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 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 type of lesson 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. I might have a class in which any dark-eyed, dark-haired young man not called Mohammed is called Abdullah, but you know, I 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. 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, impregnated or set fire their classmates, or perpetrated some other such mischief 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.
Originally a blog post