After years of believing that the school of life demanded effort and hard work, I now think of life as an invitation to celebrate being fully alive. These posts express what I experience and appreciate about the kaleidoscope of ordinary moments in an ordinary life.
Saturday, November 24, 2012
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,
vita -- nominative,
accusative, ablative, vocative
the noun Life.
Amo, amas, amat, amamus,
amatis, amant -- forms
of the verb
“to love”. Wehated
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.
your books,” she ordered, in
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
an eternity, Miss Kipfer let out an impatient snort and stomped
toward the door. “I am going down the hall,” she said. “Don't
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
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
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.
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
before moving on. “Were you the one who spoke?” he asked each
Our code of silence held. One
by one, we
shook our heads. Miss
Kipfer stood behind her desk, arms
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
he said. “You will all receive
a detention of 30 minutes during your lunch hours for the next three
And with that he left.
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
discipline problems after that. But how we detested her, and often
about how we
couldn't wait toquit
Latin after grade 10.
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.
were fewer of us –
only 12 students instead of the 25 from
the previous years.In
the class shrunk to 10, and then
in grade 13, only seven remained.
some miracle, things had
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,
Aurelius, Ovid, Caesar.
led to conversations – in English -- about what we wanted out of
life, and then,
our surprise, about
to university, growing
Miss Kipfer became human to us, and we became, I think, endearing to
Grade 13, our
band of seven
loved those classes. We
often spent a good 30 minutes out
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
better do some Latin.”
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
Miss Kipfer prompted, and we rolled our eyes at her. Instead
of becoming offended, she laughed.
“It's pretty boring, isn't it.” All
heads nodded in unison.
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.
right, class. Tomorrow,
going to read something a lot more interesting. Poetry.
Specifically, the poetry of Catullus. But there's one condition.”
her face became stern.
must never –
and I mean it – never, ever tell
looked at her in amazement. What
was so dangerous about Catullus?
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.
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!
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
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
I like to believe Miss Kipfer didn't have a clue either.
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.
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.
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.