The joy of Latin

I took four years of Latin in high school.  My teacher was Kenneth Sheridan who was related to the Civil War General Sheridan.  The highlight of my four years was translating parts of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address into Latin my Senior year as my project.  I don’t remember a great deal of Latin today, but I can read and figure out a little Spanish, French and some Italian because of my Latin.  My high school didn’t participate in Junior Classical League and looking back now, I wonder why.  I think it would have been fun.  At least the Massachusetts folks had fun this year.  They didn’t make the news, but they were the topic of a column by Lawrence Harmon in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

Jeffrey Dubuisson, 17, is rattling off the names of the rulers of the Roman Empire in chronological order as he munches on pizza (derived from the Latin verb pinsere, to pound) at Papa Gino’s in Cleary Square. He speaks with authority on the satirical writings of Juvenal and the epic poetry of Vergil. Boston’s public school system is doing something right.

Jeffrey Dubuisson

Jeffrey Dubuisson

Dubuisson, an incoming senior at Boston Latin Academy, is fresh from Las Vegas where he and three teammates won the national title in the advanced division of the classics competition hosted by the National Junior Classical League. There is no higher honor for players of Certamen, a form of intellectual combat requiring rapid recall of facts about the culture, peoples, and languages of ancient Rome and Greece. After years of falling short to Virginia, Florida, and other powerhouses, a Massachusetts team finally has taken its rightful place in the Pantheon of high school brainiacs,

Dubuisson, who lives in Hyde Park, can trace his interest in the classics back to a day in eighth grade at Boston Latin Academy when he was fretting about his D-plus average in Latin. Legendary Latin teacher Janet Fillion [also my neighbor, friend, and cat sitter] urged him to attend Certamen practice as a way to earn extra credit.

“I went to save my grades and ended up loving it,’’ said Dubuisson, whose friends refer to him in the third person as “the Latin dude.’’

I don’t care much if it is music, art, theater, Latin, a sport or science that turns a kid on to school.  I think we’ve move too much into testing and getting “practical” skills to make school fun.  Harmon points out

In Massachusetts, only 42 schools host chapters of the National Junior Classical League. In Boston, only two of the city’s schools — Latin Academy and Boston Latin — offer Latin. Introducing the subject at the city’s middle schools — even for an hour or two a week — could provide students with needed structure and stimulation. Boston’s mayoral candidates are talking about the qualities they want to see in the next school superintendent. An educator who appreciates the importance of the classics belongs on that list.

The students who went to the JCL Convention and won were

…immigrants or children of immigrants from Haiti, China, Albania, and India. Dubuisson is the go-to player for literature, history, and derivatives. Christopher Liao, an incoming junior at Boston Latin School, specializes in translation. Joana Jankulla, an incoming senior at Latin Academy, excels in Latin grammar and mythology. And Meghana Vagwala, an incoming senior at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, specializes in mythology, quotations, and figures of speech.

We don’t need to be cutting activities in schools, we need to be adding them.  School should be fun and every child should find the thing that makes them smile like Jeffrey Dubuisson, the Latin Dude.

Photograph provided to the Globe by Jeffrey Dubuisson.

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