A classroom classic: Finis for Staples Latin teacher's 5-decade career
Published 12:17 pm, Friday, July 9, 2010
Hoary-thatched Dan Sullivan, a 6-footer with a voice that see-saws between booming and dulcet tones, taught Latin to hundreds of Fairfield County teenagers over 48 years.
The 80-year-old retired from Staples High School last month after 27 years on the faculty.
Tempus fugit, as the Latin saying goes.
Translated into English, that's, "time flies." And over the decades, the changes in Sullivan's life also flew by in remarkable fashion.
Sullivan started his career in front of Latin classrooms in 1963. At the time, he was a motorcycle-riding Jesuit priest at Fairfield College Preparatory School.
"I left the religious order during the period 10,000 of 30,000 Jesuits worldwide left," he said, with apologies to no one.
He later married his wife, Maria, in 1979. They fell in love four years earlier when he took her on a motorcycle ride to Burying Hill Beach in Westport to watch the sun set.
Between two pedagogical bookends -- first at Fairfield Prep and ending at Staples -- Sullivan taught at Greenwich Country Day School for five years.
Does he know teenagers? The answer: You bet!
"Today they show more initiative and self-confidence," Sullivan said when asked about the difference between teenagers in the 1950s and today.
"In the beginning, at Fairfield Prep they were hooked into the old classical idea of attention, being benevolent and docile," he said.
But Sullivan thinks the technological revolution has transformed the role of teachers.
"I think students view teachers as television sets on two legs," he said. "Kids view us more intensely than they used to.
"The way it is now, we coach them in the use of technology and the vast knowledge available at their fingertips."
In the past, teachers were considered dispensers of information that students were to be tested on, according to Sullivan.
When he let the cat out of the bag about his plans to retire a few months ago, Karl Decker, a colleague who retired from Staples several years ago, wrote in a note to him: "The past is gone, the present never really exists. That leaves only the future as a certainty in our lives. Go discover it."
Sullivan is known for his unorthodox teaching style. He said his educational philosophy is to build self-motivated students by focusing on self-reflection in class and individual work at home.
He made a tradition of asking students to write a note stating what grade they feel they deserve at the end of an academic quarter. "This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate self-knowledge," he said.
"You're an amazing teacher," one student wrote in a letter that Sullivan shared during a recent interview. "I like this self-evaluation opportunity you give us.
"I deserve an A for my work in this fourth quarter because I have completed my work well with time and effort."
A full page of tributes to Sullivan in the 2010 Staples yearbook bursts with tributes from students.
"I will miss his rousing lectures and political rambles," penned Gabe Beck.
Melissa Sweeney wrote: "I will miss everything about Magister (teacher) Sullivan. I have not only learned a lot more about Latin, particularly Latin poetry, but I have also learned many life lessons that will stick with me throughout life."
Commenting on Sullivan's tenure at Staples, World Language Department Chair Victoria Mazzarelli said: "Magister teaches Latin in a reflective and student-centered manner. He teaches what Latin means today and what it meant in the past, and what Roman society is about."
Joe Greenwood, a 13-year-old student in Sullivan's Latin I class, observed: "Magister teaches us in an empathetic style that touches our hearts and minds."
As he faces finis to his teaching career, Sullivan reflected, "This gratifying endeavor over so many years has surely prepared me for further delights in the years that are left to me."
And, he added, "Did you know that students who take Latin score as many as 200 points higher on the verbal SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test)?"
That's news to this reporter. And it may also be of interest to any teenager contemplating a Latin course in the new school year.