It has irked my conscience for decades
Was I right or did I do wrong? Has my conscience irked me needlessly for 75 years?
This is my tale: My freshman Latin class in high school started well with some 17 incipient classicists who drank not deep and dwindled soon to three who persisted: myself and two girls, Ellen and Berta. Our teacher was Principal Thomas Tooker of the Old School,who had no cane but still meant business. Because he was astonished at this turnout in a high school of fewer than 100, he happily organized a Latin Club, which unhappily ebbed as the class and the Solway ebbed, until it was silly for just we three to meet in our togas and say salve tibi!
We soon disbanded. But while we were at full strength we did some Latin Club stuff, and I translated a poem of Ovid into English prose and recited my version to the members, after which we had cocoa and graham crackers and went home.
In turn, other members did their stunts, and it is no doubt fortunate that our Latin Club was short lived. I had never heard of the Roman poet Ovid, as he wasn't included in our studies. This was strictly for Latin Club, and Mr. Tooker had to help me because I wasn't yet ready for Ovid, and you might say the same for the Latin Club. I remember the poem well, and if you reach down your Ovid book you'll find it soon enough. It's about the snows of yesteryear and considers the city of Troy, where now there is farmland. Yes, this was in 1923, I recall. My conscience has been troubling me that long.
So I tediously rendered the tender verses of sensitive Ovid into English prose, memorized my result, and with my toga a-tilt I stood before my classmates and recited, "Where the wind once whipped the walls of Troy, it rustles today long golden glades of ripening grain...."
Mr. Tooker said I'd done well. The applause of the club members indicated they had nothing else to do until the cocoa. I think, myself, that if you make allowances it wasn't all that bad.
So time passed, and so did the Latin Club. We three buried Caesar, had our Cicero, and journeyed with fated Aeneas, who first came to the Libyan Shore. We were graduated in the usual manner, and for some reason we three abiding members of Mr. Tooker's Latin Club had the three honor speeches. Miss Berta and Miss Ellen were salutatorian and valedictorian.
My scholarly classmates married, but I assembled later that summer to take entrance exams for college, which were conducted by Dean Paul Nixon, a member of the faculty and teacher of Latin. The exam he gave me had a few questions about grammar and syntax, and then a Latin poem for "sight translation," which would count toward 50 percent of the grade. Dean Nixon said there was no time limit, we could take as long as we wished, and to leave our examination blue books at the front table when we left. I scanned the grammar part and it seemed to be no great challenge, and I turned to the passage for sight translation.
This was advanced reading no high school student had seen before, and had to be rendered now without dictionary and grammar to consult. The task would really test a student. So I was happy to see it was a poem from Ovid. In fact, it was the very poem I had put into English and memorized three years before.
Sitting there in the examination chamber, I had no particular emotion about this coincidence that would give my conscience pause. I did not ask myself any grave moral questions. It did not occur to me to consider that aspect of the experience. I did not, if this is what you're thinking, lift my hand to inquire of Dean Nixon about ethics. Such never entered my head. I did fold the blue book over and began to write, "Where the wind once whipped...."
Shortly I put my blue book on the table down front and went home.
Two days later I had a letter from Dean Nixon that welcomed me to the scholastic fellowship of the entering class, and invited me to call on him within the next few days for a chat. This I did, and since during our chat he said nothing about my translation of Ovid, I assumed he didn't care to discuss it and I did not bring the matter up. This may have been unfortunate, but I have always believed it is a poor time to talk when nobody wants to listen. He asked if I would be in his Latin class. I said I had signed up for it, and he said, "Good!"
I was, in following years, in a number of his classes. I got good grades, and have remembered Dean Nixon as one of the few great teachers of my fetchin'-up. I even read some of Ovid with him. After college the dean and I kept in touch. When he retired he bought Sunset Farm in Harpswell, and after many years my wife and I called on him there.
That afternoon I told him how I had worked off my Latin Club stunt as "sight translation," and he said it didn't matter as I was a good student and would have passed anyway. I said that might not be the right way to think about it. He said, "It was too pat, but I couldn't believe you'd seen Ovid in high school. I did wonder about it, and I'm glad you told me."
I said, "So am I," but I've never been sure about that. One must always allow for coincidence, and it never gives warning, but still ...