Latin is considered a dead language, but it is alive and well at Lyons Township High School.
That’s largely because of one person, teacher Laurie Jolicoeur, who is retiring in June after teaching Latin at LTHS for 33 years.
In that time she has taught Latin with a verve, style and passion that has left a mark on her students.
Jolicoeur, 56, came to LTHS when she was just 22 years old. She not only teaches Latin, she lives Latin, wearing jewelry and pins with classical motifs. One recent day she was wearing a necklace with a pendant showcasing the head of the Roman goddess Diana, which she bought in Italy.
“I collect classical pins and jewelry, because I like to wear things that are authentic,” Jolicoeur said.
Over the years, she has donned a toga and laurel wreath for the freshman experience night to promote Latin to incoming freshmen or at homecoming parades, where she also occasionally dressed as a gladiator. In her last days as a Latin teacher, Jolicoeur even got herself a temporary tattoo of the word “Latin” over a heart.
Jolicoeur, whom students call Magistra (Latin for teacher), has transferred her love for Latin to her students. First period Latin II students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Latin to start every day.
“I’ve just never had a teacher more passionate about the subject that they’re teaching,” said senior Kate Beumer, who is a fourth-year Latin student and a consul (president) of the Latin Club, which Jolicoeur renamed this year Collegium Romanum, because she thought some students might think Latin Club was a club for Latino students.
For Jolicoeur, Latin is more than a language.
“I promote Latin as a lifestyle, I really do,” Jolicoeur says. “A Latin lifestyle means that you’re always looking for connections that you can make, and it means that you’re paying attention to how language is being used. Taking Latin and being in Latin is a lifestyle.”
Jolicoeur makes every Wednesday “Latin Experience Day.” Students are encouraged to talk about a Latin or classical connection with something they’ve seen or experienced in their everyday life.
“It is not taught as a dusty, this-is-an-old-forgotten thing,” Jolicoeur said. “If it’s not dynamic, if it’s not relevant, then what is the point?”
Jolicoeur grew up in downstate Normal, the daughter of an Illinois State University math professor and a nurse.
In high school, where she was also involved in theater and was a drum major, she decided to take Latin because it was different.
“I basically never choose what everybody’s doing,” Jolicoeur said.
She loved her Latin teacher at Normal High School, Mary Ryder, but when she went off to Augustana College, becoming a teacher was the last thing on her mind. But after taking a literature in translation class as a freshman, she found she missed reading literature in the language it was written in and started taking Latin again.
“I started taking Latin again and realized I loved studying anything classical, and I also knew I wanted to do something that connected me to other human beings,” Jolicoeur said.
After graduating from the University of Illinois she got a job teaching Latin part time at Barrington High School and a year later was hired at LT in 1985.
At that time there were only 35 to 50 students taking Latin at LT. From the beginning she made an impact.
“She made Latin cool; she made you feel special,” said Mary-Ellen Devitt, who was in Jolicoeur’s first Latin class at LTHS and attended a reunion on May 20 at the school in honor of Jolicoeur. “She hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still as beautiful and vivacious as she was at 22.”
This year 102 students are taking Latin at LTHS.
Jolicoeur’s enthusiasm and love of Latin rubs off on her students and five of them have gone on to become Latin teachers themselves, as has one of her daughters.
“She just came in every day and was so passionate about Latin I just fell in love with the language and said, ‘I want to do this,'” said Anna Reiff, a 1995 graduate who now teaches Latin at Stagg High School. “She just has that magic.”
Reiff had been planning to take French at LTHS until she encountered Jolicoeur, wearing a toga and laurel wreath, at a night for eighth-graders.
Now that they are colleagues and friends. They go to conferences together and even presented a paper together a few years ago.
“I still get ideas from her,” Reiff said.
Jolicoeur thinks anyone can benefit by studying Latin. She says Latin helps to expand one’s vocabulary, since so many English words have Latin roots.
“I have never had any taste for having a program that was elitist,” said Jolicoeur, who doesn’t push or have much use for Advanced Placement Latin. “I think Latin is good for everyone.”
Jolicoeur says that all kinds of students at LT take Latin.
“I have students who are like me, who take it because it’s weird,” Jolicoeur said. “It has this perception of nerdiness or whatever. I have students who love reading. I have students who love Harry Potter. I have students who love history, who always loved the Romans because they are into gladiators.”
Because most Latin students at LT take Latin for all four years of high school and Jolicoeur has mostly been the only Latin teacher at the school, many students have had her for all four years, developing an especially close bond.
“One of my worries about LT coming here was the fact that it’s a big school, but this definitely made it smaller, and it’s nice because we all have a relationship with her just beyond Latin,” senior Alexander Kuptel said.
Jolicoeur has taken students to conferences and on trips to Rome and Greece. This past spring she took 14 students to Rome.
While she’s loved her time at LTHS, it’s time to retire, she said.
“I’ve been here since I was 22,” Jolicoeur said. “I promised myself that I would retire before anybody got thinking about it, because I did not want to be one of those people that people wondered, ‘When is she going to retire?'”
In her 33 years at LT, Jolicoeur has shaped the Latin curriculum to her style, but now she feels it’s time for someone else to take up the torch.
“Nothing in the curriculum is anything that anyone else has done,” Jolicoeur said. “I feel as if I have shaped this piece of pottery, and now it is time to pass it on to the next artist.”
The next Latin teacher at LT will be Sean Sweany, who has taught at Mount Carmel High School for the last nine years.
Jolicoeur is so involved in teaching that she says that she has not made specific plans for retirement.
“I have to figure that out,” Jolicoeur said. “It’s just terribly bittersweet, so I don’t really know.”
Returning students know things will different next year without Jolicoeur.
“It’ll be a lot different,” said junior Owen Gieseke of having a new Latin teacher next year. “It will be weird, because we’ve had her for three years in a row.”