Homework and Latin-Speaking Heifers

The morning radio man told me several things I found hard to believe, and then he said a California academic authority was urging that homework be eliminated from the public-school program. Homework, it seems, demands time that could be better used enhancing social attitudes, developing useful neighborhood fundamentals, and inculcating environmental tolerances. That, I believe.

Long ago, when the first school superintendent to come out of teacher's college got up in our town meeting to read from a slip of paper that teachers were underpaid, I said that education would never get back on track until the family cow is returned to domestic felicity and every boy has a calf to raise and every girl knows how to salt butter. This had already become a safe philosophy, because by that time nobody knew what I was talking about, and our schools were so far over the hill that I was dismissed as some kind of nut.

When I entered high school, I was already a close friend to a smallish black Jersey milker named, lucidly, Blackie. We joined in a useful endeavor twice a day that involved a 16-quart dairy pail, and while I extracted Blackie's benevolence she would ingest her generous allowance of dairy ration and meditate on one or another of the seven liberal arts and sciences.

Anon a soft murmur of pleasure would escape Blackie, as she told me she loved me and how happy she was to share this opportunity for public benefaction. It was on one of those evenings, along about there, that homework intruded, and Blackie, along with me, began studying Latin.

At my first amo-amas-amat, she lifted her head from her grain box, turned to gaze at me with grateful eyes, and then settled down to give full attention to the academic advantages thus offered her, free of charge, by the community taxpayers.

Parenthetically, our family had living with us then an elderly great uncle who often came to the barn while I was attending Blackie, and he would put in his time at some small chore, such as scratch-feeding the hens or pitching down some hay, and at my first amo-amas-amat he felt obliged to leave the barn and return to the house, where he sat in his rocker and moped.

He explained later that when I amo-amas-amatted, the words transmitted him strangely back to the old Ridge District Schoolhouse, where he first heard them 80 years ago, and he got to thinking of redheaded Sally Dingley, who had the seat ahead of him and was his first sweetheart. He hadn't thought of her in years, and was suddenly overcome with emotion, being unable to grain the biddies for sentiment about Sally. This uncle never came to the barn again while I was doing my Latin.

Blackie stayed with me through Virgil and took a little of Ovid and quite a bit of De Rerum Natura.

The truth is that in those days, we, as an intelligent, educated, people, had no notion of what homogenized milk might be, but we had dairy cattle all up and down the state that could handle the passive periphrastic and scan the Odes of Horace.

Today, it's unlikely you'll find a schoolmarm in the land who can make a small conversation without dragging in ``you-know'' and ``right-now.''

Two years ahead of me in school, there had been a keen-minded young man who went on to win all the prizes at the university, and being a farm boy he breezed through four years of Latin, cow and all.

I chanced that when I came to the orations of Cicero, I got the textbook from which he had studied. Methodically, and with his ready erudition, he had made notes throughout the book, including instructions for emphasis and effect if the speech were to be delivered as Cicero delivered it at the forum.

I didn't realize at first what a gem I had. But I quickly noticed that if I paid attention to the notes and references in this book, Blackie would become intensely interested and react with enthusiasm.

Blackie, for instance, reacted so blatantly to the scurrilous defamation of Cataline that the poor man was doomed long before the oration ended. That was a powerful attack, and if you think homework isn't important today, go back a few weeks and replay a few campaign remarks.

My father, who never finished school, was determined his youngsters should, and he liked to moralize about a boy of his time who took Greek. My father would sit in his first-grade seat, while this older boy was up in the eighth grade reciting his Greek lesson. Yes, Dad did say it was all Greek to him, and it was, but he never forgot how the Greek alphabet resounded in the little one-room school as Gregory Winship melodiously ran it off. And he always envied Gregory the opportunity that he, my Dad, never had.

Dad would urge us to use our school days to advantage so that we might someday have a heifer that could speak Greek. I followed his metaphor, but only into a bit of Plautus and Terence.

Except for the morning and evening ceremonies with Blackie, my homework was done on a stool in the kitchen, where I sat with my back against the domestic hot-water tank, close by the stove. My bed chamber had no heat, and we had no living-room conveniences to help with winter. Nor did we have television and related diversions.

Homework was reputable, and was something we had to finish before we could read a little in the Youth's Companion, whittle on our sloop model, and take up our fancywork.

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