It has not always been so. Through many years, I sometimes struggled with unkind, arrogant students, annoying ones, and lazy ones. I’ve had extremely unpleasant encounters with parents. I’ve been accused of racism. Sometimes, hatred of a teacher’s subject matter—English or Latin, in my case—bleeds over into hatred of the teacher. (“I didn’t make this up!” I plead. “I didn’t invent the passive periphrastic! I’m just the messenger!”) I’ve been told I’m too easy or too hard, too formal or too casual, and too many other things. This is a teacher’s lot. You’ll never please everyone.
In recent years, however, I’ve landed in an ideal niche, which I’ve written about before. At Cleveland State, my students are exceedingly nice, exceedingly interesting, exceedingly hardworking, and, often, exceedingly smart. I’m exceedingly lucky to know them.
They work full time and go to school full time. They raise children. They come to school sick and tired. They have had a variety of jobs and have lived in a variety of places. Even the “traditional” undergraduate (i.e., eighteen years old, just out of high school) usually has a pretty special story to tell.
Because my classes tend to be small (because, for some reason, masses of students do not study ancient languages), and because at least some of my students continue with Latin beyond the first semester, I often get to know them pretty well. We develop in-jokes. One class focused on chiasmus, my favorite rhetorical device. When we would find it in a reading, they’d resolutely cross their arms in front of them (signifying the “x,” or “chi,” formed by the words). In another class, we connected everything to the actor James Franco–all our sentences, all our examples contained a James Franco allusion. Some classes fixate on a particular writer to scorn and disdain, frequently Cicero. The history majors often teach me more than I teach them. In one of my current classes, the students most often provide the historical context for our readings.
They all, however, share one thing in common, our classic text, Wheelock’s Latin, first published in 1956 and now in its seventh edition. Frederic Wheelock (1902-1987) developed it from the lessons he prepared for his students at Brooklyn College, a text he intended to be “mature, humanistic, challenging, and instructive.” He hoped it would not “break the spirit” of students attempting to master Latin.
In his thoroughness and attention to detail, Wheelock breaks the occasional spirit. Writing in 1956, he assumed that the mature student using his book would have a firm grounding in English grammar. When he writes, “The relative pronoun qui,quae,quod, as common in Latin as its English equivalent who/which/that, ordinarily introduces a subordinate clause and refers back to some noun or pronoun known as its antecedent,” he’s really presuming a lot of knowledge on the part of students. In 2014, some students have a flimsy grasp of what a noun is, let alone a pronoun, let alone a relative pronoun and its antecedent. Today’s students have, by and large, studied very little grammar. As I have frequently said, the teachers of today’s students never really studied English grammar.
This is all to say that my students like to give Wheelock a hard time. Sometimes they complain bitterly about him, but most often they regard him, almost affectionately, as a cantankerous old grandfather who blathers on about i-stems of the third declension and obscure uses of the subjunctive mood. We refer to him as Wheelock, or sometimes Frederic, and often our task is to tease out exactly what he’s trying to teach us. What does he mean by saying most ablatives function adverbially, and why, oh why, does he include twelve different pronouns and all their endings in Chapter 9?
Today is Valentine’s Day, and my six lovely Latin 102 students gave me a few gifts. In the photo above, you’ll see among the gifts a picture of the man himself, Frederic Wheelock, gazing wisely and a little eerily on me, trying in a new century to translate his love of Latin to a new generation of students. You have to be a Latin student or teacher wrestling daily with Wheelock’s Latin to appreciate the hilarious perfection of that little gift.