Is Your Toga Grounded?

 

A Story About the Enduring Power — and Hazards — of Latin

A poem was carved laboriously into my ninth-grade Latin class desk:

Latin’s a dead language,
As dead as can be.
It killed the Romans,
And it’s killing me.

 

Still, for some perverse reason, I took not only first-year Latin, but three more years of it. The smart, pretty girls–and a few effete guys–took French. Regular, down-to-earth folks, it seemed, took Spanish. Zit-encrusted nerds who laughed nervously and loudly and delighted in making atrocious puns, like me, took Latin.

Most students at Sidney Lanier High were weaned off Latin by Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, which we all studied in tenth grade. My friend Greg and I would get together after school to translate the day’s ten torturous lines, delighting in using the most ridiculous words we could find. Our best triumphs were translations that would be technically accurate, but so nonsensical and convoluted that they would send our teacher, Miss Annie Hale, into fits of chortles.

Zeus hurling lightning boltsMiss Hale was a dedicated teacher. She managed to hold the Latin program together year after year, despite dwindling enrollment and limited enthusiasm from the Montgomery, Alabama, school board. She told us on more than one occasion that she thought Julius Caesar was “the most fascinating historical character of all time,” in a tone of voice that said she hadn’t found any Alabama men who were nearly as robust. As a nun is a “bride of Christ,” Miss Hale seemed to be a bride of Caesar.

So few of us lasted beyond tenth grade Latin that the third- and fourth-year classes were combined. One year all the juniors and seniors would study Cicero, and the next year it would be Vergil. All this hanging out together, laughing at each other’s terrible jokes, going to Latin conventions every year, and living with the isolation that came from being brainy goofballs made us a tight bunch.

Fortunately for us, Miss Hale had a sense of humor. Aside from wacky translations of the classics, the other way to distract Miss Hale was to get her to tell one of her own stories. “You can stay,” went the punchline to one, “but that whistling has got to go!” She’d been teaching for so many years that she could never remember whether she’d told the story to this particular group of students or not, and we certainly never stopped her. Another favorite included the phrase “A silver salver of slimy saliva.”

But the best of them all was the new story Miss Hale told us at the beginning of my senior year. She’d been getting ready for Vergil’s Aeneid that summer, translating a hundred lines a day on her back porch–and, according to some whose parents or fellow church members knew her, probably sipping a bit of sherry to make the chore more manageable. Since the previous year had been Cicero, she hadn’t spent much time with Vergil recently. A hundred lines of Vergil a day was hard work even for Miss Hale, even after all those years of translating these same lines.

“One afternoon,” she told us, “about the middle of August, I’d been translating Latin all day. And of course I’d been translating all day every day for weeks.”

She paused to let us reflect on the paltriness of our own whining complaints about translating ten or fifteen lines a day.

“It was one of those typical late summer afternoons,” she went on, “when dark clouds started gathering on the horizon, and the breeze was getting restless. I put down my book and rubbed my eyes. Just as I opened them again, I saw a flash in the sky and heard a huge clap of thunder.”

We all listened with rapt attention, noting that we had already killed more then ten minutes of class without having to do any actual work yet.

“I don’t know what came over me,” said Miss Hale, “but I stood up there on my back porch, flung open my arms, and shouted to the darkening sky, ‘O Jupiter! Send down more lightning bolts!'” She held her arms out and looked toward the ceiling.

“And now you’re really going to think I’m crazy,” she said, “but I swear this is true. Right after that, a glowing ball of fire appeared on the power line behind the house. It was about as big as a basketball, and made of reddish-yellow fire. The ball swiftly danced its way along the line and down the wire, slamming into the wall of the house!”

We stared, open-mouthed.

“It was ball lightning,” said Miss Hale. “It knocked out the electric range and several other appliances, and it left a big round black mark on the wall where it hit the house. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt, but I was lucky.” She raised an index finger and looked at us sternly as she said, “So be careful when you summon the gods.” She put on her glasses, opened her notebook, and said, “Now I believe our lesson for today is…”

We applauded, and our teacher beamed as she took a slight mock bow. It was the best Miss Hale story ever.

And to this day I am always careful about what I say when a thunderstorm is brewing.

Note: Originally published in the March 1998 issue of Readings, edited by Steve Smith of Winchester, MA.


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