Better Than the Browns

By Kathy Ewing

Years ago, I taught high-school English and Latin. Students were lively and silly and often sweet, and I enjoyed teaching literature, writing, and, yes, even grammar. But there was a lot I didn’t like. I didn’t enjoy forcing human beings who had no choice in the matter to write essays and to read required works even I couldn’t get excited about. John Holt, my favorite education writer, reminds us teachers that school is compulsory for our young charges. When they enjoy a lesson, they might actually be enjoying the lesson, or, he says, they might be thinking, “At least it’s better than jail!”

I disliked giving demerits for uniform violations, checking hall passes, not letting kids go to the restroom, dealing with unreasonable parents, monitoring study halls, and the glowering of  fellow teachers when, for example, I allowed students to talk during a raucous pep rally. In fact, I hated pep rallies. I know they’re supposed to be fun, but to me they seemed like raucous worship services for  adolescent males.

I quit teaching with both relief and regret when my son was about to enter first grade, glad to leave behind the behavioral objectives and the five-paragraph essays, but sorry that I might never teach again. Because the actual teaching I liked. It was the testing and the rules I didn’t like.

Eventually our kids got older, and our bank account got smaller, and I began teaching Freshman English at Cleveland State University, a large urban institution with a diverse student body. It had some of the trials of my previous teaching experience—endless grading and students’ recalcitrance (it being a required course). Mostly the kids at CSU were polite and hardworking and friendly, and even, sometimes, eager. I felt lucky. I got to return to teaching mostly without the travails of high school—no lesson plans, no extra duties, no meetings. And also, basically no money, but that was okay.

Then I got even luckier. I slipped into teaching Latin at CSU, replacing a retiring full professor who had offered Latin on the side. I had assumed, for sure, that I’d never get another chance to teach Latin. Now, I could start from scratch with my own students every fall and introduce them to the beauty, silliness, and maniacal order of classical Latin. Every year, a few students hang on. They finish a second year, and then sometimes they keep going, reading Vergil or Ovid or Cicero with me.

Reading Vergil, for instance, the students struggle through their hundred lines of the Aeneid. We laugh about the Trojan hero Aeneas crying all the time, and Vergil’s elaborate similes and convoluted syntax. We argue over whether a phrase is an ablative absolute or dative case. It’s nerdy as hell, but so what? On one day of teaching, I might explain that “digitus infamis” describes the middle finger; that finger had a bad rep even back then. I might recount some deeds of the Trojan War but often find my students know more about the myths than I.      Small classes. Great literature. Engaged, hardworking, and friendly students. One morning I went off on a tangent in Latin 201 about rereading Crime and Punishment over the summer, making some obscure connection between the Dostoevsky novel and the Latin text we were working on.

A student named Bill said, “Funny you should mention Crime and Punishment. That book is why I’m here.”

In his fifties, Bill was a good-looking, fit guy, with a candid, blue-collar demeanor. He wore a baseball cap and jeans and ran his own painting business. Interested in medieval history, he hoped eventually to teach in a community college. He was friendly and good-humored and plain-spoken, capable, conscientious, and down-to-earth.

Bill explained, “My wife and I were going to see Crime and Punishment at the Cleveland Playhouse a few years ago. I thought, ‘I haven’t read a novel in twenty-five years. Maybe I should read that book before we see the play.’”

 Bill read Crime and Punishment. He couldn’t believe how good it was and even cried a little at the end when faithful Sonya accompanies Raskolnikov to Siberia. Then he read The Brothers Karamazov and loved it, too, and then The Adolescent and The Idiot and a couple more. “He’s a great writer,” said Bill. “I decided that I might want to do some more of this. Reading and studying. So I enrolled in college.” He attended school full-time, looked after his family, and ran his business. Eventually he earned a Masters degree in history at CSU.

I wonder what it meant to callow adolescents (I love them, but they’re callow) to sit in a class with Bill. He didn’t talk down to them and struggled with Latin conditionals and deponent verbs like everyone else. Just by being there and being his straightforward self, he set an example.

A young woman called Kat set a comparable example. Beginning Latin as a CSU sophomore in her late twenties, she went on to take all the Latin she could get. At the same time, she was raising three kids as a single mom and working full time to support them.

A conscientious student, she purchased flashcards to go along with our Latin text and kept them wrapped in a rubber band in her purse. Whenever she was waiting for one of her classes to start, she’d pull out her vocabulary cards and review.

When Kat graduated, she decided to plow straight on to grad school. She had grown to love the academic life and resolved to pursue a Masters degree in medieval history. A couple of years later, she invited me to sit in as she defended her thesis. I hadn’t seen her for almost a year.

When I walked into the conference room at about 1:00 pm for her thesis defense and greeted her, sitting at the long conference table chatting with a friend who’d also come to lend support, and I overheard the word “induced,” I said, “No. Don’t tell me.”

Kat stood up. She was very pregnant. Since I’d seen her the previous semester, she’d gotten married. Now she was a pregnant mother of three, finishing grad school, and working full-time. I expressed my admiration.

            “Wait,” her friend said. “There’s more.”

Kat calmly remarked that immediately following her thesis defense, she was heading to the hospital, there to have labor induced. She planned to have the baby around 5:00 pm that day. Now, several years later, she’s pursuing her Ph.D.

You can understand, then, my impatience with folks who express condescension toward my first-generation, public-university students. Some people are incredulous that such “disadvantaged” students are even capable of learning Latin. The most common question about my job, in fact, is why my students enroll. Humming just beneath the question is this refrain: “Dead language. Dead language. Dead language.”

Such diverse students have diverse reasons. Those interested in law or medicine believe that Latin will help them with the vocabulary of their professions. Music majors want to decipher the Latin words they are singing. History scholars have an interest in classical times, and aspiring theologians hope someday to read, say, medieval Latin texts. Often, of course, students have to fulfill a language requirement, and my class fits into their schedule.

I could go on, and sometimes do, about the practical benefits of Latin. It increases your vocabulary, gives you a solid footing in grammar, prepares you for studying other Romance languages, introduces you to great texts and great ideas of Western culture, and helps you understand allusions to classical mythology. (See “Nike.”) This is all true and important.

None of it, however, has anything to do with why I really teach Latin. I teach Latin because it’s fun. Not for everyone, I hasten to add, because for some people, Latin is torture. Latin is to them as statistics is to me. People have different sorts of minds, and I don’t regard those statistics people as Philistines. For me, untangling a gnarly Latin sentence affords the satisfaction of turning a key in a stubborn lock.

One day, an older student, a retired dean, described his weekly Latin assignments as a spiritual exercise, an odd description of our translation work–Apuleius’s scatological 1st century novel The Golden Ass. But he was referring to the bracing and meditative discipline of sitting with his Latin text every week. I agreed it could be satisfying, and he seized on that word. “Yes, it’s satisfying!” he almost shouted. “I’d rather do my Latin on a Sunday afternoon than watch the Browns!”

 We can only hope that someday watching the Browns gets more satisfying than translating Latin, but I’m not betting my toga on it.