Friday, February 24, 2012

When a Man Teaches Latin

This Latin teacher thing. It freaks me out sometimes. My Latin teacher in middle school and high school was, well, a stereotypical Latin teacher. She was five feet tall, gray-haired, and insisted on teaching Latin as a spoken language. Because being able to speak Latin is about as useful as being able to speak Klingon, so drill those verbs! Harden those consonants! Roll those Rs!

I shelved the oral Latin for a long time, but then I moved to Italy during my Junior year of college, and as I had only had one semester of Italian before I moved to Siena, my French and Latin helped me more than my sad, elementary Italian. I asked for French bouteilles of water and inquired as to where I may find the tonsor who would cut my Roman hair, but at least I was close and could (mostly) be understood by the Italians in my neighborhood.

When I returned home to the United States, I had a challenging semester ahead. I had to catch up on some of my comparative literature requirements. I signed up for intermediate Latin so I could take at least one class that offered the chance of an easy-ish ‘A’. My Latin teacher was a very bored graduate student, kind of cute in his dorky way, but so traumatized by his 4-year sentence in undergraduate hell that as long as we showed up and didn’t debase him with our improper pronunciation (Drill those verbs! Harden those consonants! Roll those Rs!), we passed.

So when I interviewed for my current post and gleefully informed my now-boss that I’d studied Latin in middle school, high school, and college, she asked me to teach Latin as well as English.

(Note to self: some skills are better left un-shared.)

The good news is that I only have to teach my students enough Latin to prepare them for Latin II in high school. The bad news is that I have to know far more than the simple Latin II material in order to answer challenging questions from my students.. As Latin teachers are thin on the ground in my neck of the woods, I have come to depend on my colleagues across the world to help me understand the whys and wherefores of the Latin language and ancient Roman world.

A while back, I posted about the wonder of the Latin teacher listserv and the weekly Latin teacher digest. I have learned so much from these seasoned Latin teachers and thanks to them, I am not afraid of the hard questions. This week, I was intrigued by an email that fell into my inbox from one of the Latin teachers, mostly because the subject line included Marilyn Monroe. A Latin teacher – Steve Perkins, from North Central High School in Indianapolis – shared his methodology for teaching Latin poetry according to the alliteration, themes, and rhythms of popular culture and song lyrics. This particular email was about a Roman poem’s resemblance to the specific pronunctiation of Marilyn’s p’s and t’s in her “Happy birthday, Mr. President” performance, but I was even more fascinated by comparisons between rock and Rome.

As I was curious, and love a good cultural literacy tie-in, I emailed Steve and asked him to elaborate on the connections between popular music and Roman poetry, and he sent me a brilliant email describing his top ten hits. He teaches Horace’s Odes III.10 and Ovid’s Amores I.9 to the melody of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” particularly the line “sleep all night in the pouring rain if that’s the way it had to be.” He explains that both poems feature a man “enduring the harsh weather by spending the night on his beloved’s doorstep.” According to Steve, this type of poetry is sometimes called paraclausithyron, which comes from the Greek words meaning “door” and “to lament.” He will bring in the 80’s hair band Whitesnake if he has to, but he admits that 1987 might render the band a bit dated. You know, as opposed to 50 B.C.E.

He goes on to explain that he teaches Ovid’s Amores I.9 and others with Pat Benetar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” Horace’s Odes I.25 with Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico I.8 with the film Boys ‘n’ the Hood. Thanks a semester with Sir Christopher Ricks, my first poetry professor, I teach Bob Dylan lyrics during my poetry unit, but Horace and Rod Stewart? Brilliant.

My favorite of his suggestions is a reference to the band Deep Purple in the midst of  The Aeneid II.246-247, the section about Cassandra during the Trojan War. In Steve’s words:

Cassandra was the priestess of Apollo who, after she spurned his love, was cursed that she always foretold the truth, but that no one would believe her. I bring in the title song to the 1973 album Burn by Deep Purple. The lyrics run, ‘The city's ablaze, the town's on fire.  The woman's flames were reaching higher.  We were fools, we called her liar.’ Cassandra was known as a firebrand, and in fact, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote a novel called The Firebrand, which is a telling of the Trojan War from Cassandra's perspective. Although the lyrics of the Deep Purple song support my interpretation quite well all the way through, I have had emails with the song's author, David Coverdale, and he says he was not inspired by the Cassandra story.”

Dude. Steve’s no outdated, gray-haired, Latin teacher with a penchant for oral Latin. This guy is my new hero.


  1. very interesting post. thanks for sharing!!
    could you precise which dylan´s songs hace any reference to latin poets??

  2. I should have been more precise on that point. I teach Dylan during my English class, based on the absolutely brilliant book by Christopher Ricks called Dylan's Vision of Sin and his lecture about the poetry of Bob Dylan, which I happened to order from NPR a long time ago on a casette tape. I don't think I even have a casette tape in my classroom anymore...

    Here's the digital version, from World of Ideas:

  3. At UNL as an undergraduate, so that I might now hold two doctorates, I took Latin III five times. I'll admit that I skipped class twice in the first semester: but, not once after that. Not too surprisingly, neither the book nor the instructor changed in the next four iterations. In the fifth try, with my highest score to date, the instructor gave me (or did he give himself?) the gift of awarding me my long desired "Pass". My all time high percentage grade was a course average of 54%. Latin IV was ducked via a substitute, my very favorite undergraduate class "Latin Literature in Translation".

    Language is not my thing. I've been asked to not speak French in Quebec. I've been asked to not speak Polish is Warsaw. I've been asked to not speak Chinese in Lincoln, Nebraska. I think I'll take the hint. Language is not my thing. Maybe that's due to genetic hearing shortcomings or maybe due to gunshot induced hearing loss.

    After the Latin III fiasco and long before demonstrated inability with French, Polish, and Chinese, I championed ending UNO's mandatory language requirement for graduation. Mine is a love affair of unrequited love. And many undergraduates are not masochistic enough to earn a degree if a foreign language is the barrier to exit.

    Please add your alma mater's Classics Department as a beneficiary under to your will, as have I.


  4. You are too much! I love this post. Your humanities teacher's idea of putting poetry to current tunes is brilliant. The Aeneid to Deep Purple. I would love to hear that. Our club is reading The Iliad now and we'll discuss it March 5. I wonder what song he would suggest for it?

  5. I would almost suggest gangsta rap. Except for its deplorable misogynism and brutal, back-alley sexuality, I have for many years said that it is the genre that perhaps comes closest to embodying a poem whose first word, "menin," means "rage." The aristeia of Diomedes in Book V certainly puts me int the mood to hear some hard driving rock/heavy metal.