Simple Grace – Latin at Still Waters
Presented at the American Classical League’s National Conference, 2015
Aequora is a partnership between Still Waters in a Storm, a sanctuary for children in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn-based Paideia Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes classical education. Jason Pedicone is the president of Paideia, and Rhodes Scholar Elizabeth Butterworth, the organization’s Director of Development, has coordinated the Aequora partnership and handled the bulk of the research and language instruction. My name is Stephen Haff and I am the founder and director of Still Waters, now in its eighth year of life.
Every Wednesday evening throughout the academic year, 25-plus children ages 5-15 gather at Still Waters to study Latin and play with their friends. They acquire the language through games, acting out dialogues, translating Latin texts and composing their own Latin sentences. The atmosphere is rowdy in the best way. It’s a weekly celebration.
The heart of the program is the Still Waters ritual, which we also practice on other days of the week in English and Spanish. (All of our students speak Spanish. They are the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants.) The ritual goes like this: as a group, we study and discuss a Latin text. Then we write something inspired by the text and the discussion. Finally, we take turns reading our compositions out loud while everybody listens in a sacred hush. At the end of the day, we reflect back to each other what we’ve heard, what we’ve noticed, and what it means to us.
One example is this year’s Beatitudes project. We read the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Latin, translated them into Spanish and English, then spoke about their meaning in our daily lives. (Still Waters is not a religious organization, but we love beautiful ideas.) Next, we composed our own Beatitudes in English and Spanish and Latin. After that, we took turns reading our blessings out loud while everybody listened. We’re not religious, but that reading was holy.
The simple grace of this ritual–reading, writing, speaking and listening–changes lives for the better. Most people do not have a safe space where trusted others will listen with compassion to what they need to say. The one rule at Still Waters is, “Everyone listens to everyone.”
This gathering is inspired by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Quaker prayer meetings. I started Still Waters because of my own need for a place where my mental health would be nourished, a place of kindness and patience and peace. For seven years, I had taught English at the notorious Bushwick High School, a place of violence, physical and mental. Every day there were fights in the halls, in the cafeteria, in the classrooms, brutal and bloody fights. More than once I had to break up such fights in my class and use my body to block the door so my students couldn’t run to the hall and join a fight out there. In the cafeteria I once watched in horror as two kids started beating each other and all of the students in the room rushed to surround them, standing on benches and tables, screaming the most blood-freezing screams of anger and glee as one girl pounded another girl’s head into the floor over and over again and a pool of blood spread wide around them. The crowd prevented the police (wearing bulletproof vests) from reaching the fight before the loser was unconscious. Once, somehow, a dog made its way into the building and all the way up to the 5th floor. Students pushed the dog out the window (having unscrewed the cages that covered the window) and the dog fell to its death on the sidewalk below. During the break between classes, bulletin boards routinely were set on fire.
The mental violence was supplied in equal parts by traumatized youth repeating patterns from home, law enforcement and the racist culture of the United States, and by the New York City public school system, whose priority was control of the students through armed police presence and a brutal regimen of academic tests that bore no relation to the personal needs or experiences of the students, but by which they were judged mercilessly as scholars and, implicitly, as people.
I loved the children and believed I was helping them, but the manic depression I inherited in my DNA was summoned up from my unconscious by these violences and I had a massive mental breakdown, followed by several aftershocks. After a couple years of intensive therapy and medication, I began to repair my life. I couldn’t return to the public school system, but I didn’t want to stop teaching. I met up with a few of my old high school students at a pizzeria. We wrote, in English and Spanish, and listened to each other read aloud, and discussed each other’s writing in a non-judgmental, personal way, free from praise and correction. This brought us peace. One of the students gave us our name, because he said that our lives, the city we live in, and our own minds are stormy, and this group brought stillness to the storm. (Jason Pedicone, president of Paideia, inspired by our name, named our partnership, “Aequora,” for its image of a peaceful sea.) Soon we were joined by friends of these students, and by the small children of a man who delivered pizzas.
Before long, Still Waters grew too big for the pizzeria and we moved to our permanent home in the neighborhood, a single room storefront on the ground floor of a new building. We installed a huge window and a glass door for total transparency and to stay connected to the life of the neighborhood. We’ve been there for more than five years now. Over the years, by word of mouth, we’ve blossomed to the point where we now work with more than 60 children, from kindergarten through high school, with a waiting list of more than 300 children. All of our classes are free to neighborhood families.
I introduced Latin to the kids three years ago. My own Latin education only lasted through high school and then college, where as a junior I got distracted by acting in plays and was effectively abandoned by the one-man Latin program, a professor who wanted only to discuss his obsession, the precise, nuanced difference in meaning between the words “mens” and “anima,” as tracked throughout Latin literature; but I never lost the love. I’ve always believed that students respond to a teacher’s passion for a subject, so we began meeting and writing in Latin. The beauty and orderliness of Latin are soothing and healing to the traumatized mind.
Crucial to the success of the Latin program–like our work in English and Spanish–is the participation of volunteer tutors, these recruited by Paideia over the past two years. The tutors include high school students, high school teachers, college students, graduate students, professors and professionals, among them a doctor and a lawyer. It’s the village raising the child, a one-room schoolhouse where children and grown-ups of all ages help each other and listen to each other. This is different from a conventional classroom where attention flows up vertically from the children to the teacher. At Still Waters, the attention flows horizontally among us all. We average 10-15 volunteers per session, which makes for a less than 2-1 student-tutor ratio. This attention makes the children visibly happy, and when they’re happy, they learn. Every one of the tutors–a rotating roster of more than 60 people–is a lovely human being. Perhaps this is in part because the Humanities are devoted to the study of what makes us human, and what makes a good life, or the life of a good person.
This year we also branched off in a new direction. Twice monthly, our middle- and high-school girls meet and practice the same ritual of reading, writing, speaking and listening over dinner. This branch is called “Latin Buddies,” or “Amicae Latinae,” an opportunity for the girls to meet by themselves and, guided by classical texts selected for wisdom, to talk about life in adolescence, a wondrous and dangerous time.
In both programs, the young people have demonstrated that profound conversation about profound ideas is a pleasure. They LOVE to think! These conversations are as meaningful and sophisticated as any I remember from graduate school. One example was the pairing of two citations from the New Testament, “Sinite pueros venire ad me, et nolite vetare eos. Talium est enim regnum Dei,” (“Let the children come to me, do not deny them. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as they.”) and “Cum essem parvulus, loquebar ut parvulus, sapiebam ut parvulus, cogitabam ut parvulus; quando factus sum vir, evacuavi quae erant parvuli.” (“When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a grown-up, I put aside childish things.”) The girls then debated how to balance the necessity of growing up with remaining, in the most important way, a child.
The children attend these classes because they want to. There are no report cards, grades, tests, homework, no threats or extrinsic rewards. They come here after a long day in school, 8 or 9 hours, followed by an hour or two of homework. After all of this stress, toiling at tasks that mostly mean nothing to them, they come back to life and blossom in Latin class. It’s a beautiful sight!
I believe they come because they love learning–despite the best efforts of the school system to kill that love–and also because their friends are here. These are important reasons. When I think about why I invite the kids to study Latin, I come up with three big reasons.
First, their cognitive ability improves. They become better thinkers.
Second, Latin is beautiful and the study of Latin brings joy, and all children, regardless of their family’s income, have a fundamental right to beauty and joy.
Third, Latin is a doorway to understanding of two kinds: ancestral understanding of their own linguistic heritage as speakers of Spanish and English, and therefore understanding of who they are; and understanding of each other, achieved through their communal efforts to express their thoughts and feelings in all three languages. By the end of the year, this was as much a living Rosetta Stone as a Latin class.
The goal is to understand and to be understood. I’m observing this daily in my home, where my daughter Zadie, who will turn 2 years old on August 3, has suddenly got language. It’s breathtaking! She is saying new words every day and putting sentences together, and she is elated when we understand. For example, the other day she said to me, “Dada wan’ go wa’!” I replied, “You want to go for a walk with Daddy?” I wish you all could have seen her face when she shouted back, her blue eyes electric with joy, “YEAH!!!” We put on our shoes and went for a walk.
Understanding is a doorway to love. In Aequora, the children and grown-ups are practicing loving their neighbors. They’re practicing peace. What could be more important than that?
KIMBERLY (Student, age 9)
“Salve!” (“Hello!”) was my first word here at the Still Waters in a Storm Aequora program. Students from all different ages come here to study. Latin to me is wonderful because it’s fun to learn other languages. I learned that Latin makes up words in the languages we speak right now. For example, “Video,” which means “to see” and a “Video” in English and “Video” in Spanish is something that we see. We get help from Latin experts and teenage tutors. Aequora teaches us something incredible that no other children in the neighborhood can learn, and we learn at our pace. At the beginning of each class we remember things we did before. We review grammar and vocabulary. We get so desperate to answer the questions that we rise up out of our seats, waving our hands in the air. In Aequora we translate Latin sentences. Our focused study is to put our Beatitudes in our own Book of Kells, called the Bushwick Testament. Writing Beatitudes makes me feel like I’m the Holy Spirit writing the Bible.
[Kimberly reads her Beatitudes:
“Beata est terra quia nos sustentat.” (“Blesssed is the earth because she sustains us.”)
“Beatus est Stephenus quia sacrificat multum nobis similis parentibus.” (“Blessed is Stephen because he sacrifices much for us, like our parents.”)
“Beati sunt brocculi quia salubres sunt.” (“Blessed is broccoli because it is healthy.”)
Then, she reads a Beatitude read by our mascot, the raccoon: “Beata ego sum quia sum ego ipsa.” (“Blessed am I because I am myself.”)]
SARVI (Tutor, age 17)
Still Waters is a safe haven from street violence, but it is also a haven for teachers, families, and tutors. As I approach Stanhope Street, I can hear children laughing and playing a pick up game of soccer, or reading books to each other inside. I am quickly surrounded by a group of girls screaming “Sarvi, Sarvi!” as they warmly greet me with hugs and stories about their days at school. I have never felt more loved or appreciated than I do at Still Waters. No matter what kind of day I am having, the bubbly chatter of the students is enough to put a smile on my face. During lessons, they attentively listen and absorb all the Latin grammar and vocabulary. Their wit and humor also shines through during exercises. I remember playing a game of charades where all the students would laugh with excitement as they cheered on their peers acting in front of the group. When they had trouble with a word, they actively persevered and interjected with similar Spanish vocabulary. The children never failed to impress me with their resilience, intellect, thirst for knowledge, and humor. I was especially blown away by Kimberly, with whom I developed a special bond. I remember helping with her Beatitudes and listening to her speak about all that she is grateful for. Her bubbly and charismatic personality made her a pleasure to work with, and her intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity allowed her to compose a stunning Beatitude.
I also had the opportunity to create a Beatitude, and it was dedicated to the community fostered at Still Waters. I am beyond grateful for Stephen and the friends I have made during my time working there. Still Waters is a haven for all of us, and I will carry the lessons that the children have taught me at college and in the years following.
NICOLE (Tutor, age 15)
Latin was never something I enjoyed learning. It was very boring and half the time I slept in class, not really caring whether my teacher would yell at me or not. I found Latin to be very unnecessary. “Why do we need to learn an ancient language?” I wondered, and I thought, “I’ll never know.” “It’s good for your English terms,” my teacher said, but I surely didn’t find it useful. That’s how I felt before, until I came to a place called Still Waters.
My first experience with Still Waters is still vivid to me…
I walked in and saw kids running around. Some greeted me and others stared. It was a very nerve-racking experience. I’m not the type of person who would teach or tutor kids. All I was worried about was messing up and having others laugh at me.
That didn’t seem to be the case. Luckily, I got a very sweet girl who didn’t give me a hard time. She listened to everything I said and we got work done. I then got the chance to know her better. At the end of the day I had lots of fun and got to know many more wonderful kids.
The next day I came to Still Waters, I was greeted by all the kids. This really warmed my heart and now every day it makes me pay attention more often in my high school Latin class. I want to gain more knowledge in Latin so I can teach the kids at Still Waters the importance of learning Latin. (Also because I don’t want to look like a fool!)
The kids at Still Waters have changed my character a lot because every day I see them striving to learn, which encourages me to learn every day as well.
Another reason I love Latin is because of the Hippocratic Oath. My favorite quote is:
“In quascunque autem aedes introiero, eas ad aegrotantium opem ingrediar.” This means, “Whatever house I enter, I will be going into it to help the sick.”
The reason I love this oath is because in the future I want to be a nurse and it’s necessary to recite this oath in order to be a nurse. I love taking care of people.
[Nicole reads her Beatitude:
“Beatae nostrae ingeniosae mentes.” (“Blessed are our creative minds.”)]
LESLIE (Student, age 14)
Latin for me at Still Waters is extraordinary. It is a place where I would learn something so rare that was once very big. In the past I didn’t even know what Latin was. I thought it was just Spanish in South America, but when I learned that it is an actual language I got really intrigued. All my questions of the theory of language got answered. I learned that Latin itself is the root to languages that people mostly speak now. I remember my first day at Latin I thought it was going to be complicated but when a tutor helped me translate the words, “Elephant in a circus,” it was like speaking Spanish but more original in a way. I feel proud when I learn new words. I like how “quia” and “salve” sounds; it is like a song. Then I knew that Still Waters is a place where I could be capable of things that in nowhere else would exist.
Latin is not just a language, it is a language that could make ideas and thoughts put into words that could make people open their eyes, and it is the key to communicate.
In Latin class there are many great students and tutors. I memorize fast but there is no rush; there is less pressure than school, and that makes me think that Latin is not boring, it’s beautiful. It also helped me to know more English because most English words have the Latin roots.
Every Wednesday it is like a family gathering where everyone learns things from each other. I learned to have more empathy and a little more historical knowledge. I like history. I used to find it boring but now for me history is the most important factor.
Latin is not only on Wednesdays. It is also on Thursdays as well, when there is the Latin Buddies. Wonderful high school students come as our tutors–including Nicole, here–and we all help each other to translate phrases that have so much meaning. Those phrases have made me pay attention to the outside world. I’ve learned to be a better person. It also made me calmer and less bored because I have something to do after school, something that is new and helps my personality. Latin at Still Waters also made me be more social and made me have courage to express ideas, because in other places I am not that talkative. Still Waters is a place where I could fit in and be comfortable. Latin class also made me be curious, not in a bad way but in a good way, where I would have realizations about the real world. I like how in here everyone can say what they think. Kids could be themselves and no one would be hurt or bullied because this place is safe and free. There are even kids who break out of their shells and their minds become more open. Still Waters makes me eager to learn. It is a place where I know what I can do and I don’t give up.
What I also love about Latin class is that we could make blessings to the ignored little things, blessings that are creative. We all get help to translate the blessings of books, butterflies, peace, poverty, happiness and so much more. And we all know a wonderful calligraphy that was used a long time ago in the Book of Kells, and what is more fun about this project is that we put it into our very own book, like a Bible, but more free. Here in Still Waters kids of all ages have big dreams in a small neighborhood, dreams that could possibly be reached. Latin is sweet, classical, prestigious and very interesting. Anyone can have the right to learn Latin. Even little kids have the capacity, and that is what I enjoy.
As one can see, Latin has the open doors for learning, understanding and for happiness. People may not speak it daily, but in Still Waters is the day where we can go back through time and be a big family.
That is my experience with Latin at Still Waters, a place that is my escape.
[Leslie reads her Beatitude:
“Beati sunt libri quia ipsorum verba faciunt animadversiones novas.” (“Blessed are books because their words make new understandings.”)]