“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I think I first heard this smirky phrase when I was a student in high school. I probably even laughed along with it. After all, I never intended to be a teacher. I entered into Virginia Tech planning to major in math and computer science. I was going to get a high-tech job and bring home some high-tech money. So how did I end up teaching Latin? I had taken four years of Latin in high school and kept it on my college schedule just for fun. I wasn’t ready to give up something in which I had invested so much time and effort. It was my comforting diversion from all those numbers, proofs, and commands. As I slogged my way through five-hour freshman calculus and computer science classes stuffed full of math geniuses and techie wannabes, I took a look around one day and asked myself, “Do I really want to do this with my life? Do I really want to chain myself to a desk and stare into a computer screen all day long?” Searching my soul and receiving a bit of advice from those who knew me better than I knew myself, I realized that the world of numbers and crunching them wasn’t for me and I turned my diversion into my vocation. In the spirit of Robert Frost who knew something about wandering around the woods, I went from the major of the masses to the major of the obscure few and, indeed, that distinction made all the difference.
I have loved the ancient world as far back as I can remember. I recall being thrilled when I flipped through the television channels as a child and stumbled upon such wonders as Ben Hur racing his chariot, Spartacus leading his army of slaves, or even Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck being chased by lions in the Colosseum. I fondly remember discovering my mother’s Latin textbook, opening it at random, and resting my eyes on the Latin word amicitia - “friendship.” Ever since that time I have nourished this friendship with the ancient world and turned it into a love affair.
Taking the less-traveled road of being a Latin teacher, though, does come with a challenge. I have been part of many conversations which play out in a predictable direction. I meet somebody new and she asks, “What do you do?” “I teach,” I reply. “Oh, really?” she says, often with some sort of surprise or disappointment in her voice. “What do you teach?” “I teach Latin!” I say with pride and look her straight in the eyes, knowing her reaction will come in one of two ways: 1) her eyes open wide and she responds with amazement, “Do they really still teach that? Isn’t Latin a dead language?” or 2) her eyes narrow, her top lip curls, and she responds with disdain, “I hated Latin when I was in school! I can’t remember a thing and it never helped me out anyway!” On occasion I will come across the individual who actually loved taking Latin in high school, admitting how he benefited from Latin in learning English vocabulary or grammar, in conquering the SATs, or in getting an A in some other, now-forgotten, Romance language. All too often, though, a parent will admit that his child was taking Latin and, although he really wished his son had taken a more practical language, “You know -- something he can really use!” he was actually enjoying the class.
I take in all these responses, often with a nod and a grin, and remain confident that what I am doing with my life is a good thing. I do not have to remind myself that I get to spend all day working with a subject I love and even getting paid for it! What is more, I get to pass on to others my affection for Latin and watch with pride as they learn and grow. I do not have any misconceptions that all my students will share in my enthusiasm or even develop their own friendship with the ancient world. Indeed I dare to say that some will take a year or two of the language and make conversation in the not-too-distant future about how they are surprised that Latin is still in the curriculum or that they had an awful time having to do all that work back in high school and still didn’t get a 2400 on their SATs. On the other hand, there will be those lucky few who persevere and reach the upper levels, reading and translating works of authentic Latin literature which contain messages still fresh, meaningful, and practical two thousand years later. Those who stay with the subject through their senior year not only take fours years of Latin, but also take four years of Mr. Keith. That is a scary thought. I know that this carries with it great responsibility and I stand in my pulpit and wield my pen carefully and thoughtfully. I like to think that they move off into this world with a bit more knowledge and wisdom than when they entered high school. That, in essence, is the very nature of education. They will become the mathematicians and the computer scientists and a host of other professions, some of which we haven’t even begun to imagine, and they will take with them a touch of humanity. It is my hope that I have taught them not only how to think but that I have given them something to think about.
Why do I teach? I teach because I can.
This essay was my entry in a contest for Riverbend HS faculty in 2005.