The Latin lesson, or why moms always win

My mother always said I should take Latin. And so she made it her personal mission to convert me. Sometimes I had my Latin prod served with mashed potatoes at dinner, and sometimes straight up in the car (the perfect place, she thought, to trap a teenager).

But adolescent autonomy is a tricky business. The more she pushed, the more I dug in my heels. We danced this little duet for my four years of high school, one of us giving up when the other left for college.

I don't know why I always said no, except, of course, that she was the one asking. But my triumphant battles in favor of French, the language I professed to love even when I stumbled over the subjunctive, were eventually to haunt me.

"Latin is so practical," Mom always insisted over my snorts of derision. "It is the backbone of so many languages."

I had to admit - but only to myself - that she had a point. And casting an anxious eye at my peers, who had already worked themselves into a frenzy over the SATs, I couldn't help noticing that the National Merit Finalists usually had one thing in common: my mother's pet language. So, momentarily flummoxed by her calm rationale, I'd dust off my winning refrain and bring the argument to a close: "But can you speak it?"

It is to her credit, more than 20 years later, that she has never mentioned this chapter in our lives. You see, I am now married to a Latin teacher. The language I once proclaimed "dead" puts food on our table, clothes on our backs, and is busy insinuating itself into the vocabulary and lives of my two young daughters.

Clearly, Mom won.

Life in Latin has its moments of hilarity, even for a Francophone like me. We are probably the only vegetable gardeners in the world whose garden entrance proclaims Vivamus atque holeremus ("Let us live and grow vegetables").

When the neighbors mischievously accuse me of dressing up subversive sayings in the language of the Caesars, I assure them that it is just a pun on a famous line of Catullus, Vivamus atque amemus ("Let us live and let us love").

"Who?" I'm asked, and I launch into my explanation - really just a reiteration of my husband's patient accounting to me. And I think of Mom.

Like all children, my girls watch us carefully - they are the masters of observation. They see my husband's obvious passion for his linguistic love and the delight he takes in teaching Latin. It is a lesson not lost on two little kids.

They learned early on that he will teach them the Latin words for almost anything, so entranced is he with the idea of filling them with the love of Latin he has harbored for more than 30 years. But with children, this is not always a risk-free enterprise.

One day I arrived at my daughter's school to pick her up from kindergarten. No sooner had I arrived when her teacher intoned, "May I speak with you in the hallway for a moment?"

I felt my heart sink.

"It was Carolyn's show-and-tell today," she began.

"Yes, I know," I said.

"She decided to teach the kids some Latin," she continued ominously.

I felt my face flush.

"And so she taught them 'Digitus in naso' and 'Digiti in naso' - with demonstrations, which she insisted they also try."

By now, I, the Francophone, knew what that meant. My little angel had taught 21 of her 5-year-old colleagues to say "Finger in the nose" and "Fingers in the nose" in the lilting language of the Roman Empire, reinforcing the lesson with a practical display of her talent.

These days my little angels are older and would never try anything so gauche - at least not in public. They confine their more scurrilous Latin to the homefront, preferring to dabble in a bit of Spanish and French at school. My little Francophile heart beats proud.

But I am also aware that they know far more Latin than I knew French at their ages, and so I already suspect what our battle royale will be. And if history repeats itself, guess who will win?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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