Wayland, Mass. — OUTSIDE, the year's first snow plops to the ground like bits of slushy sno-cone. But inside, the lecture hall at Wayland High School is far off, in imperial Rome.
Francis Smith - arms raised, black robes flowing - slowly crosses the floor in a triumphant step as a tape recorder plays the opening number from ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' Although he resembles a Roman emperor calling his Senate to order, Frank Smith is actually a Latin teacher quieting 90 members of the school's Latin Club, here to plan their annual Roman banquet.
Ninety members of a high school Latin club? That might not have been terribly striking at the turn of the century, when half of all high school students took Latin. But this is 1984. Who takes Latin anymore?
At Wayland High School, almost 200 students of the 890-member student body do. And according to principal Charles Goff, full credit for the school's enthusiasm for Latin and the classics goes to Mr. Smith - who, after winning the hearts of a school and a town, has just been named Massachusetts' teacher of the year by the state's Department of Education.
Wayland students take courses ranging up to advanced Latin, where 62 of them study the words of Virgil and Horace, in the original. More than 150 others grapple with the literature in translation, or are introduced by one of the classics department's three teachers to ancient history, Renaissance literature, archaeology, and philosophy.
''He is a model of teaching,'' says Dr. Goff, explaining that this man he nominated for the annual award has mastered what he considers three essential qualities of a remarkable teacher: consistency, thorough knowledge of subject matter, and dedication to students.
''Frank is like the bright kid in the schoolhouse, who only needs you to give him the opportunity to move ahead,'' Goff adds. ''I feel my job is to keep out of his way.''
In fact, when Smith has teaching on his mind, just about anyone would do well to steer clear of his path. His colleagues describe him as a perpetual-motion machine; one student decribes him as ''totally nonstop.'' Fond of ''dressing up'' to bring students and classic figures closer together, Smith one day becomes a merchant of Pompeii, another day Milton, presenting ''Paradise Lost.'' Next week he will mount a scaffold in the lecture hall as Michelangelo, telling the story of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
''Teaching keeps me busy as a beaver,'' Smith says, employing an expression now equated with his name at this suburban Boston high school he first entered 24 years ago as a student teacher. Viewing him in operation makes it difficult to see him as part of a profession that these days is often characterized as downtrodden, demoralized, unattractive, and failing.
In the classroom, his arms and eyes, in addition to his words, become tools for drawing response from the rows of students whose eyes dart from teacher to sheets of homework and back again.
''Clinton,'' Smith says, dropping to one knee at the second-year Latin student's desk, ''Do I ever use a preposition with a dative evasion?''
Four other 13- and 14-year-olds chalk one-sentence translations onto the blackboard as Smith, once again on his feet, fires away. ''Laurie, how do I form the future paraphrastic?''
Later that morning, a smaller group of 16- and 17-year-olds is working through Book II of the Aeneid. Today's passage, including Cassandra's warnings about the Trojan horse, provides liberal opportunity for Smith's theatrics. Enacting the class's translation of Virgil's image of the night - ''a great dark shadow coming out of the sea and swallowing the city of Troy'' - Smith himself becomes the night: his black-draped arms extending before him, then the fingers of his hands spreading to accentuate the night's penetration.
For Smith, learning Latin is much more than a back door to good English grammar. ''It's not just the first declension, although that's important. It's really a tool, an elegant, precious tool that unlocks the grandeur of classical antiquity.''
And why should that matter to us? ''The classics can teach us so much about what it is to be human - about universal justice, and grandeur, and beauty.'' Pausing, then summing up his point, Smith says, ''It's so important to show students the excellence of human achievement. Somehow it makes them better people.''
National figures show the study of Latin and Greek losing the tenuous ground they hold at the nation's colleges. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently issued a report concluding that most college students graduate without even a cursory introduction to classical literature.
But the study of Latin is actually rising slowly in the nation's high schools - and the town of Wayland is part of that increase. This year more than 100 of the junior high's 475 students are taking Latin. Students say parents encourage them to start Latin early so they can take advantage of Smith's department.
Some parents come to know Smith through his annual summer outings to Italy, when he introduces students and adults to the glories of ancient Rome. ''It's during those trips that you see how much he knows about those times, and what a job he does of making you feel part of it all,'' says Goff, who has twice accompanied Smith. ''He's so enthusiastic,'' adds senior Glen Rosenbaum, who made last year's trip to Italy. ''He really loves teaching, and we feel it.''
But according to Smith, his first love really isn't the teaching. ''I love these kids, they make the teaching what it is: a vocation, a calling.'' And they love him. As he chats about his profession, smiling faces pop in the door to set homework consultations, while knocks and waves come from outside the window next to his desk.
This established warmth includes a fatherly rapport: One student lightly touches the teacher's arm as she explains a grammatical bind she's in; a boy with a vogue haircut beams as the teacher emphasizes praise for an exam paper by mussing the boy's hair.
Smith says he doesn't understand students or teachers who are bored with what they do. Yet he acknowledges the low state of his profession, recalling the cover of a national magazine showing a teacher sitting in the corner of a classroom, wearing a dunce cap. ''That hurts,'' he says. One of his fondest hopes, he says, is to use the exposure resulting from his award ''to get the idea across to teachers who may have fallen into discouragement that ours is a noble, a very wonderful cause.''
Helene Mensh, who has taught classics at Wayland for six years, is one teacher who got that message. Formerly at a high school north of Boston, Ms. Mensh says attending plays presented by Smith's students set her heart on joining his department. ''I wanted to teach in a community and in a high school where the classics are revered, and where I could teach some pretty high-powered courses,'' she says, making last-minute preparations for an exam on lyric poetry.
And Bonnie Catto, who teaches Greek and Latin at Mount Holyoke College, recalls her days at Wayland High, when ''Frank Smith had a lot to do with my sticking with Latin . . . he made it come alive.'' A 1969 graduate of Wayland, Ms. Catto says she can now appreciate Smith's ability to broaden the appeal of the classics. ''Involving everyone is what a classical education should be about.''
An impressive number of Wayland's seniors plan to continue with the classics. Glen Rosenbaum says he'll minor in the field in college. Latin Club president Elizabeth Carls is considering teaching the classics. Adds Catherine Garvey: ''I hope I'll find teachers like (Smith) in college. He draws it out of you, he makes you want to work for him.''
Back in his office, Smith gathers papers for his next class. ''Teaching these kids is like directing a symphony orchestra,'' he says, dropping the papers in order to gesture with his arms. ''You don't march to the riser and treat everyone alike: This one over here you treat as you would the player of a piccolo; but that one over there you work like the player of the big bass drum.''
And with that, Smith is on his way. Throwing on his black robe, it knocks over a fuzzy, brown beaver. A quick smile comes over him as he sets the stuffed animal, a gift from a student, back on its haunches. Attached to an elastic band around the beaver's neck is a hand-lettered sign: ''I work as hard as a Mr. Smith.''