Living With a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin
It is astonishing how much enjoyment one can get out of a language that one understands imperfectly.
During semester break, I visited an inspiring after-school program my friend Patrick introduced me to, at which local Hispanic kids, in the still ungentrified regions of Bushwick, Brooklyn, studied Latin on Wednesday afternoons. The free program, Still Waters in a Storm, gives kids homework help five days a week and after homework is done, at 5:00 P.M., violin, yoga and Latin are offered on various days. On weekends well-known writers come to give the kids writing workshops. I contacted the director, Stephen Haff, and asked if he’d like another Latin tutor. He was most welcoming. The very next Wednesday I traveled to Bushwick, where I’d never been, to a storefront that housed Still Waters in a Storm.
The classroom, a controlled chaos of opportunity, was unlike any other I’ve ever seen: long walls of bookshelves festooned with Tibetan prayer flags and colored Christmas lights. Above a white piano, a bright Picasso print of a blue and yellow cubist man, and a chalkboard on which was written Salve! as well as the conjugation of amo, amare. Books and pictures, notebooks and artwork were stacked in piles on the floor. A string of tables stood in the center of the room, where kids from six to twelve were working on various projects. Others leaned into one another over books on couches. At the back in a small alcove was a table where where pizza (laganum, literally “a cake of flour and oil”) was served at 5:00.
Stephen, with four or five kids hanging on him waiting for the turn of his attention, welcomed me warmly. He is a somewhat shaggy man in his early forties, his blond/grey hair tousled, a two-day stubble on his chin, his glasses askew. Like Mister Rogers, he wore a plaid shirt and a blue cardigan and he exuded a similar aura of a gentle kindness. Suddenly there was commotion, running and shouting, and Stephen stood up, clapped his hands, and said, “It’s getting too loud and boisterous in here. Everyone is working on different things and we have to respect our friends’ work and be quiet enough so everyone can concentrate.” On a dime, the running stopped, the shouting stopped, and everyone turned back to whatever task was at hand.
Stephen refers to Still Waters as a sanctuary for children. His model for his one-room schoolhouse is Alcoholics Anonymous and Quaker meetings, and his guiding principles are listening, learning, imagination, and encompassing everything he does, love. Not only does Stephen provide a safe place for the children to express their feelings by writing and responding to others, he also teaches them to listen with attention and empathy. It’s a two-way street: What a child has to express is as important as what an adult expresses. There are no cliques here, no insiders and outsiders, only a group of thirty kids who respect and help one another.
Since most of the kids are Spanish speaking, Stephen realized in the third year of his program that he could put his high school and college Latin to good use. “Our language is our identity,” he said, “and learning Latin gives our kids pride in their heritage. It’s much easier to learn Latin if you’re a native Spanish speaker, and the kids love it; it makes them feel special.”
Stephen told me the Latinists were working on translating Olivia Porca (Olivia the Pig) and, without further instruction, led me to a round table in one corner and introduced me to two nine-year-olds, Kimberly and Maya, who had already translated some of the short picture book and were eager for more. Maya looked two years older than Kimberly and, as soon as I sat down, she put her copy of the book in Latin before me. She’d written her translation above the Latin words, just as I do when I translate poetry. “See,” she said, “I’m ahead of all the others, I’m almost finished, and I really need to finish first so we have to do it today.” I asked her if it was really that important that she finish first, and told her I didn’t think it was. “Oh, it is,” she repeated. “Believe me, it is very important.”
Another driven girl! And I immediately loved her. “What sign are you?” I asked. And sure enough, she, too, is an Aries (and as Curtis was happy to tell me, Aries means not only “ram,” but also “battering ram”).
We began looking up the words in the Latin-English dictionary, working our way through the last four pages of Olivia Porca. Kimberly, who is beautiful, with two long braids that end at her waist, and a sweet and serious manner, frequently interrupted me. She was not quite as far along as Maya. “I don’t want to look at her translation,” Kimberly told me, “because I want to figure out all the words for myself.” I loved her, too.
Soon, in the midst of thirty other kids, the three of us are in our own little Latin world, noticing which words sound like English words, which like Spanish. When we came to the adverb cotidie (everyday) the two girls looked at each other, repeated the word again and again, emphasizing the “tittie” sound, and burst into peals of laughter. The only way I could get them to focus was to remind Maya that she really wanted to finish her translation that day. And she did, just before I had to leave to catch my train back upstate.
At the end of our all-too-short hour and a half, I told the girls that they should memorize one word every time we meet, and since they like cotidie so much, I was going to ask them to write a sentence about it next week. Stephen overheard and interjected what I would learn is one of his mantras: “And be sure to write beautiful sentences.” Stephen worked hard to make everything that happens at this school embody beauty in one way or another.
I walked back to the subway in a haze of joy. Quam mirus Still Waters! And quam mirus Stephen. In his earlier career, he taught Latin and theater in Brooklyn public schools, even created a successful kids’ theater group, until his beloved children turned on him, and he broke down. After retreating to his native Canada for a couple years to regroup, he decided to start his own neighborhood one-room schoolhouse. He was hoping to combat, at least for a few hours a day, the Common Core curriculum forced on the youngsters. “It’s soul destroying and deadening,” he believes. Although funding is always an issue, and Stephen and his family live on a shoestring, Still Waters has now been serving the community for five years and attracts first-rate poets, novelists, and nonfiction writers as volunteers.
When I arrived the following week, Kimberly rushed up to me and presented me with a folded-up piece of paper. “You can’t look at it till I’m out the door,” she insisted, and as she made her way to the street, where the kids were running up and down, working out their ya-yas, she kept glancing back to make sure I was waiting. Finally, she disappeared from view and I opened the paper.
Cotidie amo Anna, it said. It is the sweetest note I’ve ever received. (I did not have the heart to correct the nominative Anna to the accusative Annam; it seemed truly unimportant). I loved the place, loved the kids, and loved that my Latin adventure now included helping others: true enjoyment along with benevolence. It was a very long commute, but I went every other week for the rest of the semester. As autumn turned to cold winter the glorious warmth of learning at Still Waters in the Storm was tonic.
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