it may or may not be.

Posted by: Ginger Honey (sweetgingertea)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 06:41 am (UTC)
big damn heroes

I did not know her ever, but by you sharing this I can say I know of her. I think what you wrote here is a great tribute to her.

Posted by: B (goblinpaladin)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 08:02 am (UTC)

Wow. I wish I'd had a teacher like at school. Mine were so ordinary.

I'd send this post to the school, or something. She undoubtedly left friends and family behind who would appreciate this.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 08:23 am (UTC)

I have thought about it, though she seems to have lived a lonely sort of a life - I'd known she never married; from her obit it seems that her closest relatives were her sisters. I was thinking of writing to some of the teachers I knew who were also close to her - there was one teacher I had (Bob Tarpey, mentioned in the article) who was a good friend of hers and kind of worshiped the ground she walked on. I should probably edit out some of the stuff about how everyone thought she was a bitch though. Also the stuff about Ms. Middleton.

(The teachers at BLS were many things, but very few of them were ordinary. That school is full of so much crazy shit, and the teachers are no exception.)

Posted by: Heidi (sioneva)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 08:46 am (UTC)

Thanks for writing this...I have a couple of very special teachers that I've been meaning to write and haven't yet and I'm going to sit down to write them today because of you.

*hugs* I'm sorry you didn't get the chance to tell her how much she meant to you - not getting to say goodbye is one of the hardest things to cope with when people we care about die.

Posted by: Kare Bear (luvs_chicago)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 10:43 am (UTC)
Need a friend

I'm so sorry for your loss, Kylie. I have a feeling that Mrs. Ponce is hearing your words in Heaven, and it's having an amazing effect on her. And you know I'm not just saying that...I really believe in Heaven, and I believe that she knows that you are mourning her now.

I'm glad you had such an amazing teacher.

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 10:44 am (UTC)

Rest in peace, Ms. Ponte.

From the sound of things, she probably didn't need or even necessarily want a letter like that from you - you soaked up what she had to teach in her class and you clearly learned a lot, and that's what she was going for. While she might have apppreciated the letter anyway, I think you can rest assured that she knew precisely how much you got out of that class and that was reward enough.

Oddly enough, I had one teacher like that too, and it was also a Spanish teacher; mine was male, and he was a tiny bit gentler personally than she is described here (and, oh, dear, that's not saying much, deliberately), but he was by far the most demanding and the BEST teacher I ever had. College included. As you say here, being a good *teacher* isn't always about being touchy-feely and nice. It's about pushing the students to the limits of their potential.

(I did write him a letter like that, and I did go back a couple years out of college so that he could see that we were indeed together and happy and I wasn't a mess anymore. It only seemed fair, though, since *he* wrote *me* a glowing recommendation for colleges.)

*hugs* I second the person who says that you've written the most beautiful obituary here, and perhaps the school might like it.

Posted by: John :: Affirming Consequents, Denying Antecedents (idonotlikepeas)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 11:01 am (UTC)

I never had Ms. Ponte, for better or worse.

The teacher that was like this for me was Mr. Ordway. I never did find out what happened to him.

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 11:14 am (UTC)
Little Fairy

Wow. She sounds like a carbon-copy of my French teacher, Elaine Primmer, who, oddly enough, also died at age 62 (though about 7-8 years ago). Wouldn't put up with any crap, the kids for the most part hated her, got my only detention from her, yadda yadda. But I can honestly say I'm fluent in French because of her. She was tough, but cared for us deeply. Every year before the AP exam, she had a pizza study party at her house, that she'd labeled la nuit de torture.

Anyway, didn't mean to hijack.

What I find interesting is that, though I know my subject backwards, forwards and upside-down and I think I do teach it (in calculus you can't really get away with, "So, kids what do you think.....should we let U equal (x³ + 5)?"), I'm very nicey-nice to the kids. I've stopped counting the kids who came out to me before anyone else. It's almost impossible for a brand-new teacher to be completely no-nonsense nowadays; enough kids hate you and you're a goner. We're slowly heading towards a time when GOOD teachers who are that tough will be extinct; I can honestly say that when a brand-new, straight-out-of-college teacher is that tough, they're usually NOT good and usually DON'T cover the subject matter well.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)

I had a teacher just like that, my Latin teacher, whom I had for four years of high school and one year of history. She was the best teacher I ever had, period.

Maybe I'll write her a letter ....

Posted by: Damian (fanboy_of_zeus)
Posted at: July 25th, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)

I had a teacher sort of like that - eleventh grade (non-honors) English. He made the school year an absolute fucking misery, and made every essay I've written since then easier than breathing. It's thanks to him that I can consistently get A's on essays written the morning they were due with practically no effort, and thanks to him that I aced the Writing SAT II. Looking back, he was one of the best teachers I ever had - though I still wish I'd gotten honors credit for that class, because we worked harder than the honors sections did.

Which I say not to hijack the thread onto talking about *my* teacher, but to say that I really do get the sort of impression that that kind of teacher leaves.

Posted by: Kate (sevanetta)
Posted at: July 26th, 2007 03:08 am (UTC)

I can relate. My advanced English teacher died earlier this year, and I found out all these things about her from her obituary that I never ever knew...

It was worse because she was the mother of a good friend at school, and so I was at her house a lot to see him, as well as for study sessions - there were only four in the advanced English class, so we sometimes had classes at her place instead of at school.

Still haven't been able to get in contact with my friend, either. :( I wish I could have gone back to chat with her as an adult; it was due to her class that I learnt about feminism and decided that I was a feminist.

One thing I've done is to re-read a book I studied (and loved) in that class, as a personal memoriam thing. If you don't think she will get many accolades, I'm sure there are other things you could do in her memory... have a think about it.

Oh and as for death - especially people you're close to - I've found that you don't really get over it, but it's more like... you get used to it. Am thinking of you. :)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: August 6th, 2007 09:32 am (UTC)
Ms. Ponte

It's August 6th and I have just found out that Ms. Ponte died. So, of course, I google searched Juanita Ponte and stumbled upon your journal.

Please allow me to share my memories of her with you. I graduated from BLS in 1980, six months before your were born. I was a student in Ms. Ponte's French class for one year, my Junior year. It's now almost 30 years later and she is the ONE teacher from Boston Latin School that I would have most liked to have gone back to visit.

I was a mediocre student. But for some reason Ms. Ponte liked me. She was always willing to help me with French or with any other issue I may have been dealing with.

Anyone who knew Ms. Ponte knows that her body was hunched and twisted from scoliosis. But, at the time, and in my memory now, she is a giant figure. I had tremendous respect for Juanita Ponte.

One last thing, I never knew that she was one of the first female members of the faculty at BLS. That is a tribute to the fact that it was a far lower achievement than being the BEST language teacher at Boston Latin School.

God bless Juanita Ponte and may she rest in peace.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: August 6th, 2007 09:40 am (UTC)
Re: Ms. Ponte

Thanks for commenting. It's really nice to hear that I wasn't the only student she impacted that way/who will miss her. In hearing that you were a self-described mediocre student whom she was always willing to help I feel as though I may have given her short shrift in saying she wasn't kind to students who didn't excel. Maybe she just wasn't kind to students whose attitudes she sensed to be unkind to her. As I'm sure you know, her scoliosis generated plenty of cruel remarks among some kids. At any rate, I'm glad you commented so that if anyone else stumbles across this entry they'll be able to see that my take on her attitude towards students may be somewhat unkind or misguided in and of itself; I didn't mean it to be, but of course it may be.

I agree that she was the best language teacher at BLS. I bet that even those students who didn't like her would have to admit they learned from her.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: October 8th, 2007 02:15 am (UTC)
Re: Ms. Ponte

I toured BLS on my 30th reunion in 2003. While there, I searched for teachers who might still be there from my days. I saw Ms Ponte. I never had her as a teacher, but, knew most of the teachers since I was involved with the yearbook. I was heartbroken when I saw her in poor health. I spent 15 minutes with her and took a picture of her so I could remember her. I cried when I left the room. She had a welcoming warmth that shined brightly.

Posted by: raysalemi (rdsalemi)
Posted at: October 16th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
My Aunt


Thanks for the beautiful post about Ms. Ponte, or as I knew her -- Auntie Juanita.

Your Ms. Ponte was my aunt and I thought I'd share a few thoughts.

It's funny, but while I can picture my Aunt as the stern teacher who you saw (and many others has described to me over the years) she was never that way at home. She was a loving and supportive Aunt to me when I was growing up (I'm 45 now) and to my children.

When I was young she would read "A Child's Christmas in Wales" to me. She also had a tradition of taking the entire family to the Nutcracker Suite every year. I've seen it now more times than I can remember as have my kids.

It is, of course, impossible to sum up a lifetime relationship in a short post. But I would like you to know that my Aunt was not lonely. She lived in the same triple-decker in Revere that I grew up in. (For those from other states. This is a three family house with one apartment on each of the three floors.)

The house was a a four-generation home at one point. At that time she lived on the first floor with her mother and sister. My other Aunt (her sister) lived on the second floor. My cousin (her niece) lived on the third floor with her daughter (her great-niece).

As a result, Auntie Juanita had a full family life and lots of help with her health issues. She was always cheerful and positive.

Thank you again for the beautiful blog entry. I wouldn't change a word.


PS. My daughter recently wrote an essay about Auntie Juanita being her hero. She is planning to become a teacher as well. So my Aunt's legacy is passing to the next generation.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: October 16th, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC)
Re: My Aunt

Thanks so much for commenting. It's funny, but I'm not at all surprised when you describe her as warm and loving at home, even though her attitude at school was generally stern. I think it doesn't surprise me because her passion and love for literature were so obvious: she never came off as unfeeling or anything of that sort. At any rate, I'm very sorry for your loss. She was an amazing teacher, and it sounds like she was a wonderful aunt as well.

I'm glad your daughter will be going into teaching because of her. What a nice legacy. :)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: August 31st, 2009 03:59 am (UTC)
Miss Ponte

I just found out Miss Ponte died, more than two years after it happened. I was looking to see if I could send her a note. I'm sad that I can't. I thought she was good, too. She was serious, careful, thorough -- not precisely warm and fuzzy. Maybe I became a Latin American History professor partly because of her, because I wanted to get good enough in Spanish to give presentations off the cuff. I tried it once in her class, and made a mess of it. Now that I can, I think of her when I do, as though she'd personally sent me along to the Latin American Studies Association conference.

I'm only anonymous because I don't belong to either of the other two options. Look me up on line if you want to talk about teachers: Sam Martland, www.rose-hulman.edu

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