Goodbye to FCS Latin Legend, Dr. Erika Harnett

By Sara Bergmann and Ms. Dickerson

Dr. Erika Harnett, more commonly known as “Doc,” has taught Latin at Friends’ Central for nearly four decades. Generations of students have been privileged to have the opportunity to learn from one of the most knowledgeable, experienced teachers to ever grace these halls. Doc is known for her strong-willed attitude and tough demeanor, and anyone who knows her well adores her for exactly who she is. Her famous lectures, words of wisdom, and random facts brought an energy to the classroom that was truly unique and unforgettable. As students, we maintain lists of the iconic lines Doc often recites that we refer to as “Docisms.” Here are a few of our favorites: “Look it up, I’m not a walking dictionary” and “The only time you’re not stressed is when you’re dead.”  

Dr. Harnett has been teaching Latin at Friends’ Central for thirty-seven years. She describes how she got her start at FCS: “I ended up here because I was a sabbatical replacement for David Felson at Germantown Friends years before he became headmaster here. It was at GFS that I experienced a type of education that delighted me and was not part of my own educational experience. When FCS’ Latin teacher [at the time] left to pursue another career, the school psychologist thought I’d be a really good fit. I thought it would be wonderful. The relationships between students and teachers, being so close, and trusting, I thought this would be a great place.”

FCS has proven to be a great place, both for Doc and her students. One of the greatest parts of Doc being the only Upper School Latin teacher was the close relationship that students built with her starting in their freshman years and culminating when they reached senior year (in most cases). “Friends’ Central is characterized by close, trusting relationships between students and teachers,” Doc says. While it is true that Doc is revered by her students, the feelings are mutual. Doc expresses, “Friends’ Central students are really generous. They want to like you. That’s the beauty of the kids. And they’re intellectually sophisticated enough for you to have great conversations. It’s a good feeling. [Here], the classroom is–and it’s not just for me–relaxed and unthreatening place to learn. Certainly, I’ve tried to make that the case in my own classes.”

Doc harbors a similar appreciation for her coworkers. When asked what, besides the students, has kept her coming back for the last thirty-seven years, she says, “My colleagues. They are terrific. I admire them. They have much to offer in terms of friendship and their professionalism. They share your joys and support you in your sorrows. They celebrated the births of both my children and comforted me when my husband died six years ago. There are good people here. And I’ve had fun. It’s been fun. I recommend the teaching profession for students. I tell them to think about it. It’s very rewarding in ways other professions are not.” To her newest colleagues (and other new teachers), Doc gives the following advice: “Make a point of observing teachers and being open to changing.”

Doc’s students have become so close with her over the years and are devastated their time with her is now coming to an end. Doc constantly has every student’s best interest in mind, though this may not always be realized by her students, especially when she gives two pop tests in one week! Numerous students comment on their strong love for Doc. Zeeanne Choi ‘19 says, “Honestly, if you sit and think about what Latin class is like, there is no reason for us to like Doc. But, if you sit with anyone who takes her class, there is no one who wouldn’t say that they love Doc. I will miss Doc, bringing her slightly chaotic smile and sardonic humor into her locked classroom everyday, and I cannot imagine L4 without her, scheming a way to get us to panic. Thanks for making a dead language come to life, Doc.” Elisabeth Forsyth ‘20 expresses a similar sentiment: “If I had to say two things about having Doc as a teacher, I’d say she’s probably the teacher who taught me the most and she didn’t teach me just Latin; she taught me about life…her class was the one class I let myself go to have fun and be as rambunctious as possible. From the random tidbits of information coming from her or some video, to the wonderful quotes, to the painful translations, and horrible subjunctives and participles, it’s been an amazing and wild ride that I will cherish for a very long time.”

When asked about what legacy she’s leaving behind at FCS, Doc immediately answers with, “My daughter.” Though Doc is vacating her position, another Harnett will remain on campus. Aside from her humor, her engaging teaching, and her vast amount of knowledge about literature and writing, the younger, remaining Harnett, Ms. Emily Harnett ‘09, possesses the treasured ability of being able to continue her mother’s legacy by sharing stories about her. She informs us that Doc is a “world expert in two-headed statues” and that in the beginning of her tenure, Doc taught full-time at FCS while working full-time on her dissertation. Emily also says that her mother “tricks students about what will be on tests.” But our favorite fact from Ms. Harnett? “When I was in her class, she rounded my grades down so as not to be accused of nepotism.”

Along with her daughter, Doc is leaving a multifaceted legacy. “I would say I am part of the legacy of Latin being a relevant language we still teach,” she states, adding, “I hope to continue the tradition of my predecessors. I hope I’ve continued it and it will continue after me.” Doc adds, “I’ve been here so long I know that once the class that a teacher has had contact with graduates, the teacher is not really remembered. Legacy is what’s carried away from what you taught [the students], not to the institution but to the individual kids. How to study. How to think. You hope it’s useful. I hope they have good memories of the fun they had in their learning experiences.”

Doc’s students have learned how to study and how to think. They have (almost always) had fun. It is difficult for Doc’s students to express how much they will miss Doc’s smile (the genuine and the evil), knowledge, and love for teaching. They know that she will have great success in her future endeavors and they hope she will come back to visit often, though they’re sure she’ll keep herself busy because, after all, vitanda est improba siren desidia.

When asked for parting words of wisdom, Doc has another Latin quote to share: Dux femina facti. We considered including the translation here, but instead, in the spirit of Doc, we’ll just say, “Look it up.”

 

Dr. Harnett (left) poses adorably with her daughter, and legacy, Emily.
Photo by Dorothy Babb ’20, Co-Photographer

 

 

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