Storytelling: Learning from year of Latin lasted a lifetime

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In the schedule selection process for my rapidly approaching senior year at Schenley High School in 1946, I discovered that I needed one more solid subject to complete my academic requirements.

Senior year was supposed to be a hallelujah time, a time to coast. A time to strut through the halls exuding an air of knowledge designed to evoke envy in the hearts of humble underclassmen. What to choose?

Well, I had not taken a language up to now. The Spanish class was full. Latin was the only choice left. I had heard somewhere that Latin was the root of all Western languages; plus, it sounds scholarly enough to be impressive.

On the first day of class, the door of 308 was guarded by a gnome, barely four and a half feet tall. She wore no makeup, and her clothing resembled that of a person in mourning. The built-up shoe on her right foot explained the cane that steadied her as she leaned slightly against the open door.

The class shuffling into the room was a weird assortment of nerds, giggling girls, dead heads and athletic team refugees looking for an easy credit.

After the room was full, and the class was seated, the teacher closed the door, gingerly crossed the room, and seated herself behind her desk. She introduced herself as Miss Rogers, then proceeded to apprise those seated before her regarding her rules and regulations, requirements and expectations.

On the second day of class the room was not quite so full, and by the end of the first week, the class had dwindled considerably. I, having decided to stay, resolved early on to give Miss Rogers' class some serious attention. By the end of the first report period, one of my life perspectives was jolted into a new sense of proportionality. I got an A.

Miss Rogers' Latin class opened up a whole new constellation of grammatical concepts, wherein each element was clearly shown to serve an important function in proper sentence structure. Gender, person, noun declensions, verb conjugations, active and passive voice, indicative and subjunctive mood -- they all provided indispensable keys to correct translation.

Moving into the second report period, the six or so students who had been awarded an A soon had cause to wonder whether that was a blessing or a curse. Because in achieving that status you had declared yourself to be capable of meeting Miss Rogers' rigid performance criteria. And she would let you know it in no uncertain terms.

You only had to see her cut some luckless creature to ribbons one time, and that was enough to let you know that you did not come into her class to play.

Since leaving high school many years ago, I have had two surprise contacts with Miss Rogers. The first occurred about 10 years after graduation. We met walking in opposite directions on Fifth Avenue Downtown. Something familiar that each saw in the other caused us to slow, then stop, in a moment of simultaneous recognition.

We spent a while chatting and updating, and blocking the sidewalk while enjoying each other's company. Then we parted, each wishing the other well, not knowing whether or not our paths would ever cross again.

Some years later, I read a newspaper letter to the editor from a teenage girl expressing what a great assist she was getting in her understanding of the rules of grammar from the Latin course that she was taking.

Struck by the stark similarity between her experience and mine, I fired off my own letter expressing the same endorsement, including my teacher's name and the name of my high school. Not long afterward, my letter also appeared in the newspaper.

A short time later, I received a surprise in the mail, a letter from Miss Rogers with a newspaper clipping of my letter folded inside. In her letter, Miss Rogers was quite complimentary, making favorable reference to my syntax in particular.

I still have, and will always keep, these mementos. I have proudly shown them to all seven of my kids and those of my grandkids who are within reach, and will save them to show to the great-grandkids when they are old enough to appreciate them.


Leon W. McCray is a retiree from the U.S. Postal Service and state Department of Environmental Protection. He lives in Beltzhoover ( lmc72011@aol.com ). Send your own Storytelling submissions about teachers or other topics to page2@post-gazette.com , by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222, or call 412-263-1255.


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