Thursday, December 1, 2011

New York, 1970.

When I was a kid, 40 or more years ago, the world was a very different place than it is today. I was in 7th grade and like my brother who was a grade ahead of me, I had been enrolled in Latin. My teacher, and my brother's was a man named Howard Comeau.

I don't know how Latin is taught today but back in 1970 or so it was probably taught much the same way it was taught in 1870 or 1770 or, even, 1370. It involved an enormous amount of rote memorization, recitations, translations, dictations and mneumonic tricks, many of which I remember to this day. (There are but four masculine nouns in the first declension and they are a PAIN. Poeta, Agricola, Insula and Nauta.)

We were drilled and drilled and drilled some more. All of us had to be able to conjugate verbs like machinery. I can still rattle off Sum Es Est, Summus Estis Sunt, etc. like a sonofabitch. We were also drilled so that we could decline Bonus Bona Bonum, Hic Haec Hoc, etc. through the five cases both singular and plural--30 words with different endings in under 30 seconds. My best was in the sevens, more than respectable, but Connie Jacobs (who once got sent to the principal for calling something asinine) was the class champ--she declined Bonus in under five seconds.

None of this knowledge has really been helpful to me in my life and career. I do enjoy reading Roman history (in English) and when in Rome find that I can muddle through inscriptions on monuments.

The real value of this torture transcended Latin. I was forced to use my mind, to discipline it in ways that I fear have vanished. The power to understand, store and retrieve information--to recall conversations, dates and ideas, is vitally important. Mr. Comeau and Latin taught me that.

Mr. Comeau also taught me a lesson about the semiotics of dress. This was the early 70s when all the old rules about girls wearing dresses and boys wearing trousers to school were disappearing. Kids started wearing t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. The old order was collapsing.

There was a dance one Friday night in my Jr. High. Mr. Comeau was a proctor and reminded us that we would not be allowed in the gym if we weren't wearing a jacket and tie. We were outraged and couldn't understand why the dress code was so strict.

Mr. Comeau explained it simply: "you won't roll on the floor if you're wearing a jacket and tie."


BTW, if you're ever in the mood for a good movie I think about when I think about my education, get ahold of the 1951 classic "The Browning Version." It's directed by Anthony Asquith, written by Terence Rattigan and stars Michael Redgrave.


dave trott said...

George, The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, agrees with you:

jeff said...

I learned hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah much the same way. I couldn't read a lick of it, still can't really, so I spent hours memorizing the prayers and a few common words. It worked in the end, seeing as I didn't totally make a fool of myself during the ceremony, and I still remember much of what I learned during that time.

Learning this way may be the reason why I am good at remembering dates and events as well. Like when I tweeted such and such an article, and other minutiae.

Dinesh Bhadwal said...

I had similar experience with Sanskrit. I was a topper in 7th grade and then in college also when i picked it as my optional subject. Though i've to accept that i always had to memorise everything. I don't know if it has improved my ability to remember things.

In college we had a brilliant Mathematics professor. We called him ‘super computer’. You give him any problem and chances were that he would solve it within seconds. Without the help of paper and pencil. He was a genius in Sanskrit too. He would recite big ‘Shlokas’ in his class while explaining difficult theorems. No connect just to inspire us.

Today there are too many Ed Balls in India too. They will like to relegate Sanskrit as a second rate language.

There is a beautiful character in Werner Herzog’s documentary ‘Encounters at the end of the world’. Linguist William Jirsa is in Antarctica because he is shattered by the death of so many languages. When Herzog interviews him, he puts it this way:
“In our efforts to preserve endangered species we seem to overlook something equally important. To me it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.”

bob hoffman said...

Unlike Connie Jacobs, I've never declined a bonus.

george tannenbaum said...


We used to joke... why are so many Latin scholars bachelors? Because when they're asked to conjugate, they decline.

Jim Haines said...

Howard Comeau was my Latin Teacher in 1979-1981 at a Catholic HS in Queens. The first teacher that put a value on thinking. Any idea what happened to him?