Latin Is Alive and Well

Latin is the Mother of the Romance Languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. Although English is not in that group, we can claim a kinship because many of our words have their roots in Latin. Two years of Latin at Oak Hill Academy gave me a good basic foundation, and I would be ready for any language study in college — or so I assumed. “Miss Ruth” Echols was for many years the beloved English and Latin teacher at Oak Hill. She taught the four of us: Winifred, Mildred, Garnetta and me, and she remained there long after we had moved on, until her retirement.

Students in our time liked to poke fun at their subjects. Good verses, quips and jokes were passed down from one class to the next. For example, I learned this rhyme even before I learned to refer to myself as an “agricola filia”*:

Latin is a dead tongue, as dead as it can be,
It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.
Dead are they who wrote it, dead are they who spoke it,
Dying are they who learn it,
Blessed death, they earn it!

A favorite joke was about a student who was called on in class to conjugate a certain Latin verb. In panic, the student turned to a classmate and asked what the Latin for that verb was. The classmate whispered back, “Darned if I know.” So the student’s answer was: “Darnedifino, darnedifinas, darnedifinat; darnedifinamas, darnedifinatis, darnedifinant.” That didn’t happen in Miss Ruth’s class, to be sure, but I think if it had she would have laughed. I think she would have appreciated the student’s creativity.

My Latin served me well during my first year at Bluefield Junior College. I lived in the Harmon’s home and their son, Charles, Jr., was struggling with it at Bluefield High School. I often helped him with his Latin homework and Dr. Harmon coached me in Trigonometry as we worked around the kitchen table at night. Latin was also helpful in my study of French with Professor LeGrand. Unfortunately, neither Latin nor French have stayed with me.

French was not offered at Westhampton College, but Spanish was an option, so I planned for that. However, because of my mother’s death on September 13, 1951, my first year at Westhampton, I was about two weeks late enrolling. The dean, Dr. Marguerite Roberts, was very helpful in arranging my classes to make it as easy as possible for me to catch up. She advised me to take Latin instead of Spanish, but I wanted to check out the Spanish class before deciding. I did, but I knew immediately that it was out of the question. The students in the class were already conversing in Spanish. English wasn’t even allowed in the classroom! And so my fate was Miss Turnbull’s 8:00 AM Latin class. Although I had a good background in Latin and none in Spanish, the Spanish class would probably have been a kinder and gentler situation.

Miss Turnbull could be described as a formidable woman. She was tall and rather muscular, with cropped salt and pepper hair. Although she squinted as she looked down at us, there was no mistaking the piercing quality of her gaze. I had a disadvantage from the first day. I was a late enrollee and she didn’t look kindly on tardiness of any sort. The only space available to me was in the back of the room. She held a dim view of those in the back rows. She assumed that the serious Latin students would be in the front. She was not completely wrong about that. I was sitting among some students who took little interest in the subject and spent the hour passing notes or doing other un-Latiny things, such as studying for the next class. Although I tried to show her that I was not one of them, I may have contributed to her disdain by falling asleep a time or two in the early morning class. I passed the first semester, but my grade was nothing to brag about.

Not wanting to risk another low grade, I rushed to class early the first day of the second semester in order to get a front row seat among the serious scholars. Others had the same idea, and so in the scramble for choice seats I almost lost out again. The only unclaimed chair was directly in front of her desk. I took it with trepidation. Being in the direct line of her vision was only a little better than spending another semester in the back.

About the middle of the second semester, Miss Turnbull began teaching her favorite subject, Latin poetry. Spring was in the air. Come to think of it, she probably had spring poetry flings, just like I did, and well she might, because she lived in the deanery with the retired dean of the school, Dr. Mae Keller. The deanery was a picturesque cottage surrounded by trees, flowering shrubs and a variety of birds and other wild creatures. Such a setting was enough to give even the most prosaic among us the spring poetry fever.

She and Dr. Keller were friends of the poet, Robert Frost, and occasionally he would visit them and would be a guest lecturer. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be in a class he lectured. One of my most memorable experiences at Westhampton was seeing him once, out walking Dr. Keller’s dogs. I was on my way to a class across the lake, but I stopped in my tracks when I saw him. He was one of my favorite poets. He was walking a distance from the path I was on, among trees that were beginning to show new green on their branches. He didn’t look in my direction as I stood there staring at him as though in a trance. It was as if he were walking straight out of my high school American Literature text book. He was wearing a plaid shirt, just as he is often pictured. His characteristic wispy white hair was ruffled by the breeze. Some of his poems paraded through my mind and remained there into the next class where they interfered with my concentration on the subject at hand:

Whose woods are these, I think I know…
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep…
(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall…
Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in
or walling out…
(“Mending the Wall”)

When I see birches bend to left and right…
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them,
But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice storms do…
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch cows —
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball…

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…
(“The Road Less Traveled”)

Miss Turnbull’s obvious love for poetry, especially Latin poetry, made her a bit more tolerable that semester, or was it that my own perception of her had changed a little? She still had high expectations, but so did I.

I became frustrated while we were working on rhythm in Latin poetry. I had little sense of rhythm to begin with. After I had been a complete failure in a class recitation one day she invited me to come to her office so that she could help me with it. I didn’t know if she was really interested in me or if she was punishing me for sitting in the back the first semester, but I accepted her invitation and scheduled the tutoring for the first period of the following day.

In the private session with her she had me copying poems and marking rhythm. I applied all I had to getting the grasp of the rhythm quickly; I wasn’t excited about spending my valuable time with ancient poets and the fearsome Miss Turnbull. Sometimes I would think that I had it right, but when I would show her my work she would shake her head and tell me to keep going. I must have gone through every poem in the text book. I had begun to think that I would be her prisoner for the next hour also when she peered at me through her squinted eyes and announced with some actual enthusiasm, “Miss Anderson, I think you’ve got it!” I hoped that I had it, but for fear that I would lose it I saved all the notes from that private session to review for upcoming tests and the final exam.

In addition to rhythm, we spent much time in class translating the poems. She treated each poem as if it were her favorite, and her requirement was that the translation be more poetic than literal. She allowed us to work through each poem in class and to share our translations, then she would either select the one she liked best or she would give her own translation. I recorded each translation she selected as the best for future study. For the final exam, I memorized the translations that she had liked. I was disappointed that she selected only one short verse for the exam. It was probably from Amores, by Ovid (c. 20 AD). I wrote what I knew was her own translation of the verse:

I love and I hate.
Perhaps you ask how that may be,
I do not know — I only know
I feel its agony.

When she returned my paper, there was a large red A+ on the cover. Next to the verse she had written “Miss Anderson, this is the best translation of this verse that I have ever read.” I was pleased with the A that she gave me for the semester, but felt somewhat guilty at the same time. I had learned more about reading Miss Turnbull than about reading Latin.

Of all the teachers I ever had, Miss Turnbull was the only one whom I regarded with dread, even fear, but I remember her now with appreciation. She may not have had the best teacher-student rapport, but she was dedicated to her subject, and dedicated to keeping alive and passing on the wisdom and culture of the past. I have always liked poetry, and so in a way she and I may have been kindred spirits, although to me at the time she represented a poetic bird and I the poetic worm she was about to devour.

May, 2005

*farmer’s daughter