It is 1994. Jane Batarseh is sitting in the office of headmaster Dan White. Batarseh is interviewing for a high school teaching position, but the two aren’t discussing potential curricula or salaries. Batarseh is instead telling White about her belief that God is a post-menopausal Arab woman because “God’s lived through everything.”
“When I went home that day, I told my husband, Haitham, that I don’t care if I get the job,” Batarseh said. “Because I just had one of the best conversations of my life.”
That conversation paid off, as Batarseh was hired and has worked as a Latin teacher at Country Day ever since. She is retiring this year after 25 years at the school.
Batarseh said she learned about the open teaching position from her friend Barbara Ore, who was a teacher and administrator at the school.
“Barbara said to me one day, ‘Jane, you need to apply for a job at Country Day as a Latin teacher,’” Batarseh said. “I said OK, and she said that the deadline was tomorrow!”
Batarseh came to Country Day with no teaching experience. She had worked as a bookkeeper for her husband after obtaining a master’s in English from California State University, Sacramento. Batarseh wrote her thesis about the influence of Latin rhetoric on medieval poetry.
“I was 43,” she said. “I walked into the classroom with no teaching experience, but after the first day, I came home and said to my husband, ‘This is what I was born to do.’”
Batarseh said her love of Latin lies in the grammar and structure.
“There is a world within each individual word,” she said. “The ability to compare the way Latin and English are constructed has really pressed me to a new understanding of English and many other languages too.
“Latin is basic to all culture, not only linguistically but culturally as well.”
Batarseh’s family, however, did not immediately appreciate her work as a Latin teacher.
“I was suddenly being paid for something that no one in my family valued,” she said. “They were all millionaires, and I was nothing to them — I only read books.”
Batarseh added that her new job required a major life adjustment.
“I had never had a job independent of my family,” she said. “My husband had his own priorities, which he didn’t change. I was trying to be his accountant and social secretary, a mother and a teacher all at the same time.”
These responsibilities soon became too much, as Batarseh experienced a nervous breakdown at the end of her first year of teaching in the spring of 1995.
Recognizing Batarseh’s struggle, White sent her to the American Classical League’s Summer Institute for Latin Teachers.
“I met other Latin teachers, which, frankly, had never happened before,” Batarseh said. “They shared lesson plans, pedagogical methods, resources and enthusiasm, which helped put me on my way to becoming a teacher.”
For the first time in her life, said she felt fulfilled.
“Before coming to Country Day, I never had a vision of myself independent of my family,” she said. “But at Country Day I was more than a mother — I was a teacher.”
“At Country Day I was more than a mother — I was a teacher.”
Batarseh has since found many lifelong friends among the faculty.
“Because of the nature of my family on both sides, I could never discuss in an abstract manner with anyone about the history of thought,” she said. “That all changed because of (teachers) Sue Nellis, Patty Fels, Ron Bell, Daniel Neukom, Glenn Mangold, Jason Hinojosa and many others.
“There is always somebody at Country Day, whether it be a teacher or a student, with a different perspective than your own,” she said.
Batarseh said she also loves that teachers at Country Day are never arrogant or petty, unlike some college-level academics.
Looking back on her 25 years of teaching, Batarseh said the students have kept her at the school.
“The scholarly interaction among students here is unmatched at any other institution,” she said.
Some of Batarseh’s favorite memories at Country Day have been time spent with students, everything from herding them out of a soccer riot in Florence on the school’s first trip to Italy to cycling through the hills of San Francisco on the freshman trip.
Batarseh said one of the things she will miss most about teaching is the routine.
“As much as I’ve railed against it, I’m going to miss the routine of the classroom and the school day, (despite) sometimes not knowing who is going to show up in your class or what your day will be like,” she said.
Batarseh said no two classes of hers have been the same, and she will miss watching students evolve and grow.
“Language teachers are so unlike every other type of teacher,” Batarseh said. “We get to have the same students for four or five years, which is really special in getting to know students and watch them grow and excel.”
While Batarseh is ending her teaching career, she said she will not truly be retiring.
“Retirement is a withdrawal of worldly affairs to a sheltered abode,” she said. “I am not retiring in that sense because I’m not a retiring, quiet or inactive person.”
In her first year of “activement,” as she calls it, Batarseh plans to study Arabic. She won’t mind lounging around at home, though.
“I won’t have to wear makeup, bathe or do any of that stuff anymore!” she said. “I can just read books all day long in my PJs.”
—By Jack Christian
Originally published in the May 28 edition of the Octagon.