Occasionally on TV I’ll see a Farmers Insurance commercial featuring the Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons who describes the various ways the vaunted insurance company can save us from doom. Always, the commercial ends with the ear-wormy jingle
We are farmers! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!
To which I often sing back
Agricolae sunt! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!
which is Latin for “They are farmers!” I’m always thrilled to participate in this little litany even if it’s about all I remember from two years and a summer of Latin at Ensley High School. And yet those twenty months in Miss Hortenstine’s class changed my life. You see, my slog through Latin is one of those life lessons that are 90 percent painful and 10 percent redemptive, but somehow, with time, the redemptive part prevails.
It all began with my naive 13-year-old notion that I was to become a lawyer. So, in eighth grade, when time came to make my ninth-grade course selections, my father said, “You’ve got to take Latin because lawyers deal with Latin terms a lot.” And so I did.
Latin 1 was misery beyond description. The teacher, Miss Hortenstine, was what we indelicately called “an old maid.” But she did have a lover—Julius Caesar. In great rapture would she effuse the Latin for “All Gaul is divided into three parts!” which, next to “Et tu, Brute,” is apparently J.C’s most famous line.” (Sorry I can’t remember it in Latin.)
How I passed Latin1 remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I’ve chalked it up to the grace of God. And so I tried to bail out at the end of ninth grade. I told my dad, “I no longer want to be a lawyer. In fact, I hate lawyers!” But he said, “No Stephens will be a quitter!”
So—on to Latin 2 which was, frankly, unbearable. You may have heard the phrase “Latin is a dead language,” unspoken for centuries. Well, that memo didn’t find its way to Miss Hortenstine’s desk, for in Latin 2 she spoke Latin almost exclusively and demanded the same of us. I felt as if I were trapped in a kennel of ceaselessly barking dogs—albeit dogs considerably smarter than I.
I flunked Latin 2.
This, of course, meant summer school, which meant two more months in the kennel. Here I’ll admit something I wouldn’t have then: I cried, I sobbed. I begged my parents to get me out of this hell. But there would be no turning back, I had come too far down the Appian Way to jump track now.
So summer school it was. But contrary to my expectation, there awaited an altogether different Miss Hortenstine. With only five of us flunkies in her charge (from both Latin I and II), she sat us not in those impersonal student desks but around a table with herself, now and then taking one or another of us aside to her desk or the chalkboard where she would explain things slower and with added detail. Our main task was to translate the writings of her loverboy, Julius Caesar.
And, to my own amazement, I was actually getting it done! What’s more: I was freakin’ having fun doing it!. The noun declensions, the verb conjugations, the syntax were suddenly making sense. This was more fun than puzzle-solving! For the very first time, I saw how language worked—its architecture, mechanics, the whys and wherefores of grammar. Epiphany!
And here’s the great part: this stuff applied in one way or another to EVERY language—including English. Within weeks of passing (yay!) summer Latin 2, I was in an eleventh-grade English class with a teacher who made us diagram sentences on the chalkboard, a task that, until now, had humiliated me. Suddenly, though, I was a kick-ass diagrammer.
And though I didn’t know then, I would eventually study four more languages—Spanish (in college), biblical Hebrew and Greek (in seminary) and finally French (on the African mission field). In every case, even if my Latin vocabulary had faded from the rearview mirror, I had Miss Hortenstine riding in the backseat calling out. “Gerald, of course you remember what the future perfect tense is! Son, you know the subjunctive mood!” And I did—and do.
Miss Hortenstine has since shuffled off this mortal coil. Still I think of her often, especially when I’m futzing around with these Legos we call words, trying to build something with them, for it was she who lit the fire of my passion for language, for painting pictures with words. And. most importantly, it was she who showed me—now a language teacher myself—that individual attention to a struggling student can change everything.
Thank you, Miss H. Hope you and Julius Caesar are having a blast up there!