Teaching Method

Teaching Method

Four years of it,
Home room, with the beadle
Busy with housekeeping.
Then Latin, always the first period,
And always, every morning,
Regular as clockwork,
At the beginning of the period,
The black-cassocked teacher,
Priest or scholastic,
Issued the marching order,
“Take out a half-sheet.”
Had the quiz been ordained by the Founder,
The redoubtable Ignatius of Loyola, or
Did it only seem that way?

The fundamentals in freshman year,
Vir, viri, femina, feminae,
Man and men, woman and women.
Sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt.
I am, you are, he is (or she is),
We are, you are (again, but more of you), they are.
Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.
All the loves, so favored by crossword makers.

Progress to three-parted Gaul in sophomore year,
With Caesar the proconsul,
The Helvetii and the Suevi and the Belgae,
Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni,
The great cataract of gerundives as
The Romans wade ashore in Britain,
An Omaha Beach in reverse.

Politics in junior year,
With Cicero, golden-tongued consul,
Confronting the conspiratorial,
Patience-abusing Catiline
On the floor of the Senate.

And finally, in senior year,
Aeneas the True, as one translator calls him,
In flight with his household gods
From the treacherous Greeks and the wily Ulysses.
Among the dramatis personae, the faithful Achates,
Palinurus the drowned helmsman,
Aeneas’s lover, the unhappy, suicidal Dido, and
The Cumaean Sibyl, who would lead Aeneas
Through the Underworld,
As Virgil himself would lead Dante.

And always, regardless of subject matter,
The rudiments of grammar, the war story,
The oration, the epic poem,
The teacher’s command,
“Take out a half-sheet.”
No surprises in the questions.
All covered the day before,
In the prelection.
Ten new vocabulary words,
A sentence of lofty Roman rhetoric,
Two lines of dactylic hexameter.
Not a high bar to get over.
A few moments of study the night before,
All it would take
To fix the material in the mind,
Prime the pump of adolescent memory.

Tell them,
The boys and girls in
The schools that are failing,
Tell them, every morning,
“Take out a half-sheet.”
The matters they are quizzed on
Will stay with them.
Bet on it.
“Take out a half-sheet.”