Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim: Persevere and endure, for one day this pain will benefit you. That’s what students proudly display on T-shirts and hoodies at Swanson Middle School. The phrase is a mantra for courageous students in Melanie Stowell’s Latin I, II, and III classes.
Stowell has taught Latin in Arlington Public Schools since 2010 and says students tend to rise to the considerable challenge of learning a “dead” language. The Northern Virginia Magazine Teacher of the Year finalist is the rare teacher who motivates students by maintaining sky-high standards and showing the kind of academic tough love that allows them to believe in themselves.
“I believe very strongly in having a high bar for kids,” Stowell says. “We can challenge kids a lot more than we give them credit for.”
Ninety percent or more of Stowell’s students over the past 10 years have earned an award on the National Latin Exam, with 40 gold medals and 13 perfect papers this past school year. Gold medal students score in the top 10 percent nationally.
And these kids want to do this.
“I have never met a teacher who inspired more love for their subject than Dr. Stowell did with Latin,” says former student James Gusmer. “I mean, who goes to school on a Saturday? To study a ‘dead’ language?”
Stowell’s students also clamor to attend state Latin conventions and complete exams on mythology, grammar, history, and translation. They often compete at weekend regional Latin competitions, proudly returning with well-earned awards.
“Many have gone on to major in classics in college, nurturing the spark she lit in middle school,” says a colleague whose daughter took Stowell’s class.
Latin class is only the beginning of Stowell’s influence in student’ lives.
“After a recent challenge my daughter was going through, Ms. Stowell emailed me an offer to chat about it and took my call on a Saturday,” says Jennifer Michener. “I learned firsthand that she’s not just an amazing teacher, she’s a personable and humble and kind person who cares deeply about each child and their family.”
Once, Stowell ran into a former student who shared he’d overcome a broken back from a sports injury. He proceeded to pull off his sock to reveal a tattoo he’d had inscribed on his foot that read “Perfer et Obdura” to keep him inspired through his ordeal.
“You get this feedback,” Stowell says, “and you realize, ‘I am where I need to be.’”