‘Barba tenus sapientes’
Wise as far as his beard
April 23, 2016
In the beginning of the year Latin teacher Brian Metress had a long white beard and resembled Santa Claus. In class, Metress, as he proclaimed, was a giver, and bellowed in a way very akin to St. Nicholas. While the comparison is flippant, Metress’ work as a teacher and coach really do make him a giver.
Metress, the boys’ varsity basketball coach, had his first assistant coaching job at Mount Vernon High School in 1984, but also had a stint as head coach of Hayfield Secondary School.
“I went here to Lake Braddock and I graduated in 1980,” Metress said, “and then when I came back here from college, I was looking for a teaching job. And I got a teaching job at Mount Vernon, and later became the head basketball coach at Hayfield, where I stayed for 10 years.”
As a teacher, Metress was always looking for a chance to get a job at LB. He went to LB as a student, and his family was right near by.
“When I was given the opportunity to replace Mr. Martino as the basketball coach,” Metress said. “I moved to LB because my family still lives here, so I’ve been able to watch my five daughters go through Lake Braddock. The impetus was that I would be around a little more for my family. I would be a teacher and help the community, too.”
As a coach, he’s taken two teams to the state finals, but has come up short both times. Still he maintains that the 2014 LB team that got to the state tournament was his proudest accomplishment.
The expectation he has for his teams vary independently between seasons, but the continual hope is to win based on the actual team’s ability.
“Well, our goal has always been to win our last game of the year, and we’ve never done that,” Metress said. “So it’s a good goal for us to just strive to be as good as the best team there is. You’re never going to be able to do that all the time, so you just gotta evaluate each season individually.”
Metress is a man who prides himself in defeating challenges. He doesn’t need shortcuts or gadgets to help him. This is partly why he is one of the few teachers in the school who doesn’t have a phone.
“I’ve never fell in love with ease or convenience,” Metress said, “and that’s what phones represent. One of the things people always tell me is that they make life easier. And I’ve never believed in that.”
To Metress, there are no corners to cut. The driving force isn’t getting to the end of race, it’s beating the people to get there. This push manifests itself in both his teaching and coaching.
“When you’re a coach a lot of times your life revolves around competitions,” Metress said. “We make it a competition in the Latin classroom for ‘who knows this answer.”
Metress enjoys competition. He competes every day in the Washington Post crossword puzzle. He started completing them when he was 17 after seeing someone on a bus doing it.
This year, he hoards every-one since the one released on September 21st. They can be found stacked up in the Foreign Language Department’s break room.
His philosophy to completing the puzzle is similar to Adam Driver’s character in the movie While We’re Young. It is similar to when his character decides to just not know the ingredient in a sherbet, despite having the ability to look it up. As Driver says, “Let’s just not know what it is.”
Metress leaves the crossword unanswered like that, trying to overcome the challenge himself, not with a Google machine, he said.
“I don’t need a Google machine in my hand all day long,” Metress said. “I’d prefer to try and know it, and if I don’t then I try to get people engaged and try to figure out the answer. Without looking it up. The Romans couldn’t look it up. The Greeks couldn’t look it up. I don’t know if we need to look it up. So I don’t need ease or convenience.”
Metress laughed and said, “I just do that 24 hours a day,” when told about the comparison to Adam Driver and just not knowing.
Subverting expectations is part of Metress’ M.O. In addition to being the only male in the foreign language department, Metress thinks it interesting to love Latin and basketball.
“What other person is in love with a 2000 year old dead language and a 200 year old sport?” Metress said.
Metress had always wanted to coach high school sports, and therefore had his sights set on a teaching career as well. His path to becoming a Latin teacher was slightly less defined.
“I decided to teach Latin because I was in college and my five classes were theology, philosophy, British literature, American history and Latin,” Metress said. “So when my advisor asked me what I wanted to teach he told me, ‘Well, you can’t teach theology or philosophy in high school, are you interested in British literature or American history?’ and I said, ‘Not really’ he said, ‘So what about Latin?’, I said ‘Okay.’ And that was it.”
From there, Metress the teacher was born.
Metress has carved a reputation as a winning coach in Virginia for basketball, but a majority of his reputation is garnered in the Latin classroom, a classroom he molds in his own way.
The constant in each of the Latin classes are “Metressims,” or sayings that he routinely uses. For example the saying “Your grade is falling faster than and anvil from heaven to hell” or “laser-like attention to detail.” These sayings have changed over time and are made possible by the silly nature of his classes.
“I think some of the things we say in this classroom are born from the fact that this is a Latin classroom, and sometimes we are just being silly,’ Metress said. “There are certain things that I say now that I didn’t say 10 years ago, and there are certain things I say now that I said 33 years ago.”
Metress can often bounce off of the silliness of ancient Romans and Greeks and say some out-there things. Metress, however, isn’t worried about really offending people.
“I think that, when we are being derogatory, we are being derogatory and fun,” Metress said. “And so I think people realize that. I think the one thing with each individual Latin class, is that we can laugh about the things that are said in this class, just because you only say them in this class.”
As a teacher Metress isn’t afraid to have fun, but also keeps a predictable class. In almost every chapter of the Latin textbook, he goes with the same routine of assignments. Derivatives, translations, exercises, workbooks and practice quizzes.
“I think students like continuity,” Metress said. “I think students like to know what they are going to do and what they aren’t going to do. Everyday can’t be you know, ‘What’s going to happen today?’
Classes almost always have time for a student to do an assignment at the end of class, but Metress also doesn’t mind using a few minutes for a story. As a storyteller, Metress said that some of his best friends sit around and just tell stories.
One of his primary reasons for loving Latin is the mythology and stories. He says that he learned about people who are influential in America today by studying Latin. The stories of ancient Rome and Greece parallel some of America’s made-up stories, like Washington chopping down a cherry tree. We don’t necessarily believe in them, but they are part of our culture, he said.
“We still tell stories [in America]. That’s part of the deal,” Metress said. “So part of being a Latin teacher was learning those stories, seeing the value of some sort or some sort of teaching point to it.”
Metress’ stories are a staple of his classroom, with some being lost in time, but others leaving their mark on the listeners.
“I tell students things I think are funny, and they end up thinking the same things are funny,” Metress said. “People always tell me you told this story, or you told this story, or four years ago you told this story, and I forget them because I always move onto something else. But I guess I would say I don’t mind taking two or three minutes out of class time to tell a story.”
One of the lasting impacts of Metress is that he gets multiple people from the same family.
“That’s actually one of the fun parts of teaching,” Metress said about getting siblings. “The great thing is, because I graduated from LB, I’ve taught some of the sons and daughters of the people I went to high school with. And I’ve taught entire families. There’s one family, I taught all five of their kids.”
Metress sees getting siblings as a strong reflection on his teaching ability. He said. He knows that having a family trust him and send more of their kids to learn Latin from him is big.
“If you teach one brother or sister and then you get the next brother or sister,” Metress said. “And the next brother or sister, that means that the family thinks that you are doing a good job that they would put their second kid in there.”
After over 30 years of teaching, Metress hopes to leave a legacy for students with stories, an enjoyable class and even some of the love he has for Latin.
”Your students will go out in life and figure whether they liked you or they didn’t like you,” Metress said. “Whether Latin was worthwhile or not worthwhile, whether listening to my stories were funny or not funny, in the long run, that’s the legacy, that your students go on. I think I’ve had five of my students to go on to be Latin teachers, That’s a good thing because whatever we were doing, they felt that that was good enough to do for the rest of their lives.”