In the past the study of Latin was often a part of the curricula of many high schools. Then, the increasing emphasis on math, science and technology seemed to relegate Latin to being outdated and unimportant, and it was dropped in many schools. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Latin in the schools and that would certainly please Mrs. Maxie Wilson, who taught Latin at Cocke County High School for over 30 years.
Mrs. Wilson was born Maxie Beatrice Denton in 1904 on Lower Cosby on what is now named Early Road. She started school at age 5 at Bison School, which was located behind the present Wilton Springs Hardware. She went there through the sixth grade and then walked three miles, one way, to Cosby Academy, where she finished high school in 1921 as the class valedictorian. One day coming from school she had the first opportunity to have an automobile ride when Gov. Ben Hooper stopped and offered her and schoolmate Betty Lillard a trip home.
Even though Maxie was offered a scholarship to Carson-Newman College, she lacked the funds for the necessary extra expenses. At the urging of County School Superintendent Ruth W. O’Dell, she took and passed the teacher’s examination and got her first teaching job at Waterville. To get to the log school, she had to walk three miles from her home to catch the T&NC Railroad at Wilton Springs to ride 15 miles to Waterville. Then, she had to paddle a canoe across the river and then walk two miles up the mountain.
Fortunately, she was soon able to arrange to board in a home in the community, for which she paid $10 per month and she tried to save the remaining $55 for college. She started at Carson-Newman in 1922. At that time the public school term was not nearly as long as today, so teachers could finish the school year and then attend college afterwards. This is what Mrs. Wilson did. When she was in college, she did childcare in the home of Professor R.B. Jones, as well as wash dishes in the cafeteria. (One of Professor Jones’ children was Donald, who later was pastor of Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church, 1959-1964.)
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Carson-Newman in 1927 and taught in North Carolina at Sylva Collegiate Institute, a Baptist boarding school which offered both elementary and secondary curricula. The latter was so advanced that certain graduates could then enter college as sophomores.
After one year in North Carolina, Maxie returned to graduate school at the University of Tennessee. Her major professor was Dr. John C. Hodges, the author of Harbrace Handbook, a text familiar to most college freshmen. After receiving her master’s degree, she taught the next five years, 1929-1934, at Springbrook High School in Alcoa; the job ended because of cupid’s work.
Maxie Denton and Asa Wilson were married on June 8, 1934, and the newlyweds moved into their new home on the Wilson farm on Morrell Springs Road. Asa himself had hauled all the rock for the house, and he proudly etched their marriage date in the concrete of the front porch. She became a career lady who balanced well the responsibilities of wife, mother, daughter, homemaker and teacher.
After her marriage, she taught at Cosby High School until their son Lemmy was born. In 1939, she went back to the classroom, teaching the second semester at Newport Grammar School. Then in the fall of 1939, she began her tenure at CCHS. Over her 31 years there, she taught Latin I, Latin ll, English and Arithmetic, and several years she managed the school cafeteria.
Mrs. Wilson would be one teacher about whom few if any students had anything negative to say. Every student might not have performed well in her classes, but she herself described her technique as “gentle but firm,” trying to always be kind but not dictatorial. She tried to love every student (but admitting some were more lovable than others) and to identify with each student and his/her problems, struggles and interests. She said that she wanted to focus on teaching the student first, not just the lesson.
There was a time when students had to buy their own textbooks, which often worked a hardship on some families. Mrs. Wilson often purchased used books from students, so that she could later give them to needy students.
As the reader might surmise, Mrs. Wilson had few discipline problems. She estimated that she hadn’t had to send more than a half-dozen students to the principal’s office. As a student who had four classes under Mrs. Wilson, I can only recall twice that she even raised her voice in dealing with an issue. At times, however, she did correct students gently but firmly, asking them if they understood what it was they had done wrong, holding their hands or resting a hand on their shoulders. She’d always end with “I don’t think any less of you and I still love you.” The students probably felt more chastised than had they been subjected to corporal punishment or a severe tongue lashing.
Mrs. Wilson encouraged students to do their best, to develop good study habits and to have balance between study and extracurricular activities. She did not hesitate to share her personal philosophy that a person’s three most important choices were (1) Jesus Christ as your savior (2) your spouse (3) your career. She also gave advice on personal relationships and the benefits of considering the feelings of others.
Latin I was a freshman course and something totally new for the students. Mrs. Wilson tried to move them into the material as easily as possible. The first day she assured the classes that Latin was far from being a dead language and that they’d be reading Latin l by the end of the week. Most students will recall those first Latin verbs — amo, amas, amat (I love, you love, he/she loves).
Of course, the work did get harder and it required study. There were the translations as well as the declensions and conjugations, which change the words to express a grammatical relationship or tense; nouns are declined and verbs are conjugated. Mrs. Wilson would say, “I know this is hard, but we’ll just have to roll up our britches legs and wade in.”
Each year the Latin classes were required to do projects that in some way related to the course. I fashioned a model of the Pantheon in Rome. Local artist David Freeman says that assignment started his career. His first public painting was an impressive rendition of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Undoubtedly, there were projects recycled over the years, and Mrs. Wilson probably remembered them. One year to help a friend, I made his project — a Roman soldier helmet from cardboard and aluminum foil. I think my work got him a “B.” The next year in Latin ll, he resubmitted the helmet and Mrs. Wilson reminded him that has been his project the year before.
Mrs. Wilson was prematurely gray and looked older than she actually was. She had no fear of aging, did not mind telling her age and faced her golden years with a positive attitude. She told our class: “I can be a content old lady if I can just keep my eyesight. I’ll be able to read, to sew, to watch TV even in a wheelchair.” She hoped to stay active, though, as she wanted to “wear out rather than rust out.”
In January 1968 Mrs. Wilson was named “Tennessee Teacher of the Year” and was honored at a banquet at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. Her modest response was “What have I done to deserve this, but what a great country this is when a little old country girl like me can grow up and have such an honor!”
Mrs. Wilson retired from teaching in 1970, but she did not retire from life. She was involved in the life of her family and her friends, she was active in her church and she took interest in her former students, meeting them with greeting cards, sending wedding gifts, baby gifts and expressions of sympathy.
The highlight of her retirement was probably the trip to Rome with her son Lemmy. At last she could see such sights that she had taught about through the years in the Latin lessons: the Colosseum, the Appian Way, the aqueducts, the various temples, the catacombs, Pompeii, the Palatine hills, the Roman Forum.
Mrs. Wilson was blessed with an active retirement and a swift transition. God called for her on October 30, 1982, as she was napping before resuming her afternoon tasks. She left her family, her friends and a host of former students with great memories of an intelligent, gifted and caring soul.
The translation of the title of this article sums it up: The pupils respected Mrs. Wilson.
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