Wednesday, October 8, 2008

discendi linguam latinam commemorata

Recollections of learning Latin.

As expected, the classics blogosphere (Chris Jones et al.) has taken note of a recent NY times article on the resurgence of Latin in high schools across America. More interesting, however, is the reaction it has stirred up outside of this tiny community; the high-school reflections of Ben Wolfson at Unfogged are right in line with my own experience, and point towards a general trend in high-school classical education:

In Scarsdale, N.Y., where Latin enrollment rose by 14 percent to 80 this year, the high school sponsors a Roman banquet on the Ides of March during which students come wearing tunics and wreaths in their hair. Seniors serve bread, olives, roasted chicken and grapes to younger students, and all of them break bread with their hands.


While I personally took Latin in high school because I thought it would be cool, rather than because I was under the impression that doing so would make me> cool, I believe that unbiased observer E. Klein can confirm that the Latin population at our school was home to the coolest of the cool. While I have noted before that it was exposure to the subjunctive in high school that set me on my current terrible path (my mother having failed utterly to get me to say "were" rather than "was" in counterfactual conditionals), it's less known that the main Latin teacher at my HS was also a practiced cock-joker, having once (or maybe more than once) claimed, for instance, that semen leaves his penis at improbably, and dangerously, high speeds. (Also: the contraceptive properties of anal sex. No doubt the frequency of such incidents is exaggerated in my memory, but it's still somewhat hard to believe that we ever learned anything, and that neither he nor the other Latin teacher, hardly any cleaner-mouthed, haven't been embroiled in scandal.)

Loyal commentators on that blog further confirm my suspicions. Oudemia writes:

Why are so many high school Latin teachers pervs? Mine was fond of telling the boys in class to get the girls on a boat, because girls lose all their morals on a boat. CA's Latin teacher (at ogged's super honky high school) was a flamboyant gay man who used to chase the girls around his desk crying "Give teacher a kiss!" and promising A's to whichever of them would show up to class in a "monokini."

Thus I am inclined to think that these Latin teachers are the norm. My own high-school Latin teacher was crazy (in a charming way), and excelled at telling to near exclusivity the dirtiest mainstream stories, revelling in translations which echoed crude modern sexual lingo. When we were tested on mythology, the fill-in-the-blank methodology reinforced the reduction of these fabulae to their lowest, most lacivous denominator. Thus the myth of Zeus and Danae became the tale of the "golden shower," and Zeus and Europa the story of the "bull-focker" (one student I recall as particularly zealous in attempting to say repeat this phrase as often as possible).

Likewise, Latin in my high school was not the domain of the cool or popular. By senior year, the "bull-focker" chanter and his like-minded comrades had abandoned the discipline, and it became the province of only a few nerds like me.

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