Janie asked me to write a post about this Latin teacher whom I refer to so often. I solicited essays from two friends who also studied Latin. Bonnie at Btolly and Brenda at Tanabu Girl are writing today about our beloved Mr. F. (We always called him Mister even though he was a Ph.D.) Together we have a trifecta tribute!
When we decided to learn Latin, we were desperate for help. After a year of groping on our own towards one handhold of understanding I started praying and making phone calls. I randomly asked people over 50 if they knew Latin. “Well, not really; I took it in high school but don’t remember a thing,” was the general response. One phone call followed another as we tracked the scent of a Latin teacher.
Eventually I was led to a professor at our local university and she was intrigued with the idea, but didn’t imagine where she would find time. The next words out of her mouth changed our lives. “You need to call Dr. F. He is a retired classics professor who recently moved here with his wife.” As luck would have it (heh heh) my husband had been contracted to do some work in their home. My husband told me to wait in calling Dr. F. until he’d done a little background check of his own. He came home one day and exclaimed, “Do you know how many languages this guy knows? And he knows Biblical Greek!” But more than anything, he was impressed with Mr. F’s attitude. He was not pompous, arrogant, or weird – quite the opposite.
There are moments in your life that are indelibly imprinted on your brain. I remember odd details about making the “cold call” to Dr. F. For privacy and peace I was in our garage shivering and staring out the window of the garage door and contemplating the spider webs above the header. After he answered the phone I explained who I was and that I represented a group of about 25, mostly kids and some parents, who would like to learn Latin; would he be willing to teach us? His first response was, “Do you know what you are getting yourself into? It’s not quite the same as learning Spanish.” To which I rejoined that we would be willing to give it a try if he would be willing to take us on.
So began six years of the best teaching I have ever received. We met one night a week for two hours so our progress was necessarily slow. I think we went back to the beginning of Wheelock’s four or five times to shore up our faulty foundation. Here was a man who had taught the best and brightest grad students, a shining star in the world of classics, drilling young teens on the rudiments of Latin patiently, carefully, without a hint of condescension. I showed him my nephew’s Latin book; as he looked at the author’s name on the title page he exclaimed, “Oh my, yes! I had this fellow for a student.”
So we learned Latin. We learned the idiom (at times he corrected the Wheelock answer to make it more idiomatically correct); we learned grammar; we declined nouns and conjugated verbs. He told us that we were taught femina because it’s a first declension noun; however, mulier is the more common word in Latin for woman. Beyond that we learned the stories behind the sentences which we translated. Ah, the stories! Mr. F has an encyclopedic memory and could connect words and sentences to stories from classical antiquity, medieval lore, literary episodes and current events. My boys soaked up the story of the battle of Marathon as told by the beloved Mr. F. Wheelock’s Latin was just a springboard for teaching. His examples to illustrate a concept came from the wide world of his reading and study. I’ll never, no never, forget when he showed us the ethical dative and quoted Jane Austen using it. Who knew you could find the ethical dative in Jane Austen?
The Latin class became a culture class: we listened to Carmina Burana and other pieces of classical music. He would bring a painting out and give us a lesson in art appreciation as he explained elements of the art. He read us poems, excerpts from literature, a column from the Wall Street Journal. We read through some Latin psalms, early church hymns, Latin poems. A Homerian scholar, he quoted us Dido’s story in the Greek and explained it to us. He showed us humor in unexpected places. Mr. F. was several times a guest lecturer in my co-op literature classes.
The F’s love to name inanimate objects. Their car was Abishag: a comfort in their old age. They lived on a lovely piece of land and enjoyed cultivating and husbanding the property. Mentally they divided it into the twelve tribes of Israel; Mr. F would tell his wife, “I’ll be working on Asher this morning.” I can’t remember half of the great names they had but they were clever and fun. Soon he will retire a second time and they will move back east. The house they have purchased is grander than any they have previously lived in. Their name for it? Pemberly!
At some point the class shifted from Mr. F’s house to our house. Magister Dilectus and his wife joined us for dinner before class began. Although we came from different perspectives theologically and perhaps philosophically, we enjoyed sweet times of communion around our table. We now regard each other as life-long friends. When I wish to give myself a special treat, a phone call visit with these dear friends is the thing.
One of our first students went on to a well-respected liberal arts college (and is now a medical doctor). When one of his professors asked Eric how he came to know Latin as a home schooler he mentioned Mr. F’s name. His professor’s eyes bugged out and he said, “How did you get time with him?” Eric replied that Mr. F. had retired and lived in his home town. Thus began guest lectures at this college and eventually an invitation to return to teaching. And our beloved Latin teacher and his equally beloved wife (a scholar in her own right) moved away to a new stage in their lives.
By the end of our class we were down to three students; we had completed 36 of the 40 chapters of Wheelock’s. But we learned a wealth of information, and had been infected with a desire to learn, to ask questions, to seek wisdom, to love truth, beauty and goodness.
I may or may not pursue further formal studies when my stint as MagistraMater (teacher/mom) is completed. This one thing I know with knowledge deep in my bones: my Latin class with Mr. F. will be my Golden Age of learning. Multiple times daily I look at a word and see the Latin behind it. I feel like I’ve been given a secret code or a special set of glasses that makes the bright colors pop out. My world has been expanded far beyond my expectations.
How does one express her gratitude for such a gift?
Nothing is better than a life of greatest diligence.