Friday, May 28, 2010

"Lugan's Folk"

I had a funny exchange with one of my students a couple of days ago. We were working though an elementary dialogue in John Traupman's excellent book Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency, and I was asking my students questions based on the dialogue. I had just asked them:

David quas feras in vivario vidit?

What kinds of wild animals did David see at the zoo?

I was trying to elicit a response something like this:

David pantheras et leones et elephantos et tigres et zebras in vivario vidit.

David saw panthers, lions, elephants, tigers and zebras at the zoo.

But my students seemed to be having a little trouble understanding that the interrogative adjective quas was an element of the question, not the answer. So I backed up and explained that quas was a "question word." I also remarked -- offhand, without really thinking about it -- that it was an adjective, and that its gender was feminine.

I don't quite know why I told them this. They didn't really need to know it just then, and in our Latin lessons I don't usually give them information they can't use right away. This isn't true for the English part of our classes. On the contrary, during our English lessons I try to cram as much varied perspective into their heads as possible. But our Latin lessons are so brief -- only fifteen or twenty minutes a day -- that I have mostly tried to focus exclusively on whatever concepts or vocabulary seem most essential for their understanding of whatever text we are using at the time.

Anyway, whatever lay behind my remark, I certainly didn't expect it to make any particular impression on my students. But then William said suddenly, "Anglice!" (our standard formula for annoucing that a question or comment will be made in English rather than Latin) and asked, "How do you know it's feminine?" He was staring hard at the whiteboard, frowning slightly.

I switched to English myself and told him, "Well, there are rules."

William was still staring at the questions written on the whiteboard. "I think," he said, "I think we should learn the rules."

At least, that's what I think he said. I mean, that's what I know he said. But somehow, at that moment, I heard something quite different. What I heard was, "Why haven't we learned the rules before now?" In my head, the question didn't sound accusatory so much as reproachful: "Why didn't you teach us?"

I suppose I felt this way partly because I have so little time left with my students. I'll be leaving Beijing in less than a week. Within two weeks, another teacher will be standing in the classroom I have occupied for the last two years. Under the circumstances, it is surely natural to wonder a little about the things one has left undone.

And, as it turns out, one of those things happens to be the teaching of Latin morphology. This brings me to the principal reason why William's suggestion seemed to me so full of implicit censure. When I was preparing to teach Latin to these children, morphology lay at the very center of my plans. It was not only the mechanism though which I proposed to teach, but also my primary rationale for choosing to teach Latin in the first place.

As I remarked in a post I wrote at the beginning of my sojourn here in Beijing, I had expected the order and regularity that characterizes Latin grammar to present my students with a new and pleasing aspect of language itself. In planning to focus on morphology, I had thought to show them how language could look and feel when it is disentangled from communication -- when it is not merely a tool but an artifact, a self-contained subject of inquiry.

There was a practical element to this approach -- I did think it would be good for my students to see that language can be understood in different ways -- but, really, my plans sprang principally from nostalgia. I was hoping to reproduce some version of my own introduction to the study of Latin.

When I was a little older than my students are now, long before I had learned enough Latin to be of any use in reading literature, I fell in love with the structure of the language itself. The neat packaging of the verbs, with their person, voice, number, tense and mood all embedded together, the clarity of purpose that marked the inflected endings of the nouns -- these characteristics seemed to me to be an epitomization of elegant utility, like the tidy beauty of terraced fields on a hillside. The enchantment I felt on making these discoveries is one of my happiest memories, and I had been hoping to share it with my students.

But I had reckoned without their youth. I was twelve when I began learning Latin. My students were only seven. Now they are nine. If, as William's proposal suggests, they are now ready to work with abstract grammatical concepts, they have only just reached that point.

In addition, when I first was first introduced to Latin, I was intensely aware of the tradition to which my own learning belonged. The deliberate memorization of the forms -- amo, amas, amat -- was, for me, borne along on its own momentum. The activity itself seemed like the steps of a dance or ritual, at once joyous and stately. But my students see no particular romance in this process. They have no frame of reference for it apart from the endless, tedious memorization required of them at school. Though the idea of learning Latin holds a certain exotic allure for them, it is pleasing only in its general outlines. The details have no meaning. For inspiration, they have only a vague sense of special endeavor.

When I found that this was the case, I dropped any expectation of teaching them according to the system I had known myself. Instead we learned proverbs and quotations, first from my own memory and then from a beautifully arranged book and blog by Laura Gibbs.

For a while, this worked very well. My students loved being able to pepper their conversation with Latin aphorisms. But then their pleasure began to fade, and I switched gears again. This time I took a conversational approach. We began having our lessons in Latin, using PowerPoint demonstrations with simple texts and pictures, and, later, John Trauman's book of dialogues.

Though all this represented a 180 degree reversal of my plans -- I don't see how one could get more entangled with communication than in an immersion-based conversation class -- I have to admit that it has been pretty successful. The first day I conducted the class in Latin, my students broke into applause. Since then, the picture-book fables and simple dialogues that we have read have mostly engaged their attention. They have learned some of the stories by heart, along with few lines of Horace, and have had great fun reciting them for their friends and family. I suppose, for a pair of overworked fourth-graders whose day begins at six in the morning, never ends before ten at night and is packed to the minute with relentless endeavor, these returns are about as rich as one can expect.

But I am afraid that when I heard -- or rather, misheard -- William's suggestion, none of this was apparent to me. I didn't see the path we had followed, or how far we had come along it. I only saw missed opportunity, the evidence of my own neglect.

Which perhaps explains -- though it scarcely excuses -- what I did next. Answering the reproach I imagined rather than the proposal that William had actually put, I said to him, "I did try to teach you the rules. We tried that last year. But you couldn't learn them. It did not work." My words were much harsher than my tone. If William had been my own age, I am sure he would have recognized the desperation in my voice.

Fortunately, even at nine years old, William was one too many for me. He's a Chinese kid, after all. He's well accustomed to being criticized for failing to achieve the impossible. It doesn't make him uneasy in the least. Though he was evidently taken aback -- clearly, he didn't remember ever trying to learn the "rules" -- he soon recovered his footing. He nodded his concession, then said, "But, you know, just because something is not a good idea one time does not mean it is not good later."

Just at that moment, a surprising image caught my mind's eye. I think perhaps it had been there from the beginning of the conversation, but it was only now that I saw it clearly. It was a hawk, hanging high and still in a deep blue sky. At first I thought that this image simply reflected the idea that learning the structural "rules" according to which a language is regulated affords a bird's eye view of that language, widening one's ken. I guessed that I was probably picturing my students as hawks, poised on an updraft, scanning the "colored counties" from one horizon to another.

But a little bit later I realized that this image had another meaning. I had culled it from a book that has been much on my mind lately. The book is Susan Cooper's fantasy novel Seaward. My students are too young for it -- it's really designed for pre-teens -- but I keep finding myself thinking of it as we pack up at the end of our lessons.

The book is about two young people, a boy and a girl named West and Cally. They travel together towards the sea through a phantasmagorical landscape belonging to Taranis, the embodiment and deification of death. Again and again through the course of their journey, they find themselves identified as "Lugan's folk." Eventually they discover that Lugan is the twin brother of Taranis and the personification of life. Sometimes he takes the form of a hawk, watching their progress from the air. West and Cally also learn that they belong to Lugan -- that they are "Lugan's folk" -- because they are young, because their lives are still before them, quickening and beckoning. There is no other reason for their allegiance. They are full of life; that is enough.

As they journey, West and Cally fall in love. When they reach the sea, they find that they must make a choice. They may continue past the shores of the sea to Tir Na Nog, the Isles of the Blessed, where they can rest in one another's company without age or decay. Or they may return to the separate lives they left behind when they began their journey. Lugan tells them that if they choose to return to their own world, they will forget their journey and one another. But he also promises that one day they will meet, "and remember, and begin again."

As I said a minute ago, my students are too young for this story. But soon they will be old enough. They will be the age I was when I began to learn Latin. Who knows what sights will lie spread beneath them then?

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

After a moment, I recovered my footing, just as William had done. "You are perfectly right," I told him. "We'll begin tomorrow."