Thursday, February 28, 2008

Latin Class

This is an older piece I wrote and since this week has been demanding, I'm digging into my folder of unpublished pieces. Enjoy.

My parents made me take Latin. They explained it would help with writing, with my understanding of the English language, and look really good on a high school transcript.

They also took it when they were teens.

Most people who took Latin lament that the language is dying and few high schools offer it as an option. Most people who took Latin secretly enjoy the fact that they know something that most of the world does not, but used to in the good old days. Most people who Take Latin, do so because of the Most People who Took Latin.

My father said to me as I protested, “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” translated "perhaps this will be a pleasure to look back on one day."

I’m still waiting.

Latin I was a one hour class after lunch a posteriori: "from what comes after" when my teen age brain was at its most stupefied. It also was in the old building that seldom had working air-conditioning, which in Southeast Texas meant you had to funnel through the fog of a full belly and sleep inducing heat and humidity to conjugate the most basic of verbs, amo (to love).

My argumentum ab inconvenienti: an appeal based upon the hardship or inconvenience involved, never seemed to move the teacher to exonerate me for falling asleep or failing to do my assignments. Highlights from that first year of classes include the mass evacuation three days in a row because of prank phone calls to the principal’s office about loose poisonous snakes in the hallways, Roger’s exploding coke –he put alka-seltzer in the can, and the break up of Carol and Chris mid way through the semester.

Most of the girls really liked Carol and hated Chris. Chris was one of those insufferable types that would argue with the teacher about whether to use the past perfect or the past when translating a particular sentence. My teacher had a phrase for those students who argued that level of nuance, they liked de asini umbra disceptare: "to argue about the shadow of an ass."

The lowlights of Latin class included my attempt to translate sentences from the Aeneid without the aid of a dictionary in a fluency quiz. Halfway through the thirty minute test, I stopped trying to write sentences and just translated each word individually so that the teacher would at least know I knew what the words were. Her comments back to me on the paper: parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus: "mountains will be in labor, and an absurd mouse will be born.” meant she knew I was sorta trying, but the results were less than impressive.

When I translated it, I thought mus was moose. Aparently my knowledge of the flauna of Ancient Rome was as accurate as my knowledge of the language itself.

Like most of the participants in this chosen course, I was a draftee, a victim of a prior generation’s infatuation with inflicting the same pain on the future as had been done in the past. (Now because I’ve had Latin I can tell you that the prior sentence would be put in the Future Perfect if you were expected to translate). I was just hoping to make it through the two required years with a B. When I tried to shorten the sentence to one year, Dad said, “quae nocent docent: "things that hurt teach." I translated that to mean “No.”

The Second year of Latin, one gets to tackle Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. It was a significant educational moment when I finally understood what our teacher had been yelling at us during role call each afternoon was, loosely translated “Sit up straight and spit out your gum!” She would also say, olet lucernam: "it smells of the lamp,” meaning I had done the work in a hurry and last minute. It’s hard to object when 1) you know what she said and therefore know she’s right or 2) if you don’t know what she said, it also proves she’s right.

Fast forward to today and my son is in high school and here I am in the role of the parent, thinking, “You know son, Latin looks really good on a high school transcript.” But so far, I have restrained myself from actually making the suggestion that any of my children consider this course of study. I’m afraid they’ll ask me for help. If so, they’ll come away from my tutorial thinking, ne Aesopum quidem trivit: "he has not even thumbed through Aesop." If any of them do decide to take on this subject, I hope and I pray, they does it in loco parentis.

Oh, and just in case my Latin teacher is reading this, “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant.”

for fresher takes on humor than a riff on an Ancient Language,!

1 comment:

JimmyV said...

Very nice. We plan on inflicting the pain on ourselves and our little ones simultaneously by homeschooling it when we didn't take it. OK, my wife took it for one year in college, voluntarily. Her parents didn't take it.

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