Latin class.

A musty room where brainy boys (bound for medical school and seminary) study a dead language under the tutelage of an octogenarian, right?


At W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Latin classes are overflowing with girls, boys, athletes, geniuses and non-geniuses for whom Latin is suddenly alive and "much more fun than French."

It wasn't always so.

Just two years ago only 80 Woodson students were enrolled in Latin class -- not enough to justify hiring a full-time teacher.

But that was before Maureen O'Donnell. In September 1978, O'Donnell was hired to teach Latin part-time. And, oh, the difference.

"Last year we had 150 sign up for her Latin class," said Assistant Principal Charles E. Billak as he dug through his records to verify the numbers.

This year there are 265 eager Latin students, O'Donnell is a full-time faculty member and another part-time teacher has been hired to handle the overflow.

"It's creating some administrative problems, everyone wants to be in Mrs. O'Donnell's class," Billak said.

They call her Mom, Mother O'Donnell, Mrs. O and -- in jest -- the Old Battle-Ax.

She is a tiny bundle of energy with curly brown hair and a broad smile. She travels at the speed of light, sets high standards for her "kids" and speaks Latin with a Boston accent.

"Oh no, do I really sound like that?" O'Donnell asks, her face exploding into a laugh. "I haven't live in Boston in a million years -- I'm always surprised when people say I have an accent."

Always on the move, O'Donnell is anxious to show off the pre-fab Latin classroom which is parked behind Woodson on a asphalt lot.

"Let's get out of here and out to the hut," she said last week, dashing through the empty halls of Woodson High School.

Hidden from the view of Rte. 236 is a little red building with a noisy air conditioner hanging precariously from one window and a giant Roman mural painted on an inside wall.

It seems appropriate that the Latin class should be apart from the rest of the high school, for in that room there is little that resembles the traditional high school learning experience.

"When I was in school all we did in Latin was translate, learn vocabulary and translate," O'Donnell says wrinkling her nose. "But we have something for everybody here.

"If you're not a great grammarian, that's okay, maybe you'll be a good historian or enjoy mythology."

In O'Donnells's class the students study ancient history, whip up dishes with recipes from a cookbook on ancient Rome, make togas and tunics, build replicas of Roman buildings -- and learn enough Latin to allow them to sweep every Latin competition they enter.

In addition to broadening the scope of the subject, O'Donnell has instituted an honor system.

"On their first day in class, I tell them there is a bond of loyalty here that goes back to ancient Rome," says O'Donnell.

And according to the students, the honor system works.

"There was only one kid who cheated last year who finally stood up and confessed," says Bridget Hayes, a Woodson junior. "He said he felt terrible that he did something like that in Mrs. O'Donnell's class."

"It wouldn't work in other classes," admits one boy. "You have to really respect the teacher."

Besides the presence of students a week before school is scheduled to start, the thing that sets "the hut" apart from other classrooms is an enormous trophy collection -- evidence that O'Donnell's methods are working.

There are nearly 100 gold and silver trophies and plaques -- the earliest engraved date is 1978.

On O'Donnell's desk is another plaque -- the one students say means more than all the others: the Virginia Foreign Language Teacher of the Year Award, presented to O'Donnell last spring.

"She really deserved it," shouts Chris Donohue from a phone booth in his noisy William and Mary dormitory. Donohue was captain of Woodson's Latin team last year and remains a close friend of O'Donnell. "She's the best teacher I ever had -- or ever heard of."

A bulging folder in Billak's office, containing letters of recommendation for the award, testifies to the high regard students and other teachers have for O'Donnell. One, written by a teacher, reads in part:

"Not only is Mrs. O'Donnell an outstanding teacher, entirely devoted to her students, but she has overcome the great personal tragedy of the loss of four daughters to remain enthusiastic and (optimistic) . . ."

O'Donnell manages a smile when speaking about the deaths of four of her six daughters. All died during the past decade as the result of cystic fibrosis. She says simply that life was "very hard" when her daughters were ill, but praises an annual fundraiser held in memory of her daughter Brenda who died in 1975.

"She went to Bishop O'Connell (High School) and when she died they had a dance marathon to raise money for cystic fibrosis," O'Donnell says. "They hold it every year now in her memory, it's a big money-raiser. Those kids are terrific."

In the classroom O'Donnell seldom mentions her own problems, concentrating instead on helping her kids learn Latin and cope with life. Her students usually find their way to the "Latin Hut" at lunchtime, after school and during the summer.

"They know that what is said in this classroom goes no further," says O'Donnell flatly.

According to her college-aged daughter Megan, the O'Donnell household is a favorite hangout for Latin students. Maureen O'Donnell jokes that she and her husband Harold have a standing offer for her young friends:

"Anyone who's at the house by 4 o'clock on Sundays -- provided there's still a place at the table, is invited for dinner," she says.

"We go over there all the time," says John Donohue, a Woodson senior. "My friends can't believe it when I tell then I have my teacher's phone number and can go see her after school.

"She's not really like a teacher . . ." Donohue says, his voice trailing off as he searches for the words to describe his obvious affection for O'Donnell.

By student estimates, O'Donnell works with Latin students nearly 12 hours a day during the school week, then spends nearly every weekend escorting the Latin Team to competitions up and down the East Coast.

"We really worry about her," says one boy, seated on a desk in the class. "She doesn't sleep more than three or four hours a night -- she's always working on stuff for class."

Early this summer, when the state Latin team was chosen, seven of the eight members were Woodson students. O'Donnell was ecstatic.

"It was the first time ever that one school completely dominated the team," she says with pride.

With O'Donnell as coach, the team was bound for the national finals in Knoxville, Tenn. But when a sudden illness forced O'Donnell into the hospital shortly before the competition, the students left for Tennessee without her.

"They said they were going to win it for me," says O'Donnell, her eyes glistening. "They called me everyday in the hospital to tell me what they had won so far.

"I'm proud of them -- those kids worked hard."

In Knoxville last month, the team won the national title.

One hot afternoon last week, after the summertime students had left the classroom and O'Donnell was preparing to leave, she offered some suggestions on writing this story.

"The story should really be about the students," she said. "I love these kids, they deserve it."

But in the course of an informal interview with nearly 20 of her students, another suggestion was made.

"The story should be about Mrs. O'Donnell," said Eric Hughes emphatically. "She's the best teacher in the world."