Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fifty Minutes

It was a class like any other and because of that it was a class like no other.  My 3rd period is Latin II, and we were finishing our study of Julius Caesar.  The warm-up activity was to translate an English sentence into Latin.  Following that, we read and discussed a passage of Latin poetry related to Caesar.  Ho hum.  Not terribly exciting stuff.

Ah, but you were not there.  The warm-up sentence was the most complex piece the class had ever seen.  It was a compound sentence with two subordinate clauses, one of which contained a passive periphrastic.  Yet the students have been completing prose composition exercises since the beginning of the semester and they were ready.

Using different colors, we analyzed the parts of the sentence first.  We talked about the need to re-word the clause "troops must form a battle line" to read "a battle line must be formed by troops" so we could more easily construct the Latin passive periphrastic.  The students then turned to their notebooks and began the task of composing the Latin.

I walked around the room, and the questions were simply astonishing.  "Why is 'was announced' passive, but 'was announcing' is active?"  "Why does the form of sum need to be an infinitive?"  "How do you get the stem to make the gerundive?"  Again, these may seem rather ho-hum questions, but the earnestness with which they were asked and their specificity spoke volumes.  These average, normal, typical teenagers were not throwing up their hands in despair.  They did not simply check out and put their heads on their desks.  They knew what they needed to know and were able to formulate the right questions to obtain that information.  I am not exaggerating when I say that every single student was actively searching notes, figuring things out, and asking questions.  Many came within two or three minor errors of perfection, and one young lady was just one letter off in one word.

From there we turned to our discussion of a passage from Book IX of Lucan's Pharsalia, an epic poem written in the first century A.D. about a battle between Caesar and Pompey in 48 B.C.  Because our unit is primarily on Caesar's writings and Lucan's poetry is quite challenging, we do not read it in Latin but from a bi-lingual version with Latin and English on facing pages.  The passage we read this day gave Cato's speech to Pompey's men as they were about to face the arduous march back home across the inhospitable region of North Africa.  We talked about Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis and how his name has stood for two thousand years as the symbol of honesty and uprightness of character.  We talked about Joseph Addison's 1713 play Cato:  A Tragedy and why George Washington had it performed for his men on the eve of Valley Forge.  Students asked questions like, "Why do we think of Caesar as a hero if a man like Cato was against him?"  This, of course, led to a discussion of the complex nature of any person and how it is possible to admire and even imitate some qualities while being opposed to others.  When we read the lines

Must any soldier be assured of danger there's relief,
So taken with life's sweetness, let him seek another chief*

we talked of how success is not always assured, a good grade is not guaranteed, and a job after college is not a given, but that a true leader will always shoot straight and not sugar coat things.  The line "for whether I command or serve, I would not have it known" prompted the observation that the real leader is a servant-leader, serving alongside the rest.

It was fifty minutes of intense, complex grammatical work and intense, complex philosophical/historical discussion.  Conversation with one young man even continued after class, and I think it is safe to say that this ordinary class of young people, some honor students, but many not, proved the truth of Cato's words, "True honor comes more joyful when at higher cost it's won."

*Translations are mine, copyright 2010.

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