On the verge, a boost from Virgil

A curious thing happened to me on my way to college. This was some time ago, as the annies labunt, if I may coin a phrase, and having completed four years of high school I was eager to seek converse with the wise of all ages and join the fellowship of the learned. I faced some obstacles.

My town was small, perched on our nation's edge and looking off at the Azores and not too keen with the erudite. But our town meetings were not stingy, and while our high school never had 100 students, we did support four teachers for it. And one of them taught four years of Latin, all the way from amo-amas-amat to the last word in the sixth book of the Aeneid, where we found the stateliest measure ever wielded by the lips of man.

We lacked about everything now considered essential in upper-case Education, but our fathers and mothers gave us our Latin, and we got it some old good.

I "took" my four years of high school Latin from an old-school Latin master whose real name was (brace yourself!) Thomas Tooker.

He drilled us the first year in declensions and conjugations, the adventures of Marcus Nauta and Agricola, gerundives and absolutes.

"Memorize the prepositions that take the accusative," he told us. "The others take the ablative; no need to memorize both." Mr. Tooker was the complete gentleman and always wore dignified, even glum, brown neckties that we youngsters said he knitted himself from grain-bag strings.

I can't say we had any affection for the man, but we respected him and never gave him any guff. We read Caesar; then we read Cicero; then we read Virgil, and betimes we made side trips either in class or in Latin club to look at other writers, even to a couple of Milton's Latin poems.

Mr. Tooker, grim as he was with his gerunds and neckties, nonetheless had that knack, which so many teachers do not, of generating enthusiasm in his pupils. If we pupils didn't exactly love Mr. Tooker, we did like Latin, and he kept it fun, bright, and radiant, exciting and agreeable, functionally beautiful. There was none of this "dead language" stuff.

There were three in my Latin class in high school: myself, Berta, and Ellen. We three were also the Latin Club.

Every second Friday, we took our togas and went back to school in the evening to embellish our daytime studies with happy frolic about the Forum. Mr. Tooker always had something to amuse us.

There was a poem that stumped us all one meeting:

Malo, malo, malo, malo.

Simple enough, too. Malo is the first-person singular of the verb malo, "I prefer." Malo, ablative, place where, "apple tree." Malo, meaning "naughty, evil," ablative of comparison. Malo is an ablative of condition.

Thus: "I'd rather be in an apple tree than a naughty boy in adversity."

Latin Club wasn't all frivolity. We'd translate some nugget and memorize it to recite at club. One time Ellen did a ghost story, and her recitation brought the fiends to squeak and gibber in the Roman streets in a fearful way.

And at one meeting I presented my translation of 30 lines from a Georgic of Virgil. Mr. Tooker said he was proud of me.

So we finished school, and I was on my way to college. I was at a disadvantage. Most of the boys who would be in my class at college had finished high school and then gone to "prep" school for a year. This I had not done, and I didn't even know I should yell "Here!" when my name came up at roll call.

In my school, if I weren't there, my seat was empty, and the teacher knew I had been delayed again by my barn chores.

I had no cow at college. And I had no certificate from an expensive prep school to support me, so the college of my choice required that I take an entrance exam in Latin to prove I was worthy.

I SHOWED up a couple of days before college opened, my hair parted, and found Dean Paul Nixon ready to give me the quiz. The dean was new to me, but as a doctor of humane letters and professor of Latin he would guide me in the next four years to many scenic places in the realms of gold. He said, "Salve tibi." And he smiled.

The dean was a happy man and had translated Martial for The Loeb Classical Library, A Roman Wit. Then he gave me the questions, a blue book, told me to sit where I pleased, wished me well, and said to take my time.

I had no trepidation about the test. I wasn't tense. I looked at the questions and saw the first few were about syntax and vocabulary. Then, counting 80 percent in the grade, was a piece of "sight translation" that I had never seen before.

Or had I?

It was the 30 lines of Virgil's Eclogue that I had translated and memorized for Latin Club a year ago.

It took me four minutes to finish the test, sign the blue book, pick up my cap, and say "Vale tibi" to Dean Nixon. He said, "That was quick enough; you may take more time if you wish." I told him I was quite finished, and because this was too good to keep, I also told him about our little Latin Club.

Again he smiled, put my blue book in his book bag, and said, "Welcome to the fold."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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