I grew up in New York, in a (relatively) small town on eastern Long Island. It was generally a mixed bag socially, economically, and racially, as far as small towns go. The schools were good, but had some issues from time to time. But there were some exceptional teachers, and one of them ran the Latin programme.
One of the options in our state mandated high school degree programme was three years of a foreign language (taught over four – two in middle school and two in high school with the option to carry on to advanced classes). When I was twelve and had the chance to pick, I went with German. This was a huge mistake because of the teacher (to give you an idea I was once thrown out of class for asking if we were going to actually learn anything that day), and so at the first opportunity to change languages in the transition to high school, I switched to French. So there I am (and to be honest, so was half my German class) starting French I on the first day of high school, walking into a classroom expecting to find posters of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, maybe a teacher in a jaunty beret, and instead found… the Latin teacher.
The reality though, is that the gods of languages knew exactly what they were doing.
I spent a year learning rudimentary French, along with the Latin roots of words (or Greek, and I have vague memories of the odd bits of Sanskrit), I heard words like Indo-European for the first time, and most importantly, I had a teacher who made me desperately want to learn things. Even Latin. So I did. The year I began Latin was the first time it had been taught ab initio in our high school, at the request of students. The majority of us were lured there in part because of the language, but mostly because of the Latin teacher.
Dr. Greenberger was unlike any teacher I had ever encountered before, or to be honest, since. He was dynamic, and fun, and so incredibly smart. Fourteen year old me was in awe of all the things he knew, and of the things he talked about that I had only the vaguest impressions of – things like having a Ph.D. or studying in Oxford or going to Rome. He was a magnet. There was a reason he was the only teacher in school with a sofa in his classroom: because Latinist or not, we wanted to hang with Doc. We waited in anticipation for the nicknames he bestowed upon his students (I still feel slightly hard done by that it was a classmate who gave me my moniker that was later shortened by Dr. Greenberger. That didn’t seem very original to me.) We kept our special Latin pencils safe (extra points on quizzes!), and we really tried to remember all those endings, some of us with more success than others.
But our classes were more than Latin. Time was dedicated each day to a bit of mythology, history, or other trivia in a segment called ‘What Every Latinist Should Know.’ I loved that more than the language, but it was all part of a greater learning experience that has had such a profound impact on who I am and what my life has become. I was one of the students who went on the first study trip organised by the Latin teacher and his wife (also a Latinist!). It was on that trip I saw the grandeur of Rome, but more importantly, saw Pompeii for the first time. I have such a clear memory, standing in the Forum in Pompeii, on a grey and blustery February day, and feeling something sort of click into place. I am well aware of how trite that sounds, but I have never known how else to describe it.
Many years, a vaguely related undergraduate degree, and a few odd jobs later, I moved to the U.K. to begin a MA in classics and archaeology. This led to a Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellowship, books and articles published, and jobs teaching various sub-disciplines in Classics at seven universities across the UK (including Oxford!). Ironically, I have never really taught Latin. But that’s not really my point…. My point is this: the one person (outside of my family, obviously) who has had the greatest impact on the trajectory of my life was my high school Latin teacher. Not just for the material he taught, but for the way he taught it. I know from former classmates that I am not the only one who has spent their professional life striving to be the kind of teacher he was for us. In fact, the other night a friend told me she used much of how we were taught Latin in her application for tenure – and that’s in a STEM subject.
My Latin teacher retired earlier this year, and the school district spoke of replacement. I am not privy to all of the ins and outs of what has happened, but it is clear there have been behind the scenes machinations that have culminated in the recent announcement that the Latin programme will be abolished (despite having had suitable candidates, and until now, substantial interest from students). Whilst I fully recognise the impossibility of replacing a teacher like Doc, I am devastated by the loss of the Latin programme in and of itself. It has existed in that school for more than a hundred years, and was, when I was a student, the only Latin programme on the East End (I have memories of distance learning Latin classes with other schools in the area). At a time when there are so many concerted efforts to increase the study of Latin in schools here in the UK through organisations such as Classics for All, ACE, and regional groups like the Birmingham and West Midlands Classics Network, I cannot help but think this decision is incredibly short-sighted, and to the detriment of the current and future students of my hometown. There are a myriad of reasons why studying Latin (and Classics more generally) is a Good Idea, and they have been elucidated by people far more eloquent and respected in the field than myself. But I have my own reasons, because for better or worse, walking into that Latin classroom for the first time became part of who I am, what I do, and why I have pursued the life that I have.
I have already sent a letter of outrage and condemnation to the relevant decision makers in the school district, but in doing so, I did wonder how many of us – Classicists or not, educators more generally – had that one teacher that made the difference. More importantly, does the area of study that influenced what you do now still exist in your school? We all bemoan the reduction of subjects in schools and universities, the ever shrinking available funding and constraints on what a department can do. Many work in those areas of outreach and widening participation I mentioned above to promote their subject more widely, but many also pay lip service to it, or do it because the department head says they must. The sudden prospect of my old school losing the very thing that led me to where I am made me realise, in a new way, just how valuable this kind of work is, and how important it is for all of us to work to keep our subjects viable, at every level of education, and in every place we can.