A Latin Revival: Resurgam

I vividly remember two different experiences that occurred after I had given up a cushy desk job with benefits to become a Latin teacher.

In the first, I was sitting in the plush chair of my favorite Latin professor’s office feeling like a foolish idiot as I tried to articulate the trepidation I had felt when I had first read the Classical Language Standards, which stated that students should be expected both to write and to ask and answer questions in Latin. I had never done either. How exactly was I supposed to teach my students something I had never done?

My professor grabbed a pen off her desk, held it up, and declared, “Hoc est stylus.”

I stared at the pen in her hand. I knew deep, deep in my guts that I was in trouble at that moment; I would never have been able to recall the word for pen on my own. I couldn’t even say pen in Latin; I was beyond screwed. That visit to my professor’s office remains the only time I have ever visited her without feeling soothed or emboldened by her sagacity or her jar of cookies.

The next experience is of a much different tenor. I was attending the ACTFL conference the semester before I began student teaching, and I diligently attended each session on Latin, including a one-day workshop on the new AP Latin curriculum. As enthusiastically as I had started the conference, I felt increasingly anxious at each session by the various expectations until my hand shot to the roof during a session on the ALIRA Adaptive Latin Reading Assessment that included a discussion on proficiency in speaking Latin, and I asked the fearful yet fateful question I’d had in (almost) every education course I had ever taken:  “How am I supposed to do this?!”

Shortly after my plaintive query, I was seated in a restaurant in downtown Denver listening to whole fluid Latin sentences trill and dance off the tongues of the people around me as I sat enraptured by the tones of the language I had studied for years yet now in the natural cadence of everyday chitchat over an elk burger. Both despite of—and because of—that surrealism, I fell in love with Latin in a whole new way.

That new ardor, however, still hadn’t prepared me to be a student teacher (let alone one without a genuine supervising teacher, but that’s a different story!). I made more mistakes than I could count in Latin on my first day (I could’ve said unus, maybe duo and tres if I’d had a moment of brilliance) and more errors than I could count in English that semester. Like any good teacher though, I learned much more from my students than I taught them. After a few weeks of compounding mistakes, I made a prezi where I admitted how much I had blown it, apologized profusely, and asked for ways to improve myself. A wonderful kiddo raised her hand, somewhat tentatively, and offered, “You’re teaching like this is a college class, but we’re freshman. In high school.”

I’m sure that I made some twisted face of despair because I did not yet know how to teach Latin any other way. I took her advice to heart though, and she became one of the many kiddos whom I loved and admired for her determination as she matured and grew increasingly comfortable in her own skin—almost an adult, yet always one of my kiddos.

That summer, I attended my first genuine Latin immersion event called Rusticatio, a seven-day workshop with an abundance of good food, conversation, and most importantly, wine. After the workshop ended, it was hard to refrain from acting like an obsessed fan girl and shrieking with shrill incomprehensible squeals when I tried to describe how transformative of an experience I had found the week personally and in terms of my Latin knowledge. I was, for example, ridiculously proud of myself the first time I made a joke in Latin.

The next spring, I convinced my then-friend-now-husband to attend another Latin immersion experience over the weekend, a Biduum in Oklahoma. Although this first Biduum experience lacked some of the pizzazz of the week-long Rusticatio, it was still both jarring and revealing to me how much I had grown as a Latinist. This time, I asked the polite endless repetitive cycle of questions Latine to new participants:  Where do you live?  Do you teach? Do you have brothers? I watched their eyebrows knit together in concentration as they strung together perhaps their first sentence in Latin with halting pauses, “Ego . . . habeo . . . fratem.

A few months later, I attended Salvi’s Pedagogy Workshop; during those five days, I learned more from my fellow Latin teachers—all with thriving programs—about how to teach Latin than I did in my entire master’s program. I returned to the classroom in August a significantly better teacher, and my kiddos ate up the new activities as a Cyclops might devour an errant man in his cave:  with both terrible purpose and terrible casualness, seemingly unaware of the terrific results.

We had so much fun as we laughed and learned Latin together. It broke my heart to leave them, but that’s a different story—one where anger and sadness bleed together—and this is the story about my love of learning and the joys I continually (re)discover in Latin and its community of Latin teachers who have become like a large extended family, one that I look forward to visiting each Thanksgiving from which I leave with a stomach filled with delicious food and wine and a heart filled with the felicity that only comes from kindred spirits.

After I left my teaching job, I swore that I would read more Latin, that I would write more Latin, and that I would practice speaking more Latin. Instead, my Latin languished in the ebbs and flows of life’s realities, both harsh and sublime. Although I continued to skim the Latin Best Practices List Serve and the Latin Teacher Idea Facebook group on a near daily basis and assist my husband with his lesson planning, I felt bereft. In over a year and a half, I had read 20 lines of Vergil, book one of the Cambridge series, a touch of Lingua Latina – and that was it. I love both Latin and teaching, and I lost both. Quam ridicule! Eram stulta!

I was the first person to enroll in the Biduum in Oklahoma, and I enrolled my husband immediately after me. We were going. Some things are worth more than student loans and medical bills, and I looked forward to this Biduum all summer as those medical bills piled up and Latin seemed to slip further and further away from me. I wasn’t signing emails with “Vale!” or “E corde,” anymore. I had stopped automatically saying “ignosce mihi” as I slipped by people in the hallway. Though I had taught my dog his commands in Latin, I no longer spoke to him in Latin.

I was looking to reclaim the loss of a first and true long-lost love during the Biduum even as I dreaded responding to the inevitable “do you teach?” question. Such a hope for a mere weekend away seems absurd, but it is only in hindsight that I can acknowledge that I did hope for such an unreasonable outcome. The Biduum left me with renewed enthusiasm and committed to becoming more proficient while feeling that wretched barrenness without my roomful of kiddos sneaking looks of wonder at each other when I announce with perfect stoicism on the first day that the most important rule in Latin class is to not inadvertently get hit in the face with a stuffed animal because you weren’t paying attention.

The Biduum reminded me of the texts I got from students who asked if I had changed my mind about leaving when my name was still listed on their new schedules the fall after I left, of the parent who grabbed me and begged me to come back to teach her daughter Latin when we bumped into each other at the intermission of a ballet, of the girl who emailed me when my replacement was leaving and asked me to come back, and of the boy who jumped up and down and screamed my name over and over again when I volunteered this fall at the KJCL Ultimus Discus event. I hadn’t taught in six months to a year when these events occurred. These poignant moments are ones of pride and love and wrenching sadness.

Even as I am filled with these mixed emotions this week, I am also feeling a touch more connected to an important part of myself. I had to erase the greeting “Salvete omnes!” from a work email. I wrote a love note to my husband in Latin. I spoke to my dog in Latin, and he stared at me patiently with his ears perked up ever so slightly like he understood. I dreamed about Latin. I read in Latin – for fun. And as I sat outside eating dinner this evening while watching my chickens strut around their coop, I remembered how my husband told the story of Scissor Beak, our mutant chicken, in Latin this weekend, and I couldn’t help but grin and think of an idea for a story that maybe, just maybe, I’ll write in Latin. Soon.

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