Monday, 17 May 2010

Pensum Latinum

I opened a Latin textbook the other day, the first in thirty-five years. I got it from Amazon for a penny + P&P. I decided I needed to do something to prevent atrophy of the brain from the treadmill of teaching, and I’m dredging up such Latin as lies dormant in there by reading and attempting to translate the (heavily edited) letters of Pliny the Younger, from this book that previously belonged to one Amy Whittaker, of form 11A. Amazing how it comes back. The principal parts of verbs are still there:

do, dare, dedi, datum,
fero, fere, tuli, latum,
cado, cadere, cecidi, casum,

They stick in the mind like advertising jingles. I’m experiencing again the smell of Latin, which for me is a schooly smell of leather satchels, stationery and dust. Pity, that. I’m hoping now to make up for the fact that I never took Latin far enough to read literature and never once experienced even the smallest tingle of pleasure from the language. I blame, in part, the miserable, embittered, alcoholic old paedophobe who was my first Latin teacher at twelve. (Me, not him.) That snort you just heard from the shades was Henry stirring in his eternal booze-soaked slumber, dimly aware that his ears are burning.

If I could sit him down and do my usual teacher trainer's lesson observation feedback, it might include some of the following points. First off, Henry, you might have tried to learn your students’ names, and attempted to match these to a face. This is a basic courtesy, and we all do that these days, if we can. We might have a class where any dark-eyed, dark-haired young man not called Mohammed is called Abdullah, but you know, we do make every effort to tell them all apart. How much easier it would have been for you to learn all those utterly familiar English surnames, but you never did, you miserable sod.You scarcely looked up from the desk.

You might give a thought also to your presentation techniques, I feel. Having thirty twelve-year old boys commit to memory the following information:

Nom puella puellae
Voc puella puellae
Acc puellam puellās
Gen puellae puellārum
Dat puellae puellīs
Abl puellā puellīs

without telling them what it means, or indeed that it means anything at all, is what gave rise to the confusion for which you always blamed the kid afflicted.

Let’s turn to classroom management now, a term I know you will dismiss with a snort, assuming you have heard it and know what it means. These days, teachers tend to feel the necessity to 'monitor' during lessons, meaning that they circulate while students are engaged on a task, correcting, encouraging, answering queries or remonstrating, depending on the age and ability of the learners. They do this because the correcting, encouraging and Socratic midwifery they engage in as they pass among the students is what they are fucking paid to do. Your approach to classroom management, viz., to read out a page and exercise number then fall asleep, would nowadays result in the setting up of an enquiry, especially if the kids knifed, set fire to, impregnated or perpetrated other such mischief upon one another as you dozed. We didn't do that sort of thing then, but as you must be realising, it's a different world.

Error correction now. I’m not going to get too technical here. Suffice it to say that today, we grade errors according to their seriousness and categorize them according to their possible etiology. This requires a little more subtlety than did your own approach: the roared threats, crimson face and popping capillaries, the hurled chalk and board rubbers. I was only once on the receiving end of this, when in the second Latin lesson of my life, I came up with this:

‘Amant magna cena.’

Instead of this:

‘Amant magnam cenam.’ (= they like a big dinner.)

And did you help? Did you give a few little hints as to where the error lay? Did you ask someone else to answer and then point out what I needed to revise or get straight in my head? In a pig's arse you did. You threw the Gran’pappy of all shit-fits. Really, now.

Later I became the closest thing you would tolerate to a class pet, because I was quick at translating and could be relied upon to supply the mot juste and not umm and ahh endlessly over a sentence when the lesson was approaching its end and you were getting desperate for a fag. Which brings us on to feedback: nobody got any, unless it was a piece of chalk whistling past his ear. When informing my parents of my speed and accuracy in translating, you had to add: ‘don’t tell him! Don’t go telling him what I just said!’ Fortunately, there was never any point in telling my mother not to pass on positive feedback about her kids.

So, Henry, I am going to try Latin again and separate it in my mind from your lessons and your shining example of the unteacherly art of Disinspiration. I even might get into Virgil this time, though I don’t think you should hold your breath, if that is a fitting idiom to address to the residents of Tartarus. We were taught Latin by a reasonable human being after your retirement, but for some of us, the damage had been done. The only line of Virgil that stuck in our heads was this, recited to one another with heavy irony:

‘…forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.’
‘…maybe even this will one day be pleasant to recall.'

But it isn’t, particularly.


Argentum Vulgaris said...

You couldn't have painted a better picture of Henry with a brush. He is everything I ever imagined the old style public school master to be; nothing to do with teaching at all. There were a couple of chalk and duster throwers in my time and a strap happy chappy, but they don't measure up to your Henry.


vilges suola said...

He was a dinosaur even then - 1972 or so. A species fortunately extinct in the UK, but not entirely in other countries.

Deiniol said...

Heheh! My first Latin was a charmingly bashful old queen, who would blush quite alarmingly at even the most innocuous remarks: by the time that we were in year 10 we had his number and spent most of the autumn term trying to persuade him to let us cover some of Martial's more, uh, choice epigrams. The phrase "an unexpurgated Marshal" still brings a teenage snigger every time I encounter it.

Fionnchú said...

Ironically, being just too young for the Latin Mass and all, my Catholic high school the very year I entered cancelled Latin for good and made us take Spanish. Then, I made up my mind to study medieval lit in college and found myself in Latin. The first intro course found eight, the second two and sometimes just me. As close to Oxbridge-sized classes as I got as an undergrad.

After being on the non-pass side of a P/F Medieval Latin seminar taught by a hulking Swedish Gradgrind in which the whole f-in grade was based on one test at a ridiculously high (for me) level of fluency, I struggled more in grad school, finally able to qualify Latin as one of my two required languages. But the second was Spanish, as I needed a break from the gradus ad Parnassum.

We had Wheeler's primer for our stint-- everyone seemed to use it then. But my son took a Cambridge Latin Textbook in his high school course, much more user friendly. I wonder if Rosetta Stone's used now? Homeschoolers in the U.S. seem to be reviving the classics.

vilges suola said...

After Henry we had a skeletal old snob who was obviously slumming it in a northern boys' grammar school - later I saw him on a TV documentary teaching in Stratford upon Avon where he must have felt more in his comfort zone. Finally we got the urbane and witty Mr Tuddenham - if only I'd had him from the off.

I took Spanish too and so obviously the Latin helped a lot. It also helped in subsequently learning Italian and Albanian, which I can read but not speak very well.

The lesson of Henry for me is that teachers can wreck a subject for the highly impressionable - and as a kid I was a psychic sponge. So I try to be as humorous and encouraging as I can. He was a great anti-role model.

ydnacblog said...

Oh God, I'm all sweaty and headachey now. Latin - for five years a vicious old harridan tortured me every day for about 40 minutes and 75 on Fridays. She looked like she had been soaked in vinegar and spoke as such too - poisonous jibes and put-downs replaced the dusters and chalk: we were a Girls' School, after all. She cordially LOATHED me because I had the effrontery to have gone further in that vile book than her class had when I joined. She never forgave me for knowing the Imperfect of "amo amare", and that's here I stopped taking anything in at all. I spent every lesson squeezing my hands in my lap and biting the inside of my lip until it bled, praying she wouldn't ask me anything. I learnt on my own how to translate and learned all requisite bits of De Bello Gallico (I think that's right) off by heart. I passed my Matric Latin exam and when I saw her again, 25 years later, she looked everso small....

Vilges Suola said...

What a cow! I think older teachers in the seventies were often pretty sad cases, stuck in boring uncongenial routines, and the students were resented by them in much the same way as hospital workers resent patients and station workers resent passengers. Imagine - she always WAS small! Henry I think was a piss head, as evidenced by his red capillaries, habit of nodding off in lessons and spectacular displays of temper. He had a disabled wife who probably took a lot of caring for - but that was not our bloody fault.


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