Behind words, beyond reason: an ethos of language
To us, she was Miss Donley. She rode our high school Latin classroom as an equestrian rides a spirited horse: patiently, thoughtfully, and with unequivocal firmness. Which was a good thing: for as students we were, if not exactly wild, certainly more given to sass than serenity. Only beyond her pillared and charioted bulletin boards would we spin our little pranks, slamming lockers in gladiatorial bravado and swaggering as only a sophomore among seniors can swagger. Once having entered her precincts (so stark and austere after the stuffed luxuries of the biology lab down the hall), we came under the spell of her polished blackboards. There, our studied disregard for learning having given way to a grudging fascination, we sung of nouns and the man, groped among the irregular verbs, and were invariably ambushed by the ablative absolute.Skip to next paragraph
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There, too, had we thought of it, we would have discovered that all knowledge , like all Gaul, divided is into three parts: the practical, the theoretical, and the esoteric. The first was nicely exemplified in our English class, where we studied a book whose title (Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary) sounded rather like a cross between a self-help tract and a jail sentence. The second, the theoretical, was the province of geometry, where I recall that we once debated the possibility that zero was infinity. The esoteric was clearly embodied in the Roman tongue: ornate, convoluted, full of fine sounds, and entirely useless.
Or so we thought. For which of us, puzzling piecemeal through Caesar's exploits, could recognize the value of such an immersion in antiquity? In those true-false days, the fact was king: he who was smartest had the head most full of useful detail. We came to The Gallic Warm as to algebraic equations, intent on ''solving'' them into English. Never mind that it told us of a wholly different age and conscience; never mind that around the edges of the words shone the penumbra of a strange new world of feeling. Feelings couldn't be memorized or graded. In the press toward facts, feelings remained on the fringe.
How thoroughly our priorities were reversed never occurred to me until much later. I remember, in college, getting into a silly squabble with a fellow student about the dative case. His Latin, it seems, was better than mine, and so of course he won. But what astonished me was how little I remembered from my studies. I could still smell the classroom. And I had a clear sense for the sound of the steeds in the night, the watchfires signaling from hill to hill, and the breastplated centurion sweeping back the flap of his tent as the mist lifted over what we now call France. The feelings remained. But I knew nothing of the dative case.
I recalled all this recently when a friend told me about learning another unused language. She spent some years as a typesetter in a publishing firm. She was not old enough for linotype and hot lead, nor young enough for word processors and video terminals. She fell in between, when the letters were set from a punched paper tape produced by a keyboard machine. She told me how she learned to read the holes on the tape -- so that, when something went wrong, she could dive into the wastebasket and pluck out the relevant tape as easily as you and I could recover a thrown-away page from the typewriter.