Hooked on classics

Young Latin and Greek scholars spend a week testing their academic skills, conjugating verbs, shouting slogans, and tying on togas in San Antonio

Twenty-five years and 1,600 miles ago, there were days I would recoil at the sight of Penny Cipolone. It was nothing personal, really, only that Magister Cipolone, being my high school Latin teacher, had the power to ruin an otherwise perfect day with a pop quiz on superlatives or a command that I translate on the spot.

Now, all I remember of that lively dead language can be summed up as follows: bo, bis, bit, bimus, bitus, bunt, and Villa est villa Romana.

Nonetheless, I find myself walking eagerly across the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio on a recent hot-as-Hades Saturday to embrace the woman who tried to teach me, via conjugation, the magic of organization - as well as its root word - perhaps before I was ready.

As current National Committee Chair of the 2003 National Junior Classical League (NJCL), Ms. Cipolone is here to oversee 1,300 students of Greek and Latin (plus 300 chaperons) immerse themselves in six days of classic language celebration and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the NJCL. (The organization, sponsored by the American Classical League, has nearly 50,000 members worldwide.)

"If you ever want to see anything strange in your life," Cipolone says, "watch kids in summer sitting down spending an hour and a half taking academic tests."

In fact, the kids don't just take the tests, they take them enthusiastically. Afterwards, they jockey for position among the herd gathered to search out their names and scores on long computer printouts the moment they are posted. Those who score in the Top 5 in such subjects as mottoes, grammar, mythology, and reading comprehension receive ribbons.

Robbie Robinson, a former JCL member who attended four conventions in high school and was president from 1988 to '89, still comes back every year. Now a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Towson University in Maryland, he is an active member of the Senior Classical League (SCL), which lends organizational support at the event.

Sweating heavily as he tapes up scores, Mr. Robinson explains why he continues to attend: "People here are amazing. The dedication is phenomenal. I have met people I would not have met in any other way, people who are unique and creative and fascinating."

Though he did not continue Latin in college, having that foundation bolstered his other studies. "It's helped me understand how to pick things apart logically," he says. "Latin is the first thing that ever taught me how to look at things from multiple points of view at the same time and really set me up to look at things thoroughly before I make a decision. You have to do that with translation."

D.J. Johnson approaches the wall of scores and announces, rather cheerfully, that he's really mad because he scored "only" sixth in the Greek derivatives test. The student of both Latin and Greek isn't really all that upset - he's just been elected second vice president for the 2003-2004 NJCL year. His main role will be to keep the flame of high spirits burning, not a difficult task given his assessment of Latin.

"It's the most wonderful language on the earth," Johnson gushes. "It's the basis of so many other languages - you have to go back to the place it all started to understand where we are now."

Ask a random high schooler not affiliated with JCL to guess the demographic here and odds are you'll receive an eye-rolling riposte. Which is to say Latin club has a reputation as breeding ground for geekus maximus.

But the students strolling this small red-brick campus are a diverse lot, with many races and both genders well represented, from all across the nation, united by a fierce enthusiasm. And their ranks are growing.

A recent Associated Press story finds that sales of Latin textbooks and materials are up, and elementary schools are starting programs. The number of students taking Advanced Placement exams in Latin is nearly double what it was a decade ago.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reports that 177,477 students (1.3 percent of public high school students) are studying the language as of 2000. That's still well below the 700,000 students in grades 9 through 12 who took Latin in 1962, but an improvement over 1976, when the number had dropped to 150,000.

For Laura Giles, a Latin teacher from Amarillo who has been sharing her love of Latin with students for 30 years, this is her 35th convention and her husband Gary Giles's 22nd (he's been teaching Latin for 25 years - they met in graduate school). Laura was in her Seattle high school's JCL when her teacher suggested she might like to go to a convention.

"I went to Bowling Green, Ky., on the train and the bus," she recalls. "It cost $20 then for three nights. I went home so excited. The next year, my dad said, 'You probably want to go again.' I didn't think that was economically possible. He found a way to send me."

That year she was elected to office. When she graduated she joined the SCL. A pretest at the University of Washington placed her skill level at halfway toward a Latin major, which sealed the deal. All roads led to her beloved career.

While emphasis is on scholarship - the quiz-showlike Certamen competition makes "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" seem like a skip down Sesame Street - there are plenty of activities that don't necessitate being a brainiac. These include Olympika Games; a talent show; a Roman bazaar; and the Romapalooza Spirit Fest, in which groups try to out-shout each other proclaiming their love of Latin.

The graphic-arts competition features room after room of art from cartoons to sculpture. Some work is stunning in detail, while other pieces offer a strong hint of that famous done-the-night-before element.

An edible Pegasus mosaic is carefully crafted from beans, rice, cereal, cake decorations, and rye seeds (no word on the palatability of the glue). A clever board game is titled Escape from Pompeii. There's a map tracing the route of Jason and the Argonauts. And posters illustrating various Latin phrases include the hilarious depiction of a used-car salesman, replete with diamond-bright smile, leaning on what surely must be a lemon. The slogan reads: "Non semper ea sunt Quae Videntur" ("Things are not always what they seem").

The apparent favorite event is the Spirit Procession, a culmination of the collective energy gathered and built here over the week. At 5 p.m., teachers, students, and chaperons decked out in their finest ancient regalia fill the gymnasium. Fashion statements run the gamut from plain white sheets to cow patterns, Harry Potter, Bugs Bunny, and Little Mermaid togas.

The pitch is deafening as they prepare to shout cheers and parade across campus to the "Roman Fiesta" (actually a Mexican buffet).

As they file out, Florida's delegation - those feisty JCLers who dominated in the Certamen finals - bark in unison, "Go bananas, go, go bananas," perhaps not the most Latin of sentiments, but definitely a unifying chant.

Maine delegation members sport shiny Roman helmets. And from the crowd erupts a sudden rhyme to the rhythm of the military sound-off march: "Midas had a golden daughter! (Midas had a golden daughter!) Couldn't take a drink of water! (Couldn't take a drink of water!)"

Cipolone, exhausted but ecstatic, just reelected as chair for next year's convention in Richmond, Va., drinks in the sight of legions of Latin lovers in her midst.

Suddenly, the Kentucky delegation turns toward her and, starting low and holding the first syllable, they crescendo in a chant that's been making the rounds all week: "Ciiiiiiiiip-o-looooone. Ciiiiiiip-o-looooone!"

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