With her white hair pulled back in a ponytail, Janet Fillion waded through rows of desks, periodically checking her eighth-graders’ use of the perfect tense — in Latin. At one point to help her students remember the various verb endings, she tossed aside all self-consciousness and broke into song.
“-ī , -istī, -it, -imus, -istis, -ērunt. This is the perfect tense translated has or have,” she sang, before clapping her hands once and letting out a big “Whooo!”
Not bad for someone who confessed earlier to a visitor she was hesitant about her vocal cords: “I’m getting an older person’s voice and it’s really horrible.”
The opening of school this month marked the start of Fillion’s 50th year of teaching in the Boston Public Schools. That’s right, five decades. All spent at what is now Boston Latin Academy, where she has taught generations of teenagers the language of ancient Rome.
Nearly half a century in a classroom might seem like a record akin to the last gladiator left standing at the Colosseum.
But just around the corner and a few blocks away, Alma Wright has been teaching at the Trotter K-8 School since it opened in 1969. And that’s not even where her career began. Her first BPS teaching assignment was way back in 1964 — the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act — at the now-defunct Dudley School in Roxbury.
The two women are believed to be the longest-serving teachers working in the district, according to the school department. Their careers have spanned 15 superintendents, the dawn of the classroom computer, and the racial turmoil of the 1970s. A passion for their craft keeps them coming back.
“I just really enjoy working with people who want to learn. I haven’t had a day I didn’t want to go to work,” said Wright, who traded in her first-grade classroom a decade ago to become the school’s technology teacher. (Wright was an early adopter of computers in the early 1980s.)
For Fillion, one of the most rewarding parts of her job has been heading up the Classics Club — considered as popular at the school as football — where students immerse themselves in the language, literature, and culture of ancient Greece and Rome and participate in competitions across the state and the country, including in the summer. Events range from quiz-show-like competitions to marshmallow catapults.
“I love the club and what we do: the competitions, the community service, the art,” Fillion said. “We have so many talented kids.”
To put in perspective just how rare their milestones are in a profession known for high churn, consider this: Half of all new Boston teachers leave the classroom within five years, according to a school department review of employment records since 2013, while only seven teachers and guidance counselors out of the 4,500 currently in the system were hired before 1980.
Aside from Wright and Fillion, the group includes Mary O’Neill, Ronald Johnson, Mary Susan DeLaura, Zita Cousens, and Cynthia Grant-Carter.
Yet Fillion, as a high school student in Westchester County, New York, would never have imagined being part of such a group. She wanted to be a geologist. But while at Oberlin College, she was eager to get through her studies and find a job.
“The only kind I figured I could get was the job I didn’t want — a teacher,” she said. “All my life I was like: I’m not going to be a teacher. My mother was a piano teacher, my father was a college professor, and my sister was a teacher. . . . I think somehow it was in my blood.”
Even at the start of her career, age defined her — although, then, because she was so young. Typically veteran teachers had the upper hand in securing assignments at Latin Academy, then known as Girls’ Latin School, but at the time few, if any, had expertise in Latin, enabling Fillion to get in.
“I was so young-looking that a lot of teachers who didn’t know me assumed I was one of the students,” she said. “They treated me not so nice in some ways because I was young. Obviously in a few years that went away.”
Her youthfulness was a draw for many students. When a group of students in the 1970s struggled to find a teacher to advise an Afro-American club they wanted to create, they turned to Fillion, said Karyn Greene, a 2008 Latin Academy graduate whose mother was among the students starting the club.
“The only way they had the club is because Ms. Fillion would advise it,” she said. “My mom was so happy that I had Ms. Fillion.”
Fillion has earned a reputation for being strict, but also a teacher who genuinely wants her students to do well and gain an appreciation for Latin. She bemoans that elementary schools no longer appear to be teaching English grammar, making it more difficult to teach Latin.
“I find myself teaching a lot of remedial English,” said Fillion, adding that some students cannot correctly identify prepositions and verbs in a sentence.
For Wright, her epiphany about teaching came her junior year in high school after she and other members of a Future Teachers of America Club were bused into elementary schools in her Florida district to cover unexpected teacher absences. She enjoyed working with the children so much she knew she found her calling.
In Boston, Wright’s most memorable time has been at the Trotter. There, she had the opportunity to take part in something groundbreaking: The school would achieve integration by persuading white parents in Boston and its suburbs to voluntarily send their children into an impoverished black neighborhood in the Humboldt Avenue area, known for its rundown tenements and high crime rate.
The school opened with a student enrollment that was 40 percent white and 60 percent black. But the integration effort left hard feelings among many black families in the neighborhood who could not get their children into the school, located in a new building with a strong focus on multiculturalism, art, and music, prompting protests.
“The first week of school it was so calm inside the classrooms, but then I would go home and see the media coverage — all of these families upset because they couldn’t get their kids in the school,” she said.
Her time at the Trotter almost came to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s. Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., as part of his desegregation rulings, ordered the dispersement of minority teachers to schools that had only white teachers. Wright was among 15 of the 18 black teachers slated to leave the Trotter.
But the Trotter’s principal wrote an impassioned letter to Garrity asking for an exception because the loss of so many teachers would have been detrimental to the school’s mission of having a fully integrated staff and student body. Garrity acquiesced and allowed the Trotter to keep nine black teachers, enabling Wright to stay.
Wright, who was one of the first teachers in 1997 to win the $25,000 Milken Family Foundation prize, also persevered in 2010 after the state declared the school underperforming, a move that enabled the principal to replace much of the teaching staff. The school subsequently turned around, while Wright remains a rare connection between the old and new Trotter.
“She is such a legend,” said Julie White, a Trotter School teacher who studied under Wright when she taught part-time at Wheelock College. “She hasn’t changed. She is the same person. She’s stern, but she’s also fair and comforting. She’s always there for you.”
So how long will these two remain in their classrooms?
Wright has no retirement plans.
“One day I will probably wake up and say I’m tired or find something else to do,” she said. “But right now I’m enjoying this.”
Fillion prefers to keep her students guessing. Her colleagues, who know her future plans, say she doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
“She’s a whirlwind,” said Michael Maguire, a fellow Latin teacher who has worked with her for 26 years. “She breathes life into a dead language.”