When a Man Teaches Latin

by Guest Blogger
February 24th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

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 pronunciation 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. My HS Latin teacher was a man. I’ll never forget Mr. Carnevale. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the Latin he taught me.

    Comment by Sarah P. — February 24, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

  2. Jess, thank you for writing such a nice piece! I am quite honored. It is always good to see Latin and Classics promoted this way. Alexander Pope wrote, “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” Anyone who has drunk deeply of the languages of ancient Greece and Rome knows that their beauty and wisdom have much to say to every age, including our own. Again, thank you. My students will love to hear of your piece.

    Comment by Steve Perkins — February 24, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  3. My major college Latin professor and all my graduate school professors of Latin were men. From my dear under-grad prof who had a face like Santa Claus and the mind of a dictator to my spiffy young grad professor who rode the red Honda, they were tremendously alive to myriad facets of the human experience, and they illustrated those facets through the literature of ancient cultures. I certainly have no prejudice against lady Latin teachers, being one myself. But the men in our field bring something very special to the whole experience. I love talking with them at classical conventions and reading what they have to say.

    Comment by Rose Williams — February 25, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  4. In defense of outdated, grey-haired Latin teachers: they remind us that there’s freedom in falling a little out of date, in letting the subject show its own beauty and meaning. My Latin teacher did nothing to make Ovid and Virgil seem relevant–they obviously were. Class discussionj brought this out. Some teachers may enjoy weaving in pop culture references. But those references thaemselves are not what makes Latin language and litereature interesting.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 25, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  5. I totally agree, Diana. I love teaching about the Latin language for its euphony, Roman customs for their utility, and classical architecture for its beauty. Heck, I even berated an English teacher in this very blog for reducing Great Expectations to a Victorian version of The Jersey Shore. See: http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2011/11/14/greater-expectations/

    Incongruent? Nah. That English teacher was claiming that Great Expectations COULD NOT be relevant without a comparison to modern reality television. Steve Perkins teaches Latin as absolutely relevant and comprehensible, but tosses in some musical analogies to make points about alliteration, theme, rhythm and meter. Two totally different methodologies.

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — February 25, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  6. All of this teacher’s popular culture references are outdated–Rod Stewart? Deep Purple? Not that making references to Jersey Shore or Lady Gaga would make it any better. What would make it better? Making references and comparisons to contemporary literature, music & art that are worth spending our limited teaching hours on examining. Get students out of their comfort zone. Expand their boundaries beyond the pop culture that they are immersed in, beyond your particular pop cultural interests & guilty pleasures. It is okay to like Rod Stewart. But that doesn’t mean you have to make references to Rod Stewart (or Snooki or whoever) in order to make your lessons relevant and interesting.

    Comment by alamo — February 25, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  7. “In defense of outdated, grey-haired Latin teachers: they remind us that there’s freedom in falling a little out of date, in letting the subject show its own beauty and meaning.”

    Yes! This is the reason I’ll take “outdated” Carl Sagan videos on the Cosmos over star-studded History Channel science pablum anyday!

    Comment by alamo — February 25, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

  8. @Jessica “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.”

    If I were his student, I would be tempted to say, “So?” I know these kind of comparison studies have been going on for years in college-level cultural studies and literature courses, and that has always been my question: So what? What exactly is the significance of saying that there is a very broad, general theme in Ovid’s Amores I.9 that can also be detected in the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” (and possibly a million other popular songs)?

    Comment by alamo — February 25, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  9. Four years of Latin from Joe Kelly and, sadly, not much gained. Great guy, but… Oh, I can still conjugate Latin verbs with most anyone and my vocabulary was unquestionably improved but Mr. Kelly would have taken a significant hit on value-added MCAS scores if Latin ever became state tested.

    Joe Kelly should have stuck with his forte, teaching driver education.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2012 @ 8:18 am

  10. Jess,

    My main objection was to the suggestion that a “grey-haired” and “outdated” teacher was somehow less capable of offering riveting and memorable lessons than an up-to-date dude who brought in Whitesnake and Rod Stewart and stuff.

    I have no argument (for the most part) with another teacher’s methods, so long as the teacher is bringing students into the subject and doing it well. Some will bring in popular music; others will not. I have brought in “popular” songs (from the Carter Family to Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen to Ed’s Redeeming Qualities) when teaching ESL, both for the language and for the songs’ merit.

    But I myself wouldn’t bring Rod Stewart into a lesson on Horace–to me it would feel like a distraction. Nor would I use songs to illuminate meter and rhyme. Meter works differently in poetry than in song, precisely because the words themselves have to establish their own timing. There’s no ka-thump of drums or strum of chords, nor would such a thing usually enhance the poem. I want my students to hear the meter as it is, in its counterpoint to the words’ natural rhythm.

    Not long ago a teacher asked me for an example of a song in iambic pentameter. I couldn’t think of one. (There are reasons why iambic pentameter might be rare in song.) Then someone said, “The Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul Revere.’” I said that wasn’t iambic pentameter. The person insisted it was. We went back and forth on this a few times. Then I dropped it.

    Rhyme is a still messier matter. Popular songs often use imperfect rhymes without the fine-tuning that you will find in poetry. (In poetry, it would be sloppy to have an imperfect rhyme in one place and perfect rhymes elsewhere–unless the instance of imperfect rhyme had a special significance. In song, things are often much looser.) But some songs make ingenious use of rhyme, including internal rhyme.

    A person could conceivably teach song and poetry together but would have to take care to distinguish them. I would rather spend the time on the poetry–and then introduce the songs for their own sake on another occasion. But of course there might be exceptions–and I fully recognize that another teacher might approach things differently and do so well.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 26, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  11. @alamo “But that doesn’t mean you have to make references to Rod Stewart (or Snooki or whoever) in order to make your lessons relevant and interesting.”

    I agree, and it would be a shame if anyone drew from Jess’s piece that this is my philosophy. There are also a great many references in our classes to Aexander Pope, John Keats, and William Shakespeare, to say nothing of Anselm, Aquinas, and quantum physics.

    In his article “The Shame of the Graduate Schools: A Plea for a New American Scholar,” (Arion, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 2/3 (Spring, 1992 – Fall, 1993), pp. 159-176), William Arrowsmith talks about the crippling effect that slogging through a dense forest of secondary scholarship can have on the student of humanities who still has a spark of life and creativity. He argues that the scholar has something to learn from the artist.

    Bringing all this back to the high school level, I in no way contend that we must bring pop culture into the Latin class in order for Latin to be relevant. At the same time, it is important to help our students see how the great themes and techniques of ancient literature and art have continued to be used, imitated, and adapted in the centuries that have followed their debut on the human stage. This may take the form of something more enduring, such as Shaespeare, or more ephemeral, such as Rod Stewart. The purpose in making such varied comparisons is to help students see the vast arenas in which they can compete with the past, in the most basic sense of that word, by seeking along with our ancestors the true, the good, and the beautiful. The purpose is never Deep Purple or Pope or even Vergil in and of themselves. The purpose of the humanities should always be human beings helping each other to play the most meaningful role in the ongoing, grand drama of life.

    Comment by Steve Perkins — February 26, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  12. @Steve Perkins Well said, sir. Nicely done.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 26, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  13. I disagree. Part of the purpose is indeed Shakespeare and Virgil and Gogol in and of themselves.

    The purpose is also helping people find the true, the good, and the beautiful–and, as you say, “helping each other to play the most meaningful role in the ongoing, grand drama of life.”

    But part of that involves studying works for their own sakes–for that which only they have. Not their themes or their lessons, but their internal language and meaning and play.

    Of course there is room for connections with other works, other subjects, other times. But sometimes it is also important to refrain from such connections–in order to enter a work and see what’s actually going on there.

    I have no judgment about your own teaching–I am just questioning your absolute definitions of what the humanities are and should be.

    On the other hand, I agree heartily that it is possible for scholars to get too bogged down in secondary works about literature. Some critical scholarship is brilliant and makes the mind dance; other work is tedious and jargon-laden. The primary attention should go to the literature itself–and then the better scholarship will show itself clearly.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 26, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

  14. @Steven Perkins: “At the same time, it is important to help our students see how the great themes and techniques of ancient literature and art have continued to be used, imitated, and adapted in the centuries that have followed their debut on the human stage.”

    Every culture write about falling in & out of love. Every culture writes stories about quests & struggles. I don’t see this as some brilliant new insight that deserves a great deal of class time for explaining, but a truism. And unless you are comparing great art of the past to great contemporary art it seems like a waste of class time.

    Comment by alamo — February 26, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  15. Two and a half years of college Latin, plus two more years as a TA for a classics professor, made me determined to interject Latin into my English classes wherever possible. I greet my classes each day with a hearty “Salvete, discipuli!”; students who need to leave the room for any reason must ask in Latin (“Licetne mihi ire ad latrinam, magister Iacobus?”); and most of the grading comments I write on their papers are in Latin (“Optime!” “Moderatus!” “Malus!”). When miffed or put out with them, I “cuss them out” with the first twenty lines of the Aeneid (or rather, they assume I’m saying something profane, but they’re usually more awed than offended).

    It’s all sheer gimmickry, of course, but every year it also captures the imagination of a handful of students; they ask to borrow my old Latin textbooks to learn on their own; they want to know more about its history; they start their own little Latin clubs and come to me with their discoveries. And while I’m still a rank amateur who’s never officially taught Latin, I would defend its relevance to English classes at all grade levels, and I mourn its disappearance from K-12 schools everywhere. Latin may be a dead language, but it needn’t be a dead discipline.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — February 26, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  16. Diana, you make a very good point.  It is certainly true that we enjoy works of literature and art at times for their own sakes.  A teacher, however, is at once both “magister,” a master of the subject matter, and “paedagogus,” one who leads children.  The pedagogical aspect of the teaching vocation means knowing the goal toward which one leads his or her students.  So, yes, there are times when it is appropriate to savor Vergil for Vergil, times to analyze the beauty of his poetry, times to explore his allusions, and times to engage our own art in competition with him.  Yet the teacher must always keep in mind that goal, never yielding to the temptation to stop in any one aspect of the subject and move no further.

    In Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, we see Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Peter wants to stay on the mountain, but this is not to be.  They must leave the revelation, which it would be so tempting to stay and contemplate, and go back down to work among the people.  Similarly, Cicero said in Pro Archia 12, “Ceteros pudeat si qui se litteris abdiderunt ut nihil ex eis neque communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre.” “Let others be ashamed if they have so hidden themselves away in literature that they can offer nothing from their studies for the benefit of others and can bring forth nothing into the light to be seen.”

     I must remember that the beatific vision is to be enjoyed on another day and for now, however much I would like at times to stay in the garden of pure contemplation, as a “paedagogus” I must continue to lead my students toward what I, as a “magister,” know to be a worthy goal.

    Comment by Steve Perkins — February 26, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  17. Steve,

    Thanks for your comments and references. Now things are getting interesting indeed!

    I have no argument with you about the extremes. But why assume that contemplation is automatically too obscure, too abstract for the students? This is by no means a given.

    I am not convinced that Peter wanted to stay up on the Mount but was required to go back down and work among the people. He said (in all three versions) that “it is good to be here,” not that he wanted to stay indefinitely. He proposed building a shelter for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah–but according to Mark and Luke, he said this because he didn’t know what to say or didn’t know what he was saying. There are many ways to interpret this.

    St. Thomas Aquinas questioned whether there was indeed a neat distinction between action and contemplation. Yet he acknowledged that some people were more drawn to one and some to the other. He wrote that “the life of every man would seem to be that wherein he delights most, and on which he is most intent,” and that “certain men are especially intent on the contemplation of truth, while others are especially intent on external actions.”

    We must not assume that all students are more intent on external actions. But beyond that, we must not equate the study of a subject for its own sake with religious contemplation. One can read a Frost poem and sink into it and love it for its own sake, yet this is still quite active in comparison with religious contemplation.

    A few weeks ago I introduced two students to Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” By the end of the poem, they both showed something like astonishment on their faces. Their eyes were lit up. For a few moments, no one said a word. (And I am not making up their reaction. Anyone could ask them about it, and they’d confirm, although from a different perspective, that this took place. Nor am I thumping my chest for this. This was the poem’s work, not mine.)

    After that, they went on with their day. But for those minutes, they were in the poem. Really, that’s all I’m arguing for. Not some remoteness of thought where it’s impossible to be understood. Not a life on a mount. Just a chance to sink into the work, to take in its world for a while.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 26, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  18. I’m just going to sit back here in the last row, taking notes and sipping on my coffee. Will there be questions after the panel discussion?

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — February 26, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  19. Diana, I am thrilled to hear of the experience your students had with Frost. That is truly wonderful and a delight for a teacher to have shared with them. I think, perhaps, the train of comments here has deviated rather far from what Jess was trying to say in her post. I would question, though, why you assume that I assume “that contemplation is too obscure, too abstract for students.” As I look back over our comments, I cannot see where that has been said.

    Nonetheless, I share your pleasure in such a powerful moment with literature that you were able to help students savor. These are the true rewards that teachers are privileged to know.

    Jess, thank you for igniting this interesting discussion.

    Comment by Steve Perkins — February 26, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

  20. Jessica, you probably won’t be surprised to know that Steve Perkins is a hero to the some 180 students he teaches Latin to daily at North Central H.S. When I think of Mr. Perkins… Living Colour’s, “Cult of Personality” comes to mind!!

    Comment by Traci Rodgers — February 27, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  21. I see–you were saying that while it may be fine to linger momentarily on a work, it’s the teacher’s duty to take the students beyond it.

    In some sense this is true. But we can afford MUCH more contemplation than is commonly practiced in schools.

    The goal may indeed be deeper understanding of the work in question–and a bit of lingering can serve that goal splendidly.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 2, 2012 @ 10:31 am

  22. Hi, i am one of Mr. Perkins’ students and he is everything you said and more. he’s really funny and always makes class fun. This is a great article!

    Comment by Eliot — March 6, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

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