The free-spirited teacher

By Megan Zahneis, News Editor

It was a roundabout journey, one that started in Turkey in the 1960s, winding its way through Greece, an Army base near the Panama Canal, southern Florida, New York City, Italy, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

But it’s the journey that brought Gael Montgomery to a small, secluded college town in southwestern Ohio to teach Italian.

Yet Montgomery didn’t start learning in earnest the language she’s now paid to teach until she was in her early thirties.

That’s because, at one point or another, Montgomery worked as a legal secretary, waitress, freelance writer and maid, all while harboring passions for art, music, dance and theater.

She’s a cultured woman, a thinker and philosopher and activist whose understanding of the world derives from her unique experiences.

These days, Montgomery is comfortable in the classroom, and her course evaluations indicate as much. As she leads a dozen or so Italian 101 students in an exercise — dissecting whether to use molto or troppo in a series of sentences — she switches seamlessly between Italian and English, guiding them toward the correct answer.

Quasi corretta, she says. Almost correct. The abstract concept of how to express “much” or “many” becomes concrete, and the students — all of whom Montgomery knows by name — nod as Montgomery’s blue Expo marker forms phrases on the whiteboard. She pauses as she writes, making eye contact with students to gauge their comprehension. When a few stragglers still look confused at the end of the exercise, she assures them that the concept is “easy, but bizarre.”

But before any of that — before her visiting assistant professorship at Miami and before the manuscript of a book examining the history of sexual violence in Renaissance Italian literature, before the Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University, before the master’s degree obtained through Middlebury College in Florence and the bachelor’s degree at The New School in Greenwich Village, N.Y. — before any of it, Gael Montgomery was a college dropout.

After completing high school in Florida — her father’s government job situated the family overseas during Montgomery’s preteen years  — Montgomery had enrolled at Barnard College.

Her father had encouraged her to attend college. Never having completed his own schooling, it was important to him that young Gael and her brother, a year older than Gael, continue their education at a “good school.”

To Gael, Barnard seemed as good as a choice as any. It was near her brother, who was studying at Columbia, and offered programs in theater and modern Greek.

So she went, despite being unsure of her purpose in a college environment. Then, her father passed away. At 19, Montgomery was anchorless in the Big Apple.

“Even now, I try to reconstruct what I was experiencing or thinking or feeling. I can’t. That whole time is a sort of blur,” Montgomery recalled. “It was really important to him that we were in college — he hadn’t finished college — and when he died, I realized, ‘I don’t have to stay here.’”

Feeling out of place at Barnard, and having already taken a semester off prior to her father’s passing, Montgomery changed her major three times before finally dropping out.

But the seed had been planted. Montgomery’s time as a music major saw her enrolled in theory and composition courses and granted her her first exposure to the language she would eventually spin into a career.

That, though, would have to wait until she re-enrolled in college at age 32, after 12 years in the working world. She held a well-paying part-time gig as a legal secretary, but never saw it as much more than a way of financing her creative endeavors: painting, writing, composing music.

Montgomery prefers not to dwell on her onetime creative aspirations, but lights up at any mention of her beloved languages.

Amongst her ASPCA calendar and a repurposed coffee-mug-turned-pencil-cup that she snagged on a dumpster diving excursion Uptown a few years back, Montgomery does keep one of her final painting projects — a coaster tile, on which is painted a young woman with voluminous black hair — on her desk.

It’s a reminder of the life she once wanted: the life of fame and fortune and acclaim as some sort of creative virtuoso.

“I would have liked that,” she admitted. “Or I thought I would have liked it. Who knows.”

Yet she always knew, she said, that she didn’t have the talent nor the ambition to make it big-time.

“I have a lot of skills, but I don’t, as far as we can see, honestly have a great talent — the kind of talent that is clear,” Montgomery said. “Ultimately, there’s some lack of ambition in me.  I think, to want to be a star … some part of me knew that that was miserable.”

If she does have one exceptional talent, Montgomery decided, it’s for languages — for learning and absorbing and conversing in a tongue foreign to her ears. Even now, her eyes light up at the mention of languages, a craving she sates by watching American television with French subtitles and picking up People magazine en español.

“Oh, it’s great,” Montgomery said with a laugh. “I read about all of these stars that I never heard of who are on Spanish channels and what they wear and their boyfriends and their wives. At some point when I really want to learn Spanish, it won’t be completely alien to me.  I’ll be able to say things like … what the stars are wearing on the red carpet.  I can talk about that in Spanish.”

But Montgomery’s love of languages all started with Greek. She spent most of her first decade of life in Greece, and, despite the fact that living in an American enclave didn’t lend itself to learning much of the local language, she was fascinated by modern Greek. She took up the language at Barnard and, she discovered, she was good at it.

Italian came even more easily. And so, her post-graduation time in New York was punctuated by jaunts to Italy to immerse herself in the culture.

“I would work at the law firm, earn money, quit, go to Italy, come back, get my job back — because I was very good at it — save up some money, go to Italy again … because you can’t really learn a language and a culture unless you go to that country,” Montgomery said.

Her enrollment in the New School formalized her knowledge of Italian. Then came her master’s degree (during which time she studied in Italy), and then her Ph.D at Johns Hopkins. Finally, a series of teaching jobs led her to Oxford, Ohio.

Now, she is Dr. Gael Montgomery of 214 Irvin Hall, who teaches an upper-level course on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and specializes in Ovid and Ariosto.

Not bad for a former college dropout.

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