WHEN I STARTED the ninth grade, my counselor said that I would need to take a foreign language because colleges required two years of a foreign language for admissions. Several languages were offered at my high school, but my counselor (who was very smart) suggested I take Latin. Her recommendation seemed to flow from two basic wells of thought.
“First,” she said, “Latin is the mother of all languages. Many of our English words come from Latin derivatives, and if you have a good, solid base in Latin, you’ll be better prepared for future study in English.” Her statement made perfect sense to me. (Up to that point in time, I had given very little thought to where English came from, but I thought it might be nice to check it out.)
“Second,” she continued, “I think you’ll enjoy the intellectual challenge of the study.” Now emotion in her voice caused the pitch to rise a bit, and she seemed to lose touch with reality for a moment, as she turned her back to me and stared out the window. She talked slowly, deliberately as one who was remembering a time long-since passed. “I studied Latin for four years and loved every moment of it. It’s a beautiful language with much nuance and rich color.”
I didn’t know anything about nuance, but it sounded kind of French to me. My counselor made Latin sound so reasonable and challenging and…necessary. I signed on the dotted line. I enrolled. And so it was, that without fully knowing what I was getting into, I began a long night’s journey down the Appian Way.
Mr. Drowbowski (not his real name) was my first Latin teacher. He could best be described as serious– about everything.
He was serious about his music. He said his favorite key was C sharp minor because he loved the morose feeling it produced. (He didn’t say so, but I think he also read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe.) He was serious about the piano and hoped to be a concert pianist someday. He was serious about practice. He told us in class that he practiced piano eight hours on Saturdays and eight hours on Sundays.
But most of all, Mr. Drowbowski was serious— very serious– about “the mother of all languages.”
“There are some general thoughts about the language,” he said, “which will be beneficial for your understanding.” (Mr. Drowbowski always called Latin the language, reverently, with folded hands, using the same voice some people do when they talk about the arts or the theatre.)
“First of all, Latin is not a spoken language. It is a written language.” His statement caused a wrinkle to appear on my forehead. Uneasiness entered my mind and began looking for a place to sit.
I wondered why, if Latin could be written, it couldn’t be spoken. I didn’t wonder out loud though. I somehow knew that my teacher wouldn’t take kindly to questions like that, so I just wondered to myself. I couldn’t accept what Mr. Drowbowski said in it entirety. What good was it to know a language you couldn’t speak? I looked forward to proving him wrong. One of the reasons I signed up for a foreign language in the first place was so I could talk to my friends without anyone knowing what I was saying. I sat up straighter than usual, not wanting to miss what Mr. Drowbowski would say next. He was beginning to make me nervous.
“In addition to our study of the language, we will be focusing on the culture and life of the Roman Empire. It was an incredible culture, rich in nuance and color.” Mr. Drowbowski turned his back on the class and stared out the window, just like my counselor had done earlier. His voice had a far-off quality just like my counselor’s voice. And he spoke of nuance and rich color, just like my counselor. But he convinced me his train of thought was on a different rack than mine and going in the opposite direction. I still remember wishing I knew what nuance meant.
As my teacher continued to talk, two of my classmates walked down the aisles placing a text on each desk. I tuned Mr. Drowbowski out for a moment, opened my new Latin book, and began to thumb through its pages to see what was in store. Like most texts, there were lots of words and lots of exercises. But, in this text, on almost every page, there was pictures.
Some of the pictures were of ruins, broken-down buildings, and old roads with grass and weeds growing in the middle of them. One of the pictures had a caption about a place where Julius Caesar had won a famous battle. The book was filled with black-and-white photographs of statues in various stages of undress, which caused me to wonder about the propriety of the mother of all languages. This didn’t look like nearly as much fun as my counselor had said it was.
Mr. Drowbowski droned on about conjugations, verb tenses, and vocabulary tests. I continued to flips through the text, noticing that togas had a remarkable resemblance to my bathrobe and that Roman sandals looked for all the world like thongs. Anxiety squeezed my throat, but not so tightly that I couldn’t ask a question.
“Excuse me, Mr. Drowbowski, but did I hear you say we will have a vocabulary test every week?” I said. His answer brought no comfort to my now Latin-troubled life.
“Yes,” he said. “There will be a thorough vocabulary test every Friday.”
I continued glancing through the book, hoping for a ray of light, all the while getting closer and closer to a full-blown clinical depression about two years of incarceration with mother Latin. My hopes raised a bit when I flipped past a cartoon in the text book. Maybe there are some jokes in this book, I thought.
The cartoon was a policeman who had obviously stopped a young motorist in a convertible and was writing out a traffic ticket. He stood next to the car, looking down on the young man who was driving. the caption of that cartoon is one of the few things I remember about Latin. “Ubi est signis?” — “Where’s the fire?”
Was that supposed to be funny? Was that a joke in Latin?
Obviously, the reality of nuance and rich color was staring me in the face. Uneasiness had found a place to sit now, and depression sprawled out on the floor of my life, like a visiting relative with a sleeping bag. My life mad a slow, dirge-like pass before my eyes, and I put my face into my hands. This was going to be boring. It was not going to be fun.
Two years. I made it through Latin for two years. Straight D’s. Not “Improving slightly.” Not “Exemplary attitude.” Not “A joy to have in class.” For two years, the epitaph of my report card in Latin read, “Needs more work.” I could feel Mr. Drowbowski as he walked by my desk at the end of every quarter. I could hear his music in C sharp minor as he dropped the dreaded notice on my desk. I felt guilty. I had betrayed the mother of all languages, and what good was I now? How could I have missed the nuance and rich color that my counselor and my teacher kept telling me were there? I know they were there. Debbie Spengler sat right in front of me for two years, and she made straight A’s. She knew nuance. She reveled in every rich color. But me? All I could do was keep asking that question: “Where’s the fire?” I truly felt like a failure.
I buried those feelings for a long time. Gradually, however, as a grew older, I began to develop a sense that there is a lot more to life than Latin. I did well in English and enjoyed writing. I earned a degree in music and even composed and published some of it.
But I never wrote anything in C sharp minor because I don’t hear the song of life in C sharp minor. And I went on down the road of my life without looking back on the Appian Way or togas or statues without any arms. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I thanked God I didn’t have to conjugate any more verbs when I got out of Latin.
Got anything like that in your life? You were told when you were younger that you had to read it or learn it or practice it because if you didn’t, then (implied) something bad would happen to you.
Give yourself a break. Whatever it was, let it go. I’m convinced it’s OK not to like the key of C sharp minor. It’s OK not to think Ubi est signis is funny. God made us all unique, and He expected us to maintain that uniqueness in the midst of intellectual, spiritual, moral discipline. I may need to learn about togas, but I’ll never enjoy wearing one.
And thongs have always given me blisters between my toes.
“Brothers, I do not consider myself yet
to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do:
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward
what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win
the prize for which God has called me heavenward
in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should
take such a view of things. And if on some point you
think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”