In tenth grade a new interest came into view: Latin. The study of a dead, but not forgotten, language. In ninth grade the class came so easily to me. It was a lot of work and memorization, but I didn’t have difficulties understanding it. So when sophomore year came, I had no fear in taking the course with the most feared teacher in the school: Mr. Dougherty.
Mr. Dougherty, a.k.a. Iron Mike, was the Chuck Norris of teaching. A man of no smiles and very few words. Everything had to be done his way. And if you didn’t follow his direction, he’d make you repeat the assignment 50 times over. He graded like all my Japanese sensei would eventually grade me in college. No partial credit for anything, even if it was a tiny spelling error. Those who made it out of Iron Mike’s class alive would have bragging rights for years to come.
Doc used his witty sarcasm and jokes with references before our time to distance himself from the students. Even if you did get the joke and let out a slight laugh, he gave you a stare that made you question why you even thought of disturbing the silence in the classroom. Everything about Doc’s class, from raising your hand to handing in a test, was like stepping on pins and needles. You could never tell if you were doing something right or wrong.
My general fear of Iron Mike was reason enough for me to have my Latin homework done days in advance. But as much as I feared him, I also looked forward to the class. He was such a character. Instead of just reading the textbook and going by a specific lesson plan, he ran the class how he wanted. He added his own super-serious, super-sarcastic personality to the learning experience. There was something mysterious about him. Were all his idiosyncrasies just a joke to govern the classroom through fear? Or was he really this uptight even after he left his day job?
Besides being a great Latin teacher (in his own way), one thing I can credit Doc for is making me realize that I actually had a talent for understanding the Latin language. The classes weren’t too challenging at first because I simply followed his directions. In reality I probably couldn’t tell the difference between the nominative case and the accusative. But he saw something in me.
“Burton. See me after class” Doc scowled at me. ‘What the hell did I do now’ I thought. When class finished I slowly crept up to his desk. My classmates stared on as they left, saying, “Good Luck” with their worried facial expressions. It was a long awkward moment of him not acknowledging my existence until all the students left. Then,
“You don’t belong here” he said tersely. I looked at him, confused.
“Like this class, you don’t belong here.” A range of emotions were going through me as I looked at him nervously. What did he mean, “I don’t belong here?” I thought back to last year, when my bio teacher told my parents something similar. He suggested that I transfer to a lower level science class. I had a B+ at the time. I was the only minority freshman in my entire grade taking biology. Since then I always felt I had something extra to prove to my teachers. And my confidence in my own abilities had been slightly bruised. What was wrong with Doc? Why did he have to speak so indirectly? Just tell me what you mean! He must have read my mind:
“Why didn’t you move on to Honors Latin II/Greek I after ninth grade?”
“Oh…I don’t know? I guess I thought I couldn’t–”
“Well these damn grades say you can. Take AP Vergil next year. I don’t want to see you anywhere near a Latin III classroom.”
Just like that, I ended up in one of my most favorite courses at the Prep. Thanks to the most feared man on 17th and Girard, I came to acknowledge a love for the Latin language that was sitting deep within me. He had so much confidence in my abilities. He worked me harder than the other students, gave me study materials to prepare for Vergil. He didn’t want to see me fail.
Next year I embarked on a pietas-filled journey with Aeneas and fifteen other classmates. Our guide through the ancient Mediterranean was none other than Ms. Primmick: my previous ninth grade Latin teacher. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it seemed epic. Literally, it was an epic (poem). We were going to spend the entire year reading Vergil’s Aeneid.
One thing I loved about translating Latin was that each passage seemed like one literary puzzle. The language was structured in a way that words could be liberally placed just about anywhere in a sentence. Although non-poets like Caesar and Cicero tended to have more structured writings due to the formality of their work, poets took advantage of Latin’s loose sentence composition. This free form writing style gave words meanings well beyond their denotations. To represent the feeling of being trapped, a poet could literally trap the subject in the sentence. (E.g. “The lion was trapped in the net” could be written in Latin as, “Was in lion the net trapped.” See how the lion is literally trapped, both by the verb and the prepositional phrase.)
In addition to this it was very common that lines of poetry could be translated in multiple ways. In some cases it was fairly obvious that only one of the possible translations fit well with the flow of the story. Other times, any of the translations could equally work. It was up to one’s interpretation. That was the pure artistry of it all.
From this description it may seem like the language is all over the place and uninterpretable. Where sentence structure breaks down, it is reinforced by very strict declensions and conjugations for nouns and verbs respectively. This made it a little less challenging in determining the subject, verb, object, etc.
While Vergil’s work might have looked like a freestyle on paper, it was meticulously planned down to the finest detail. Vergil was all about quality over quantity. In fact it is said that his dying wish was for the Aeneid to be burned, due to the fact that he hadn’t completed editing it. He worked on this poem for years, devoting an entire day to completing just a few verses. The quality of the epic was so high that we would spend an entire class period analyzing no more than ten or fifteen verses. It took us the entire school year to finish the Journey of Aeneas.
During my junior year some would say that I should have been focused on taking classes closely related to what I would study in college. Instead, I chose to take an extremely difficult course on a language that no longer exists. What I have learned from this decision: Always go in the direction your passions lie. Mr. Dougherty could tell I had an interest in Latin, but I had felt I wasn’t intelligent enough. I’m glad I listened to him. Since I took this Vergil course, I learned to understand the fundamentals of epic storytelling. While we read Vergil that year, I found so many connections between the Aeneid and modern day tales, stories, movies. It was so surreal, coming to the realization that the stories of humanity have generally remained unchanged for thousands of years. Although I may have forgotten much of the actual Latin, Vergilian themes of the Hero’s Journey still find their way into my writings.
One negative-ish side effect from taking this course: when I started to write my own poetry (raps) I became obsessed like Vergil with quality and perfection. Nothing I wrote ever seemed good enough. So nothing ever got finished. After watching a video on Youtube and listening to a lot of Lil’ B (lol), I’ve come to realize that I can’t become prodigy overnight. Mastery of any discipline takes time. I just need to build my confidence up and get my work out there.
After Vergil ended, I became one of the ten or so students who decided to take AP Lyric in their senior year. Guess who the teacher was: none other than Iron Mike Doc.
Lyric took a step away from epic poetry and focused on the poets both before and during Vergil’s time; specifically Catullus (before) and Horace (during). These two writers didn’t do long epics. Instead, they wrote vast collections of short poems. Another difference between Vergil and these two was the meter in which they wrote in. Vergil wrote in the rolling, grand dactylic hexameter. Catullus and Horace wrote in a variety of meters; whichever they felt stylistically fit with the poem’s subject matter. Catullus and Horace also wrote much more personal pieces; experiences in life reflected by fictional (and sometimes non-fictional) characters. The Aeneid, on the other hand, was a propaganda piece commissioned by Emperor Augustus. The Trojans paralleled ancient Romans. The founding of Troy in the poem was a metaphor for the founding of Rome. whoever thought great art could be so nationalistic?
So that Fall of 2008 we delved into the Odes of Catullus; and I started to see the connections between the past and the present. I started to visualize the roots of Hip-Hop beyond Kool Herc. Back to the griots in Africa. And the lavish living, big pimpin’ poets of the Pax Romana.
Before I got into Latin poetry, history wasn’t my strongest subject. Everything in the past seemed so different from modern times. I couldn’t draw the major human connections between the past and present. I just couldn’t relate to these larger than life ancients. Therefore, I easily forgot major events, people, places, and dates soon after I learned them. I don’t know what it was about Doc, but my enthusiasm for history began to change when I entered his class. I remember analyzing a Horatian Ode during class time and it all seemed so clear to me. These ancient poets were so…modern! I’ll explain.
One day we were talking about the life of Horace (or Catullus, don’t remember which) outside of poetry. From what it seemed, the poets typically hung out with other poets trading rhyme for rhyme (ahem…sounds like a cypher to me), or associating with wealthy aristocrats. These aristocrats were the patrons of the poets. They came from powerful families or were actually rulers themselves (a.k.a Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus). These same aristocrats would often appear as characters in the works of these poets. Are you starting to see the connections? Just like artists today (rappers and pop stars in particular) sign record and sponsorship deals, ancient poets also made their own sort of deals with the wealthy. Think about it: Horace, Catullus, and Vergil didn’t have a platform to express their art. It wasn’t like they could go to an open mic or post their poetry collection online. Even if they did have platform, they still needed to eat. They had to do some kissing up to those in power. In exchange, they were put up in lavish homes and given food and money to support their creative ventures. This artist-patron relationship concept has been passed down through the centuries. Behind history’s greatest singers, poets, painters, advertisers, etc. is a strong financial support system giving them freedom to create and not worry about where their next meal will come from. Of course, this is not always the case. But the structure is fairly common.
As we delved deeper into the poetry, sometimes spending over a half hour analyzing a few verses, I began to notice how lyrical these ancient orators really were. At times they could talk about women, for example, in as many metaphors as Common could. At other times, I could sense an air of egotism and misogyny. Aspects that, unfortunately, seem inseparable from the average rapper’s psyche. I wish my Latin was as good as it was five years ago. I could point out lines in Horace and connect them to their Hip-Hop equivalents. This class reinforced the concept that, even throughout history, no idea is original. Humans have held the same basic wants and desires for centuries. Now the past didn’t seem so complicated anymore, so long as I found ways to connect it with the present.
I planned on taking Latin in college, and even minoring in it. Yet it was such a small discipline. The classes always conflicted with my major courses. As much as I loved studying the language, I don’t believe it was something I was meant to continue. Sort of like Steve Job’s calligraphy class story. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense at first to go down a certain path. I didn’t have to take Latin all those years in high school. But when I look back on it all, I couldn’t see it going any other way.