BY STEPHANIE RAMSARUP
At 7:59 A.M the bell rings at Midwood High School. The halls are filled with silence, except for the sound of Pachelbel’s Canon in D inviting you into room 467, the room of Michael O’Neill, who is dressed for his part as conductor of his class, donning a signature pinstripe charcoal suit with today’s accent of purple.
After discovering that it was one of his students’ birthdays, O’Neill lowers the classical music and reaches for a red pen. With the red pen as baton, he waves it around animatedly, conducting his class to sing Happy Birthday in a jazz style (one of many choices O’Neill offers, including Brazilian samba). Snapping his fingers, O’Neill belts out, “Felicem tibi, natalem diem!” the Latin version of Happy Birthday.
His red pen quickly changes form from baton back to correction instrument, as he walks down the aisles of his classroom, meticulously checking homework as his students break into maniples (named for groups in a Roman army).
O’Neill runs his class like a well-oiled machine, where there are monitors to erase the boards, to open the windows, to write the pensum (homework) and agite nunc (classwork) on the boards, to control the baroque music playing, and even monitors to even remind him when the bell rings, as he jokes with his students that, “You may not realize this, but once in a blue moon, I like to go on.”
O’Neill is now the only Latin teacher at Midwood High School, currently teaching four sophomore 1st year classes and one 2nd year Latin class. “Mr. O’Neill is one of a kind,” said Alvi Rashid, 20, a former student of O’Neill’s. “He is genuinely a lover of Latin and it shines through in his teaching.”
O’Neill says that by maintaining order in the classroom he is staying true to his role as conductor (which he noted comes from the Latin word, ducere, meaning in his own words, “to lead out of darkness, falsehood and vice”) an obligation that he believes is especially necessary in education (also from the Latin, ducere) in today’s world, where children are distracted by technology and are stuck living in a society that “ignores the true and real human good of the students.”
He has been teaching Latin at Midwood since 1987. He originally taught Latin I, II and II, but in 1999, budget cuts eliminated Latin III. “New York City can’t teach math or Latin, but they can teach children how to use a condom,” he said, apologizing for having to use “such language”. A 2nd year of Latin which was mandatory for the Humanities program in the school, became optional 2 years ago in 2011. “This is not the kind of education I want for my students, more money is being spent on the remedial, a pursuit of less than mediocrity,” he said.
O’Neill’s approach to education provokes different responses from his students. “At times, he is too strict, there is no head holding allowed in class, no drinking water, and once a kid put a Halls in mouth and got in trouble for it,” said a sophomore in O’Neill’s 3rd period class, who wanted to be identified as only Shayane. Another sophomore, Ishmael, who wanted his last name to remain anonymous, chimed in, “His class is unnecessary; he gives too much homework and expects too much.”
“He’s difficult, but I see he wants the best for us and he knows what he’s doing,” said Anne, another student who wished to use only their first name who is a junior who is repeating O’Neill’s 1st year Latin class.
“Unfortunately, I am not as strict as I used to be; the high authorities asked me to be less strict,” said O’Neill. “Children are used to getting away with things, being ignored and just tolerated.” He continued, “What do you prefer? Soft sand that sinks or hard concrete that supports you?”
Despite his reputation for strictness, O’Neill rarely yells at his students, and instead makes jokes with them whenever possible. “Humor shows intelligence,” said O’Neill. “Jokes break the tension and keep people interested in the work.”
Catching a student looking into space, O’Neill exclaims, “Stop staring at her, Malcolm! If you want to get her number casually bump into her after class!”
Even those on their toes, aren’t free from O’Neill’s playful jokes. When a student in his 5th period class gets an answer correct, O’Neill remarks, “I don’t care what they say about you Esther, I like you.”
“I never had him myself, but I had a lot of friends who would share stories about his class,” said Helen Pozdniakova, 20, a graduate of Midwood High School.
Some of his other famous sayings include, “Don’t worry, one day you’ll get a girlfriend too!” “If you want to get away from my commentary, do you work,” and “Don’t ask an answer as a question, we’re still going to laugh at you just as much.”
O’Neill, who grew up on Ave P, became engrossed in Latin after a high school teacher let him borrow a Latin book. “The Latin word order sounded so noble, refined, polished and exquisite,” he said. From then, O’Neill began to teach himself Latin, until taking classes in college.
“It took a long time for me to decide between science and classics,” he began. “I then saw the book as a laboratory and from there I knew the thing was to become a Latin teacher.”
O’Neill began teaching Latin at Westchester County high school for a single semester part time before switching to Midwood High School, where he would remain for 26 years and counting, encouraging his students to “fulfill their stature as human persons on their mission to attain the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
“Every child no later than seven-years-old should take Latin. It is the grammar, it is the logic of language, it makes you a lawyer in analyzing, teaching you analytical thinking and synthetic thinking,” said O’Neill. “We need to use bold face, italics and colors to make a point, whereas the Romans used words themselves.”
O’Neill practices the same discipline he has with his students with his own seven children, Lucia, 11; Rosa, 13; Michael V, 10; Callixtus, 8; Donata, 6; Severin, 9 mo.; and Cajetan Benedict Ignatius Aloysius Augustan Pius O’Neill, 4. According to O’Neill he teaches them a semester’s worth of Latin in a mere three weeks over the summer, four hours on weekdays, and two hours on the weekends. His children also take ballet, piano and soccer classes in addition to reading.
“I may leave the system because of all the changes, but I never want to stop working and educating,” With a hint of sparkle in his blue eyes, he boisterously proclaimed, “I have things to contribute to the world of people, I want to die with a pen in my hand!” and made his way through the now, noisy hallways of Midwood for his 5th period class.