Back to School: Mrs. Pinsker's gift: She made Latin seem cool to master


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In this day and age many high schools no longer offer Latin as part of their language program, but back in the 1970s at Pittsburgh's South High School we had two language choices: Spanish or Latin.

I'm not quite sure why I chose Latin, but I never second-guessed my decision. Our Latin teacher was Frances Pinsker. She was a vertically challenged woman (we referred to her as short back then) who, despite her lack of stature, was a powerhouse. We dubbed her "Quid." Primarily being studious nerds, we never missed her class.

We conjugated verbs -- veni, vidi, vici -- and learned the language of the Romans. We read aloud from our textbooks, often pronouncing words incorrectly because many of us were used to the Latin of our Roman Catholic faith. In the classroom, "Regina" was pronounced with a hard "g" sound, as opposed to the "j" sound in church.

Mrs. Pinsker was always coming up with ways to make Latin more fun. One assignment was to create something that might have existed during the reign of Caesar. My creation was a made-to-scale "litter."

Visualize a curtained couch supported by poles resting on the strong shoulders of the men bearing the vehicle's weight. My version was made from an empty shoebox with dowel rods serving as the poles and a roof fashioned from a gilt wallpaper book sample.

Another classmate, an avid seamstress, stitched a toga worthy of a Roman emperor's wife. Yet another friend attempted to build a papier-mache aqueduct, which collapsed the night before the projects were due. No problem; she submitted her creation as "Ancient Roman Ruins."

Mrs. Pinsker also got us involved with the Junior Classical League, an organization for high school students interested in Greek and Roman antiquity. We shared a bus with a much larger contingent of students from Sacred Heart in Shadyside and headed to Carlisle to attend the state convention. For us inner city public school kids, it was a rare opportunity to travel and stay overnight in a motel, even if it was just across the state.

Additionally, Mrs. Pinsker had us attend Latin hootenannies. We created togas from white bed sheets held together with safety pins and ribbons crisscrossing our bosoms. With our assistance she would translate current pop songs into Latin, and we would perform them at the hootenannies.

Years later, I can still sing the Fifth Dimension's "Age of Aquarius" -- or "Saeclum Aquarius" -- in Latin. Our parents and Mrs. Pinsker would transport us to these musical events. We'd chuckle when she placed a yellow pages phone book on her seat in order to reach the steering wheel of her Volkswagen Beetle.

Another time Channel 4 TV host Joe Negri came to South High to audition talent. Once again Quid had us dress in togas to try out for TV. Somehow we were one of the acts chosen, but the producers were concerned that our white sheets would look bland on TV.

We dyed our sheets in assorted colors and sang on Joe Negri's show -- "Ubi Flores Iverunt," or "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" No one alerted the cameraman that at one point we would bend down to pick up artificial flowers resting on the floor, so our bobbing bodies briefly disappeared from view until we popped back up.

I became reacquainted with Mrs. Pinsker at a former classmate's wedding years later and began to send her holiday cards. A freelance greeting card writer, Mrs. Pinsker enjoyed reading my verses. Our cards would include a little chitchat about our families and events of the year gone by. She'd write a sentiment in Latin that I usually couldn't translate and then it would be another year until we repeated the process.

I recently learned from her daughter that Mrs. Pinsker's husband had passed away. It was obvious that they had enjoyed many wonderful years of marriage. As a mother, wife and teacher, Frances Pinsker has positively impacted so many people.

And I can truly say that she was one of those teachers who made a difference in this student's life, and for that I am forever grateful. Gratias tibi, magister mirabile -- thank you to a wonderful teacher! And thanks to an online English-to-Latin translator for helping me out with this sentiment!

intelligencer

Robin Prevade of Collier, who works as a recruiter at a nonprofit organization, may be reached at versesbyrobin@yahoo.comThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions about memorable educational experiences, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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