Saturday, November 24, 2012

Amo Catullus

Catullus, courtesy The Daily Omnivore

I come from the generation that still studied Latin in high school. If you were in the Arts stream, you had to take Latin in grades 9 and 10; after that, you could choose between Latin or typing.

Miss Kipfer was our Latin teacher. During that first class in grade 9, I looked her over and judged her poorly. She was short and stocky. Rosy cheeks in a plain face. Short dark brown hair with a slight wave, thick black eyebrows framing small brown eyes. She wore knee-length navy wool skirts and loose polyester floral print blouses, sensible brown or black oxfords on her feet.

Fresh out of university, this was Miss Kipfer's first posting. She made it very clear to us that she would brook no insolence, and kept us on a tight leash. No whispering as we squirmed on the uncomfortable gray plastic chair desks. All homework neatly completed and handed in. Mandatory participation in declension and conjugation drills. Vita, vitae, vitae, vitam, vita, vita -- nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative cases of the noun Life. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant -- forms of the verb “to love”. We hated Miss Kipfer.

One dreary afternoon, as we bored our way through yet another declension, someone whispered something crude and everyone tittered. Miss Kipfer had been writing on the blackboard, her thick back to us. She swung around, glaring. “What was that?” she demanded. We fell silent. “Who spoke?” she continued. Nothing. “I want to know who spoke and what was said,” she repeated. Silence. Miss Kipfer put down the piece of white chalk, crossed her arms, and planted herself squarely in front of us. Her stern mouth tightened.

Close your books,” she ordered, in a voice cold as ice. “We will stay here until you tell me what was said and who said it.” We did as we were told, shutting our books and our mouths. No-one spoke. Neither did Miss Kipfer. Like a brewing storm, a sharp-edged tension filled the room. Long moments passed. We held our breaths.

After an eternity, Miss Kipfer let out an impatient snort and stomped toward the door. “I am going down the hall,” she said. “Don't dare let me hear one peep while I'm gone.” She opened the door and left it wide open. Normally we would have made faces and started whispering, but we knew that she had the ears of a bat. We all sat frozen as statues. Several minutes passed, and then the double click of heels on the terrazzo floor announced Miss Kipfer's return with our principal, Mr. Carleton. He was as short as Miss Kipfer, and slightly stockier in his rumpled blue suit and red-striped tie. His daughter Anne was in our class. He ignored her.

It would make things a lot easier for everyone if the person who spoke out before would speak up now,” sighed Mr. Carleton. He paced up and down the aisles, stopping beside each person, including his daughter, before moving on. “Were you the one who spoke?” he asked each student. Our code of silence held. One by one, we shook our heads. Miss Kipfer stood behind her desk, arms re-crossed, and grimly watched the proceedings. Finally, after receiving one final shake of the head from the last person, Mr. Carleton walked to the door and turned to face us. “I'm very disappointed in this class,” he said. “You will all receive a detention of 30 minutes during your lunch hours for the next three days.” And with that he left.

I can't remember if we resumed our lesson, or finished the period in silence. But one thing was clear: Kipfer was boss. She never suffered the slightest discipline problems after that. But how we detested her, and often griped about how we couldn't wait to quit Latin after grade 10.

When Grade 11 came along, many did leave Latin for good. But a few of us decided that Latin was the lesser of two evils: declensions and conjugations were slightly more interesting than banging out endless repetitions of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” on the old black Underwood typewriters in the classroom down the hall. There were fewer of us – only 12 students instead of the 25 from the previous years. In grade 12, the class shrunk to 10, and then in grade 13, only seven remained.

By some miracle, things had changed. We had noticed a slight softening of the Kipfer armour in Grade 11 – on some days, we caught a glimpse of a smile. Perhaps it was because we had chosen to stay. Then in Grade 12, as we moved beyond the structure of nouns and verbs, we began translating Latin literature – Horace, Marcus Aurelius, Ovid, Caesar. This led to conversations – in English -- about what we wanted out of life, and then, to our surprise, about going to university, growing up, dating, and love. Miss Kipfer became human to us, and we became, I think, endearing to her. By Grade 13, our band of seven loved those classes. We often spent a good 30 minutes out of a 50-minute class period in deep conversation, triggered by our homework translation of some Latin text. Then Miss Kipfer would glance at the clock and exclaim, “My goodness! We'd better do some Latin.”

One day, we were plodding through a section of Caesar's memoirs. Miss Kipfer watched our eyelids droop as we surveyed yet another battlefield from the ramparts and considered various bellicose strategies. “Caesar was a military genius,” Miss Kipfer prompted, and we rolled our eyes at her. Instead of becoming offended, she laughed. “It's pretty boring, isn't it.” All seven heads nodded in unison.

She placed her hands behind her back, paced back and forth in front of us, and then came to a stop. She turned and faced us resolutely.

All right, class. Tomorrow, we're going to read something a lot more interesting. Poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Catullus. But there's one condition.” She paused and her face became stern. “You must never – and I mean it – never, ever tell your mothers.”

We looked at her in amazement. What was so dangerous about Catullus?

The next day we found out. Miss Kipfer handed us about a dozen poems from the series called Carmen, or “Song”. Together, we took Carmen 2 and began translating. Passer, deliciae, meae puellae: “Sparrow, favourite of my girl...” The poem was about love and desire. In fact, all the poems were about love and desire: Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus: " Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love...” Not only that, but very few of these poems were what one would call chaste. As we stumbled through our translations, we discovered a world of gay love, prostitution, passion, and above all, love in all its delights and sorrows. No wonder we were not to tell our mothers.

The following day, Miss Kipfer announced a special project. A Latin poetry translation contest was underway: did we want to participate? We did. We each chose a poem – one of the less racy ones, Miss Kipfer advised – and spent several classes translating and reading both Latin and English versions aloud to one another. This was so much more exciting than boring old Caesar, not to mention declensions and conjugations!

I selected Carmen 13, in which Catullus begs his friend Fabullus to treat him to dinner (and wine, women and song) in return for a perfume unlike any other in the world. I was captivated by the poem's earthy sensuality and especially the last lines, ...I will give you perfume..../ which when you smell it, you will ask the gods,/ Fabullus, to make all of you one great nose. I was such an innocent that the details of the erotic suggestion never hit home. I like to believe Miss Kipfer didn't have a clue either.

When we deemed our translations ready, Miss Kipfer bundled them together and sent them off to the jury. Several weeks later, she distributed a booklet containing the winning entries. Much to my surprise, my translation had earned an award of merit. I received a charming blue-black tile depicting the goddess Athena – although I did wonder why her name was inscribed in Greek and not Latin.

At the end of that year, I left high school and Latin behind. I don't know what became of Miss Kipfer, although someone told me that she happily married Mr. Heffernan, the shop teacher. She remains one of the bright spots in my education, someone whom I learned to love and admire, someone whose beauty revealed itself slowly over time.

Translation Anonymous, courtesy


  1. When I teach my students not to use therefore in their prose I always say "itaque", and moreover a favorite word of Elizabeth Gilbert's always makes me say "autem."

    Both words are better in Latin than in English.

    Cool piece. Let's revive the so called dead language.

    XO Barbara

    1. Hey Barbara -- Amazing what sticks in our memories! I always use "ut" for "so that"... Thanks for stopping by!

  2. So many idea threads woven artfully in this lovely piece! One that I love is the way you describe how Miss Kipfer revealed herself slowly over time and became more herself as she trusted and felt trusted by her students. I love stories about how lives were touched and changed by high school teachers. I had a very special English teacher in Grade 11 who kept a library of her own pocketbooks in the back of the classroom. She encouraged us all to read them along with the books on the curriculum. She also encouraged us to let our imaginations fly on Friday as we wrote whatever we felt like. She called it Friday Fluff. She was laughing all the time. She showed us how much fun English class could be...

  3. Hi Sherry -- Friday Fluff! How wonderful! Maybe that fluff was the most important part of the week...! Thanks for the bright memory.

  4. I loved this piece, Mary Lou! Miss Kipfer is so skillfully drawn. And her slow unveiling fits perfectly with what I imagine would be the slow, maybe sometimes painful, unveiling of a poem as you bring it from one language to the next. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks Allegra! "Slow unveiling" - I love that idea, and its suggestion that many of life's treasures can only be discovered slowly, patiently. The process of writing can be like that too, I imagine.