Luigi would stand next to your desk and wait for you to use the wrong verb tense in a piece of Latin
oratory. He'd actually vibrate with rage when you hesitated and if you spoke in the present when the text demanded pluperfect
, he'd hit you hard with the back of his hand. Corporal punishment is banned in most public schools but modern sensitivities had not yet reached our prairie University. Luigi was generally a kind soul but an ignorance of proper verb conjugation
really pissed him off.
We called him "the little green guy" behind his back because he stood about five feet tall and his skin was green. I don't mean to say that he had an olive complexion or a swarthy Mediterranean patina, the man was as green as the Grinch who stole Christmas. He was afflicted with a terrible case of the gout, which caused him to walk in an awkward waddle, teetering on painfully bowed legs and tortured feet. His expression was a perpetual aching grimace and his students struggled mightily to make him smile. Only first semester students called him Dr. Giardello, to us he was Louie, the little green guy and he was beloved.
He spent his summers in Italy and each September a new batch of freshmen struggled to sift through his Italianized English just to begin the labyrinth of Latin. Louie welcomed each new crop of Latin students by telling them that they had enrolled in the study of a dead language and they were wasting their time. He announced on the first day of every semester that anyone who had registered for his class merely for the language credit could leave and never return and they would be given a grade of C. Invariably six or seven people would sign the log on his desk and never return.
His family barely escaped Mussolini's Italy and he lusted for the freedom from tyranny in America. What he found was a disturbing cultural vacuum, the senseless adoption of novel and futuristic at the expense of tried and true. He became a classics professor because he believed in his heart that the toddling America would not survive her ignorance of history. He saw the dwindling interest in teaching and learning the humanities and feared it would become a footnote in the post-mortem summary of the American experiment.
America is the brilliant student with the sadly unrealized potential. Our philosophical pedigree and our command of the science of warfare give us preeminence in every arena we enter, yet our progress is stymied at every turn. The students in Tiananmen Square
chanted the name of Thomas Jefferson
and carried a likeness of the Statue of Liberty
but our Coca-Cola
culture was not what they sought.
When we lecture the Chinese government for their cruelty in squashing the protest, the finger we wag is bloody with our own brutal past. When we criticize their human rights record we do so as the country with the largest percentage of its citizens in prison. Our ruthless conquest of the Native American population and our barbaric treatment of the African slave and his descendants are not lost on our global neighbors. These events seem like ancient history to the youthful America but they are among the most recent in a long line of historical human atrocities.
There is little doubt that humankind is evolving as a race and there is less doubt that we've stumbled onto the secret of harmony in human affairs. The American system of Jeffersonian Democracy will likely be the model for the peaceful organization of the first world government but it will be in spite of American actions, not because of them. Our system of government was the product of romantic philosophers and their love of ancient truisms. With inspired eloquence the American architects erected a framework for human affairs which would rest on the shoulders of reason and the lessons of history. It is ironic that the culture shock of true democracy will probably hit America the hardest.
One of the students brought in a package of Pall Mall
cigarettes that day because it held a Latin inscription. The phrase "per aspera ad astra
," or "to the stars through adversity" happened to be the little green guy's life motto and it set him off on an hour-long rant. He told us that the real meaning of the phrase was that humankind, in its ability to reason and remember, had unlimited potential. He said that the aphorism implied that with the lack of sincere effort we were earthbound and doomed. He told us we were lucky beyond words to have been born in America's bosom and we had an intrinsic obligation to work harder for the Heavens. He told us that our common apathy
were greater crimes against humanity than the scourge of Hitler and Mussolini combined.
Louie quivered with sequestered rage as he detailed his harsh passage from the ugly war in Europe to the institutional apathy of the Midwestern American campus. His eyes welled with tears and his entire body trembled as he pounded his chest and admonished the shaken sophomores to "LIVE LIKE A LION, not like a little lamb." By the end of the class there wasn't a dry eye or insouciant soul in the room.
The little green guy didn't slap kids for using the wrong case endings, he slapped them because he was afraid they weren't going to make it to the stars.