People sometimes wonder why I was a Latin major in high school and college. I know it seems a bit wacky, in that I didn’t go to graduate school to become a classics professor, and I didn’t become a Latin teacher (although I was certified to teach).
The initial reason goes way back in my family. My parents were convinced that all educated persons studied Latin. This belief was pervasive in the old South. Indeed, Latin was the foundation of a gentleman’s education in the early days of our country and was the basis of the curriculum in English public schools (what we would call private schools). So all of my siblings studied Latin in high school, and so did I.
Where I went wrong was that I actually liked it. I liked the logic, the structure, studying a culture that died long ago but continued to be present in our arts, law, architecture and government. I also liked that we just translated, so I didn’t have to try to speak it or carry on a conversation. Embarassment avoided! And I could stake out my own territory without a lot of competition in the high school–nobody else wanted to be president of the Latin club.
Studying Latin gave me skills and a window on the world that helped me get out of my small town, despite being terrified and far from wealthy. The Latin club took part in Junior Classical League competitions on the state and national level. Our teacher, Grady Warren, liked to win, and he taught us techniques for taking standardized tests which helped me ace the ACT, SAT, LSAT, GRE and GMAT. I edited the Tennessee Junior Classical League magazine–my first writing and editing job.
The best part was getting to go on trips with a busload of my friends to the state and national conventions. I saw a streaker in Norman, Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma). I was mistaken for a nun in my vestal virgin costume in Athens, Ohio (Miami University). I forget where we went in Virginia–maybe Virginia Tech? My friend Sallie entered the costume contest one year dressed as a fly; she was Bryzie, the fly that stung poor Io after she was turned into a cow by Hera and was swimming across the Bosporus to escape Zeus.
My senior year I scored enough points on the tests to be the fifth ranking state in the country. Due to my grades and PSAT scores I got a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Tennessee and my junior year I received a scholarship from the American Classical League (the grown-up organization). After student teaching, I knew teaching was not for me! But I had a respectable undergraduate degree and was able eventually to go on to graduate school.
So Latin helped me get a college education which my parents could not afford to give me. It taught me I could be away from home and actually have fun. And at UT I finally learned to read it out loud and hear the beauty of the poetry. Not bad for a dead language!