Lenox teacher brings Latin to life
Jamie Keller started teaching Latin at Lenox Memorial High School 20 years ago. It was a very part-time job: one class, eight students. She has since built the program to 60 students, with a biennial trip to Rome and visits from Italian student groups on alternate years.
She has made Latin into something of a Lenox institution, in the words of one student, by "bringing a dead language to life and making it fun."
The Lenox story may be unusual, but educators say Latin is making a modest comeback nationally. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) seems to be one of the reasons.
According to the National Committee for Latin and Greek, students of Latin outperform students of all other languages on the verbal section of the SAT, and they say it is because 65 percent of all English words come from the Latin, as do 90 percent of the words of two syllables or more.
Latin survives in affluent public and private schools, and Caroline Caswell, Latin education teacher at Boston University's School of Education, says the SAT factor may be the cause. But, as a former teacher at Boston Latin Academy, Caswell says she thinks Latin is reappearing even in some inner city districts.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed essay, Harry Mount, author of "Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life," pointed to the National Latin Exam numbers as evidence of a comeback. In the 1977, 6,000 students took the exam, and in 2005, that number was 134,873.
"Know Latin and you discern the Roman layer that lies beneath the skin of the Western world," says Mount, pointing to one reason Latin educators say knowledge of it benefits an educated person.
President Thomas Jefferson, he said, studied Latin and Greek at age 9, and when he opened the University of Virginia, he employed classically trained professors. Mount says that of the 40 presidents since Jefferson, 31 have studied Latin, many at high levels. Latin education proponent Web sites include W. E. B. Dubois as one of the famous people who studied and taught Latin.
Several area high schools, besides Lenox, continue to offer Latin, at least at the basic level, and some to the Advanced Placement level. Among them are Pittsfield, Taconic, Wahconah, Monument Mountain and Mount Greylock, as well as the private Miss Hall's and the Berkshire School.
At Berkshire Country Day School, Eugenie Fawcett, who has taught Latin of 36 years, says her students begin "a gentle study of Latin" in the sixth grade, an age that she says is developmentally appropriate for the study of grammar.
Keller's own foray into the classics had nothing to do with the SAT or an unquenchable desire to know our cultural heritage, but by now, she is deeply rooted.
In addition to Latin, she has studied Greek to the point of the Ph.D. dissertation, and speaks Italian as well. Two of her dearest pleasures are reading Latin and Greek. All of this amuses her.
"I actually hated school," she said, "and I had a French tutor. If you had told me that not only would I be a high school teacher, but a language teacher, I would have said, `you are crazy!'"
But Keller, raised in Ocea-nside, Long Island, went off to college nonetheless, "because that's what we all did," with a plan to study political science.
"It was 1970, and the war was going on, and everybody was a poli-sci major." It was one of those good accidents that refocused her attention at Washin-ton University, when she enrolled in a course called Greek Govern-ments, what turned out to be a very difficult junior level Greek history course.
"There were more books on the reading list than I had read in my whole life."
The elderly professor stood in one place, hands behind his back, and spoke nonstop for 1 1/2 hours, two times per week, she remembers. "I was fascinated."
She earned a C or even a D, her lowest grade ever. "But I stuck with it because I liked it."
Her second exposure to the classical world was through the charismatic Kevin Herbert, around whom a circle of students gathered at the end of every class.
It was her roommate who recommended she major in classics, saying "it was all I ever talked about."
"So, I went to Dr. Herbert after the class, and stood behind the circle, and he spotted me, and asked what I wanted. I said, 'I want to major in classics. ' He stopped what he was doing and said, 'Give me your hand. '"
They walked to his office where they made her plan.
"It felt like he was parting the Red Sea," she said of Herbert, who is now in his 80s and still teaching.
A semester in Athens intensified her interest in Greek and the ancient world. "It was heaven, archeology classes on the Acropolis." That semester also planted the seed of her belief in international exchange.
Finally, senior year, she began to study Latin, and got a fellowship to attend graduate school at the State University of New York, Albany.
After SUNY, she worked a few jobs, including one at U. S. Congressman Silvio O. Conte's Washington office, but she missed the classics. Eventually she found a job teaching ad-vanced placement Latin at the National Cathedral School in Washington.
When she and her new husband decided to move to the Berkshires, where he grew up and her parents and sister now live, she went to work at Berkshire School. When she had her son now in college she took the part-time job in Lenox. Her first eight students all wanted to continue the second year, and a program was born.
Now, the advanced class, all seniors, numbers seven, of the 60 total in the school. Six girls and one boy, they know each other well, and they say this, their smallest class, is something they look forward to each day.
Keller used to ask students why they were taking Latin, and invariably they would state one of two reasons: Their mothers made them, or they wanted to score well on the SATs.
"Nobody said it was a desire to know the ancient world, so I stopped asking."
In 1970's England, Latin suffered the same fate as in the U.S., declining to a degree that alarmed many educators. That's when a group created the textbook that Keller now uses, the "Cambridge Latin Course." She says they wrote a textbook to include vivid stories and methods to keep students' interest.
"You can't do any better for high interest than 79 AD in Pompeii," she says.
Keller's students read poetry by Ovid and Catallus, as well as those stories in their text that they compare to soap operas, with characters including a dog, a familiar pet in Pompeii who lived just at the time that the eruption of Vesuvius destroyed that city in 79 A.D..
Keller's students eventually get to visit the house of their main character, since the Cambridge Latin writers used people who actually lived in Pompeii. The stories are historical fiction, but the people were real. Under the layers of lava, campaign slogans can still be seen on the walls. An election had taken place shortly before the destruction.
In Lenox, there are a few extra good reasons to study this so-called dead language, including that trip to Italy. Keller started bringing groups to Rome, Pompeii and home stays in Umbria in 1993, and sees benefits for each student who goes. The students become more confident, she says, and they see and hear other world perspectives.
When they visit Rome and Pompeii, because of their textbooks and language study, they feel they know some of the characters, and as one student said of Rome, "we go around reading the words on the buildings."
Keller's enthusiasm translates into other field trips, such as the recent one to New York to see "The Fantasticks," a Broadway musical based the myth of Pyramis and Thisbe, as recorded by the poet Ovid.
She explains to students that Ovid's writing was probably also Shakespeare's inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, "which of course, becomes 'West Side Story.' "
Her students do not know if they will continue to study Latin in college. It all depends on where they go, they said, or as Keller knows, it may depend on the professors they meet.
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