The thought of writing about a female role model made me sceptical at first. The minute I got approached to write this text and upon learning the brief, I have to admit my mind got seriously stuck. I kept thinking and thinking about some of the people who have entered my life throughout the years, who might have shaped the person that I am today.
Truth be told, I have encountered a multitude of reverse role models over the years, men and women who have shown me how not to do things or what not to become, but frankly there were few people whom I have genuinely admired or looked up to. And yet, I got to realise the bar was standing very high for me and had been set at that level from a fairly young age. There was one particular person, outside my family, who has shaped my life, my principles and values, in what I would argue were the most formative years for my personality – my teenage years.
This is my former high school Latin teacher Valeria Socaciu.
As her first name suggests, which comes from the Latin verb “valere” meaning “to be strong”, Valeria was a powerful and audacious woman who insisted on swimming against the stream. And for this, she was often misunderstood and undervalued by her students and fellow teachers alike.
The truth is, Ms Socaciu was and still is too great and too ambitious for the small, provincial town I grew up in. Her refusal to settle for less than what she believed to be right was difficult to understand by others, especially when it came to the strict grading system for a subject matter that wasn’t as highly regarded as mathematics or chemistry or to her expectation of students to memorise and recite excerpts of the Catilinarian Orations – a set of speeches given by statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero to the Roman Senate. She was for some, and at times, a sort of “persona non grata” and certainly didn’t score high in the Top 10 Best Loved high school teachers in my hometown.
Yet, for me, she showed great intelligence and was a walking ancient history encyclopaedia. She was led by strong principles and never took a shortcut to accomplish what she envisioned for herself or for her students.
I truly admired her knowledge on a vast array of subjects such as history, art and culture and her ability to remain humble and focused, to instil a sense of normalcy in what had been decades of hard work and devotion.
And mostly, in the mind of my teenage self, I admired her for her ability to read and decipher all the Latin inscriptions one could come across while travelling, while reading old books or visiting museums. I remember thinking of her when I first visited the Louvre Museum in Paris, getting to understand why she was so strict, even harsh at times, with students who wouldn’t take her class seriously. She wanted us to understand that Latin was the basis for the group of Romance languages and that the Roman Empire became one of the key foundations for Western societies.
While I never wanted to become a teacher, like herself, I’ve always aspired to be a smart and knowledgeable person, to be self-confident and remain focused on what matters in life. Years later, I realised she was one of the first people to instil in me a clear sense of what is fair and what is not and inspired the commitment to never compromise on my integrity and stand up when people around me grow complacent about abuse and injustice.
Looking back on my teenage years, I think I resemble her in some respects. We have both been considered “inadequate” when casting our opinions or challenging the “status quo”. We both have strong convictions that fairness and hard work should be the underlying principles in achieving whatever goals we set.
In following my former teacher’s example, I have myself become an “outcast” in many people’s minds but thinking of my high school years this is exactly why I admired Ms Socaciu so much. She remained true to herself even when that made her unpopular.
Have I become so knowledgeable that I can read all the Latin inscriptions I come across in my travels? Far from it. But I have grown even more appreciative of people who are smart and knowledgeable, who remain humble and don’t lose focus no matter how bumpy the road gets. Because in the end, as Seneca once said, “there is no easy way from the earth to the stars” (Non est ad astra mollis e terris via).