Beloved Herndon High School Latin teacher Christine Sleeper, who died Feb. 15, 2015 at 98, kept a Trojan Horse in her Herndon High School classroom and the Latin word “gaude” on her license plate.
Teachers, past students, colleagues and families gathered at Herndon High School on Sunday, Sept. 20 to remember Sleeper. More than 150 people attended.
“One of her final wishes was for her life to be celebrated where she lived,” said Mary Abbott, of Alexandria.
She taught Latin for 30 years and turned Herndon High School’s Latin Program into the most popular foreign language at the school.
“Christine Sleeper was an extraordinary educator and scholar,” said Karen Singer. “In addition to her Latin, French and Greek teaching career, Christine was also a pilot, air traffic controller and served in World War II.”
She earned her pilot wings at 25 in 1941 and was an air traffic controller at Logan Airport in Boston in 1944 before serving in Europe during the end of World War II.
“She was way ahead of her time,” said Singer. “She had a million credentials, she left her mark.”
Singer remembers when she was assigned to observe Sleeper to evaluate teaching.
“She worked magic in the classroom,” said Singer. “I got totally caught up in the instruction.”
Abbott said several of her former teachers are now Latin teachers, “a good indication of her impact,” said Abbott.
Sleeper traveled all continents; Abbott still has her postcards from Nepal, China, Antarctica, the Galapagos and more.
“She taught countless Fairfax County students and led them on numerous world trips. She was an inspiration to so many students and colleagues, in short to everyone who knew her,” said Singer.
Singer remembers getting the opportunity to sub for her class. She didn’t want the day wasted, and had Singer take her students to the school planetarium to discuss mythology.
“She was very inspiring,” said Abbott. “She was the kind of person that made an effort to engage you in conversation and made you feel like you're the only one being taught.”
SLEEPER’S CRYSTAL BLUE eyes were referenced Sunday as well as her love of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, and one of its lines: “I am part of all that I have met.”
Those who knew her talked about the postcards she wrote, and the “carpe diem” pencils she gave out as gifts during trivia contests she held during class; they talked about the life sized Trojan Horse her student David Bliss built that remained in her classroom the rest of her career and the smile and praise that she gave most every student who had her.
“She knew who the chess player was, who the creative writer was, who was the softball player, and who was the musician,” said Alice Guppy, a Latin teacher and colleague at Herndon High School.
“She let everyone know she was fascinated with their interest or passion. She wanted all her students to be successful at something,” said Guppy.
When Guppy returned to teach, educators encouraged her to seek out Sleeper, who invited her to the school.
“She opened up all her file cabinets, all her file cabinets,” said Guppy. “What an afternoon it was.”
“I knew I had a new friendship and what a friendship it was,” she said.
And a few years later, Sleeper chose Guppy to join her at Herndon in 1996. “Christine chose me, me, to teach with her at Herndon High School. Those were the luckiest four years of my teaching career.
“We all wanted to be like Christine as a teacher,” she said, “but no matter how much we tried we couldn’t keep up.”
Guppy said she asked Sleeper if she ever got tired.
“‘Once,’ she said. ‘Well what did you do?’ She said, ‘I got a big bowl of ice cream and I turned on Oprah,’” said Guppy.
The next morning she awoke to swim laps at the pool before getting to school early.
“She wanted to experience every minute, she wanted to experience every learning opportunity,” said Guppy. “Carpe Diem. To Christine, life was a gift, life was a joy.”
DAVID BLISS WAS HONEST.
“I enjoyed Latin, but I didn’t love Latin,” he said, and a few people, the Latin teachers, sighed in the audience.
“But I always loved her class,” said the 1984 graduate.
Sleeper taught her students not to only conjugate Latin verbs, but to study history, music, mythology, culture.
For a project, Bliss decided he was going to build a Trojan Horse out of popsicle sticks.
“My mother said, ‘You can’t build a Trojan Horse out of popsicle sticks.’”
So a family friend, an artist, taught him and the family how to paper mache.
“It became a family project. I’d come home and my father would be putting another strip on the horse,” he said.
The horse became life size, and the day the project needed to be turned in, Bliss said he couldn’t take the bus so got a friend to drive him with a van.
They were late.
“When I arrived to her class, Ms. Sleeper said, ‘David, why are you late?’ I told her I was finishing my project. She said, ‘David, that’s no excuse.’”
Bliss then wheeled in the horse. “David, you get an A,’ she said.”
The horse stayed in the classroom for the next 16 years until her retirement, when it came home with her.
“One of the things I regret is not reconnecting with Ms. Sleeper,” Bliss said during the ceremony. “You don’t really know how people might impact your everyday lives.”
SLEEPER’S SON, Tray Sleeper, followed in his mother’s footsteps, getting his education certificate in his 40s.
“I hope to teach until I’m 70,” he said, but then quickly added, “but I don’t think 84 is in my cards.”
“The greatest lesson I learned from her was the positive attitude as well as the idea that negative actions and negative feelings have no benefit.”
Sleeper’s family published her autobiography, “All That I Have Met,” and Tray Sleeper encouraged everyone to take a look at the book, not necessarily to read about his mother, but so they would compile the same type of book for their families about their mothers or grandmothers.
“Mine has been a life long love affair with Latin. When you teach Latin, you teach life,” Sleeper was quoted in the book, read by colleague Linda Montross during the ceremony.
“Generations of your family will know the contribution of its past,” said Tray Sleeper.
Sleeper’s granddaughter thanked the audience for sharing what a special person Sleeper was to the community.
She shared a story meeting a bartender in a D.C. bar serving 25-cent beers during a happy hour. The bartender was from Herndon, and he said Sleeper’s class was his favorite.
“I didn’t quite know the impact she had. Thank you,” said Sleeper’s granddaughter.
DAVID SEGAL, another Herndon High School colleague and Italian teacher, lit up when sharing the inflection of his friend Christine Sleeper when she greeted him each morning.
“Va bene, oggi,” he said. “I don’t remember if we went to Italy once or twice together. I do remember drinking wine with her on many occasions.
“She always had such a positive attitude,” he said. “She was such a lovely person, so generous, so kind. I know if she was here, she’d look around at everything, and say, “Va bene, oggi.”
Emily Lewis, a current Latin teacher at Herndon, said everybody kept bringing up Sleeper when she was interviewing for the position a few years ago.
“I thought, ‘Who is this Christine Sleeper person,’” said Lewis, who then researched Sleeper’s life. “I called back, and I said, ‘I’m not Christine Sleeper,” she said.
But Lewis did get the position and she said she inherited an “august program with an incredibly rich, deep tradition that goes much deeper than anyone of us ever thought,” she said.
“I see the kids read about Christine Sleeper and say, ‘Oh, my.’”
LINDA MONTROSS, co-chair of the National Latin Exam, met Sleeper when she was 22. “We were friends my entire adult life. We would meet on a monthly basis.”
Herndon’s class president from 1980, Pamela, wept when she got up to speak. “She’d be so ticked off that I’m getting weepy. I wanted to get up here and scream, ‘Serendipity.’”
In addition to encouraging her to run for class president, Pamela said her teacher told her, “‘Do not let life pass you by.’”
Pamela said she lived her teacher’s words. “We traveled, we lived life. If I’m ever famous, and they ask me who was my favorite teacher, I’d say Christine Sleeper.”
Until Sunday afternoon, Liran Gordon hadn’t stepped inside Herndon High School for 38 years since his graduation in 1977. “But coming back to honor Ms. Sleeper feels right,” he said.
When he took his children to see the Roman Coliseum, Sleeper’s teachings were still with him as he shared them with his children.
“Christine Sleeper wasn’t a Latin teacher,” said Gordon.
“She was a teacher.”