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Michael M. Fiveash, Ph.D., classics scholar and beloved Latin teacher to generations of Lexington High School students, died at his home in Jamaica Plain on Thursday September 19. He was deeply intellectual man whose intense responses to music, art and literature all found their way into his teaching, allowing him to make the ancient world and its languages come alive for his students. He loved myths and storytelling, for the pure joy of stories; he also loved the structure of stories and their deeper meanings. All these qualities, together with his devotion to young people, his wit and his endless irreverence, led to an extraordinary teaching career in which he used his many gifts to the full.
Michael was born in Boston July 16,1946, the first child of George and Liberty Fiveash. George was the son of a preacher from a small town in Georgia. Liberty was the child of Greek immigrants; her maiden name “Williams” was an anglicization. After a second child, Elaine, was born, the couple moved to South Weymouth, where Michael attended school until he entered Boston Latin School for his high school years. He received a scholarship to Harvard, graduating in 1968 with a degree in classics.
Michael did graduate study-- also on full scholarship -- at Boston University, where he earned a PhD in a program of his own design, combining Classics and Anthropology. HIs doctoral dissertation explored themes in myth and ritual in several cultures, including ancient Greece, with a focus on the concept of liminality -- the sacred space that exists where human beings transition between one state and another. Many rituals and stories, he wrote, surround the mysterious moments when humans are on the threshold between roles or between worlds, vulnerable because they are neither here nor there.
While still a graduate student, Michael took a job at Lexington High School, filling a mid-season vacancy for a Latin teacher. What began as a temporary measure turned into a thirty-seven year commitment to a career for which he won many honors. His most cherished prize was the devotion of his students. a surprising number of whom have gone on to become Classics professors. The Caring Bridge website chronicling the course of his recent illness (caringbridge.org/visit/michaelfiveash) has received over 20 thousand hits, with hundreds of former students telling stories and leaving messages testifying to the impact the had on their lives.
He early recognized the ways in which computer technology could be used in the classroom. Beginning in the 1980s he taught himself basic programming skills and began creating innovative teaching materials which -- among other things -- allowed him and his students to create instant and memorable examples of whatever grammatical form they were learning. In recent years he took courses to learn the use of a more sophisticated system of interactive classroom technology and, thanks to grants from the Lexington Educational Foundation, he and his colleague Karen Girondel brought the first interactive whiteboards to Lexington High School. But the technology was only the delivery system for his content, which included art, literature, history and archeology -- all delivered in such a way that his students wanted to learn more. (Those kids hung on his words, as they never knew what he was going to say in class. A tradition developed of writing down funny/shocking things he said and sharing them. One sampling of his comments can be found on a website kept by a former student. http://jong.gravidus.org/fiveash/) His classroom also became a safe haven for troubled or stressed kids looking for a listening ear or just his quiet presence.
In 1969 Michael married Katherine Vorhaus (Radcliffe, 1969). They lived in Cambridge where their son Matthew and daughter Polly were born. During many summers he and Kathie worked as counselors at Wildwood, the Audubon Society camp in New Hampshire, where they made lifelong friends, and where Michael’s love of nature, hiking, music and storytelling got full play. The couple were divorced in 1993.
In 1998 he married Doris Jackson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and moved to Jamaica Plain.
For Michael there was not much dividing line between teaching and leisure. Following his retirement in 2011, he taught several popular courses for Lexington Adult Education, including semesters on the Iliad and the Odyssey and a recent series he called “Latin for Grown-ups.” He created beautiful, witty and erudite multi-media lectures for these -- a task to which he happily devoted many hours. He thoroughly enjoyed this teaching, often praising a life where he could sleep in until 7 and had no papers to grade. The quiet pursuits of walking in the Arboretum, gardening, and sitting by the fire also made him happy. He and Doris enjoyed reading aloud to each other and participated in a poetry group with friends. He liked sharing Red Sox talk with his son Matt, and delighted in his role as grandfather to Polly’s two sons, Jack (7) and Leo (2).
At age ten, Michael was transfixed by his first experience of a symphony orchestra while on a school outing to the BSO. From that time he was enthralled with classical music, a lifelong source of joy. He studied the trumpet and, as a high school student, played in the Boston Youth Orchestra. His love of music embraced many genres (in college he played wash-tub bass in a jug band), but listening to classical music -- including regular trips to hear the BSO at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood --was a daily devotion.
He will be sorely missed. A memorial celebration of Michael’s life will take place in a few months, at a time and date to be announced. (Check the Caring Bridge website.)