Former students remember Bob Mitchell as much for his stories and mystery that surrounded him as for the language they learned from him.
“He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, and also by far the most enigmatic,” said Arielle Weisman, who graduated from North in 2003 and took classes with Mitchell for four years. Weisman is teaching English in Spain and responded to questions via e-mail. “I mentioned before that he was enigmatic. I say this because unlike other teachers, who you could well imagine went home to their families at night, ate dinner and went to bed, what Mr. Mitchell did in his free time was beyond us. He spoke/read over 20 languages and had the most bizarre stories from every corner of the globe.”
The Newton North High School Latin teacher died May 27 after battling melanoma. He was 60.
Weisman said Mitchell would often share his globetrotting adventures with his students, but details about his more recent personal life were hard to get. Until last week, Weisman said she didn’t know Mitchell had cancer.
“I’m thankful to have been able to talk to him one last time to make sure he knew that he was, still is and forever will be my favorite,” she said.
Mitchell started teaching at North in 1990. Principal Jennifer Price said Mitchell left the school on March 23, two months before his death.
Like Weisman, 2003 North graduate Lincoln Brody, who is also teaching English in Spain, found out about Mitchell’s cancer shortly before his death. Brody sent Mitchell a letter thanking him for everything he taught him, but it may not have arrived before his death.
“His teaching style was rigorous, intense, often frantic and always with total passion and a sense of humor,” Brody wrote in an e-mail.
In his letter to Mitchell, Brody thanked his former teacher for instilling a passion for learning in him.
“Just as important for me was the constant exposure to your unbridled enthusiasm for learning and knowledge as was the actual material we learned. This attitude, this spirit, is something that I treasure to this day, and for which I largely have you to thank,” he wrote. “So thank you for everything you’ve shared with me, from your daily quips to your bottomless digressions, to the impeccably detailed story you told our AP study group, on the night before the exam, of how you got struck by lightning one muggy summer afternoon while dancing like Fred Astaire on a construction site.”
Nathan Guttman, a 2003 North grad who now lives in Los Angeles, remembered how Mitchell’s story about being struck by lightning made him feel better before his Latin Advanced Placement exam his junior year.
“Everybody was exhausted from work and nervous for the exam. Mr. Mitchell stopped our translating about 20 minutes before the end of class and proceeded to tell a captivating, uproarious story about how he was once struck by lightning while doing a Gene Kelly dance on top of a Big Dig concrete pylon,” Guttman wrote in an e-mail. “The class listened in rapt attention as Mr. Mitchell described time slowing down and the world turning slightly green as the debris around him lifted into the air from the shock of the lightning strike.
“Mr. Mitchell realized it was he who had been struck by lightning when the umbrella he was holding — ‘Of course I had an umbrella. How else would you do “Singing in the Rain”?’ — shot out of his hand and landed 20 feet away.”
When students asked what he did, Guttman said Mitchell told the class he picked up his umbrella.
Along with his stories, students said Mitchell’s class could be tough. He assigned numerous lines of translation every night and expected them to be completed.
“To be honest, there were always a few students in Mr. Mitchell’s classes who didn’t particularly love Latin or the workload, but simply loved Mr. Mitchell too much to ever drop the class,” said Guttman.
Like his students, Mitchell’s colleagues sensed his passion for learning.
“We suffered a huge loss, but he’d want the celebration to go on and to honor achievement. He believed so much in the teaching and learning of foreign language,” said Nancy Marrinucci, head of the foreign language department at North. “He used to say it was part of a liberal arts education, and it allowed students to more fully participate in the world.”
One former student, Marrinucci said, compiled a collection of “Mitchellisms.”