The Latin Lesson

Whenever I hear popular songs from the 1970s today – Life on Mars, Rocket Man, Stairway to Heaven, I immediately feel a stirring for the warm, poignant nostalgia of untroubled days of my teenage years. But of all the songs from way back then, there’s one that quickens something in me and brings a smile to my face. Reggae ruled the roost in those days, you heard it wherever you went, and the version of Nina Simone’s 1958 classic, Young, Gifted and Black, was riding high in the charts. I don’t recall who sang it, but on the odd occasion I hear it today, I’m a kid again, back at school, and thinking of that one very special day, the most exciting of my childhood.

I wasn’t black, certainly not gifted, but I was young, in my early teens, thirteen, and enjoying a life where things seemed so simple. I felt so alive. The only drawback during these splendid, gentle years was school, an intimidating institution run by a stern and wily bunch of Christian Brothers who made it feel more like an internment camp than a place of learning.   

How to best impart knowledge to the next generation varies from culture to culture, but in most cases, the goal is the same – to provide an enjoyable educational experience that produces happy, well-adjusted young men and women with a broad range of skills to help them find careers they enjoy. However, I’m sure that the concept of learning as fun never occurred to the Brothers at my school. Most came from small, impoverished villages in backwater Ireland, bringing with them across the water a rigorous, inflexible curriculum, similar to a classical education where Latin, Maths and the Sciences predominated.

While varying approaches to learning have changed through the millennia, today’s curricula is more in tune with an approach dating back some twenty-four hundred years to Socrates who focused on questions rather than answers, encouraging students to think critically and creatively, see value in independent learning, personal engagement and robust debate. The Brothers responsible for the curriculum under which we laboured daily would be horrified by both Socrates’ and today’s more open and democratic classroom interactions, which for them would appear carefree and lacking in rigour and discipline. I was always jealous of friends at other schools who told me of the “fun” they had in woodwork, metalwork, even drama – subjects the Brothers deemed mere folly, a hindrance to the attainment of true academic credentials, and consequently of no reputable value.

And, as men of the cloth, one might assume they naturally possessed compassion and empathy, essential traits for teachers trying to inspire and liberate young minds. But, simply put, they didn’t. A boy from the eighteenth century would have recognised the inflexible teaching methods they used, with the teacher “king” of the classroom, the font of all wisdom, delivering lessons using wearisome rote learning, regurgitation of meaningless facts and figures and soundbites at the expense of any meaningful discussion. Yet for them, this approach was fundamental, the only plausible way to prepare us for life, and for this reason, the greatest effort most of us made each day, certainly in lessons taught by the Brothers, was trying to stay awake.

And deemed necessary to produce favourable results – frequent cruel and severe discipline, liberally unleashed for the most minor of incursions. Yet despite this, the school had an impressive reputation, with many boys going on to the country’s finest universities, and so parents from around the county turned a blind eye to the Brothers’ hands-on approach, packing their sons onto trains and buses each morning in the hope that the school’s credentials, curriculum and reputation, seasoned with a sprinkling of the Lord, would give their boys the best shot at that golden ticket of a place at a respectable university.

With the possible exception of gruelling cross-country runs, especially through swampy fields in winter, I could see a rationale for teaching most subjects. Like most boys, I just about kept my head above water, but not in Latin, a pointless language no-one spoke and so different from the free-flowing, common-sense simplicity of English, and so in Latin lessons most of us sank quickly into lengthy spells of slothful daydreaming.   

However, when in idle moments of reflection on my schooldays, somewhat ironically I often find myself back in one particular Latin lesson, and recall an episode that lasted only moments, yet time enough to teach me a most important lesson that no curriculum could. And so when I think of those days, when I hear Young, Gifted and Black, I think of that lesson, and of a most remarkable boy, central to events that morning, and responsible for teaching me something that really mattered.

In the 1950s and 60s my town looked much as it always had – white. Outside of the larger cities the influx of immigrants arriving in those decades had yet to achieve the impact of enriching the country that we see today and casual racism and other forms of bigotry were, on the whole, the norm.

But social demographics were on the move, and in smaller towns like mine, springing up alongside pubs, bookies and fish and chip shops, new businesses run by immigrants – restaurants, corner shops, barbers – and on buses and in hospitals, faces of varying hues were slowly becoming visible.

What set Jeremy Jones apart from the rest of us was not his skin, a smooth exotic blend the colour of coffee, but his incredible intellect. He worked hard, came top of the class in most subjects, and it was obvious to us all that this child prodigy among us was surely destined for a magnificent future.

He had an innate understanding of everything academic, frequently displaying his intellectual brilliance in class. In English that year we were studying The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope’s endless mock-heroic poem – way beyond our understanding. However, such abstract literary complexity excited Jeremy, and in discussions with Mr Fegarty, the English teacher, he casually referred to many of its complex allusions as if talking about the weather. In addition to astute literary prowess, he excelled in Maths, delivered masterful Schubert piano recitals and appeared to speak French fluently. And so, with such impressive credentials, when boys talked about Jeremy, it was always about how, almost effortlessly, he could be so clever.

Comfortably into our third year in secondary school, we thought we’d witnessed the breadth and range of Jeremy’s brilliance. But intelligence comes in varying guises and, quite extraordinarily, an opportunity arose in a Latin lesson for him to demonstrate another most incredible aspect of his character, which I recount here.   

The Brothers tended to teach subjects that required little abstract thinking, from them or us, subjects that relied on what they considered “ancient wisdom” like Religious Knowledge, and of course, Latin. Truly difficult subjects like Maths and Science were often taught by “Old Boys,” recent university graduates still in their early twenties, who for reasons only they knew, had returned to their alma mater to begin teaching careers.

Though frowned upon by the Brothers, as with each new generation, these fledgling teachers arrived with new, more liberal approaches to teaching, seeing value in an open exchange of ideas and encouraging questions from curious students like Jeremy who took full advantage of this more permissive approach.

Consequently, his genius shone most brightly in these subjects, and for the rest of us it was always a thrill, the most entertaining part of the lesson, to see the worried look on the teacher’s face when he turned from the blackboard to see Jeremy’s arm dangling in the air to query his calculation. On such occasions, in delightful anticipation, we downed pens and sniggered as the teacher stuttered and scrambled, often tying himself in knots as he tapped through his calculation on the board, rescued from total humiliation only when Jeremy swooped in to save him, and in language so fluent, so well worded, almost foreign sounding, he would guide the teacher through the complex equation line-by-line, step by step, delicately, diplomatically, deferentially, pointing out the juncture at which he had erred.  

In September, nervous, baby-faced first formers arrived, immediately aware of the dark and hostile threat that permeated all aspects of school life. Whenever they heard the swish of a Brother’s cassock, all innocent, playful exuberance would grind to an abrupt halt.

Also arriving in that month, one, sometimes two new Brothers from Ireland, fresh-faced recruits not much older than us who at first appeared pleasant, interesting even. But once under the guidance of the older Brothers they quickly changed, their kind and gentle natures rapidly melting away, and like their mentors, they assumed a severe and stony manner, the slightest hint of dissent met with fiery rebuke, often followed by a short, sharp slap.     

In such a grim setting learning proved difficult for most. But for Jeremy, this wasn’t the case, school providing him with the academic challenge required to cultivate his exceptional genius. However, one morning just before lunch in a Latin lesson, his time with us was savagely and unexpectedly cut short.

Until that lesson we thought it mattered little to anyone that Jeremy wasn’t Catholic. In fact, we were jealous of him and a handful of other non-Catholic boys for holding divergent views on the origins of the universe. For this reason they had the most attractive option of sitting out dreadful Monday morning masses, missing the interminable drone of the ancient parish priest churning out the same old jaded, liturgical clutter the rest of us had to endure first thing every week.

So, with this option available, we thought Jeremy quite mad to voluntarily attend these masses, always first into the hall to take a front-row seat just below the makeshift altar erected on stage where, with wry smile, he diligently observed lacklustre religious rituals the rest of us completely ignored.

Long before I arrived at the school, Brother Adolphus had already earned the nickname Beef. The meanest of all Brothers, when he wasn’t teaching Latin, always in the same black cassock with a slightly jaded, cream-coloured Roman collar and white sash tied tightly around his enormous waist, he prowled school corridors looking for boys to slap.

His shaven scalp, like that of a skinhead, melted into puffy, pinkish-blue cheeks that quivered and flamed when he slapped us. A stickler for order, violation of his rules, especially failing to produce homework, infuriated him. Boys falling short of his standards he punished severely, spanking them in front of classmates with a gym shoe known then as the “slipper.” In the summer term when boys wore shorts, he used his hand, slapping the backs of their thighs, just below their buttocks, until they were cherry red.

Only before his classes did we clear the aisles, put briefcases below our desks, tuck our chairs in and make sure books lay neatly side by side on desks. On that day, as usual, with top buttons fastened, ties straight, and standing to attention in absolute silence behind our chairs, we awaited his arrival.

Latin is complicated. To learn English I don’t recall my primary school teacher explaining conjugation, or nouns that could be masculine, feminine or neuter, (whatever that meant) and that changed according to whether they functioned as a subject, direct object, indirect object, as speaker, or as someone being spoken to. In addition to this linguistic labyrinth, this archaic language has five different declensions which adhere to strict rules of agreement between different parts of speech. Need I say more?

Despite such demands I managed to scrape through, sometimes even receiving a big red tick which, to my shame, I earned by cheating. My modus operandi (a couple of expressions have stayed with me) involved simply weaving into my written work Latin expressions Beef used regularly. Like his favourite – “veni, vidi, vici.

As I waited that morning, the homework I’d worked hard to finish the previous evening flashed through my mind, snippets of the Lord’s Prayer copied word for word from a mass programme I’d kept for such scheming – “panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodi” mingled surreptitiously with chunks of The Hail Mary – “benedictus fructus ventris tui” – and “veni, vidi, vici” in the final sentence. On completion, I read it aloud, and though I didn’t understand a word of it, I was happy with my efforts.

When I heard the familiar taps of Beef’s studded shoes in the corridor, I made a final check to ensure the aisle was clear and my books in place, only to realise my exercise book was still in my case. As I rummaged quickly through its folds, a simmering sense of terror gradually took hold – it wasn’t in my bag, but on the dining table at home.

Beef plodded in chased by wispy clouds of blue smoke from the cigarette he’d just stubbed out in the corridor. Placing his briefcase on the desk he drew in a long breath and looked up at us, this routine preliminary inspection sufficient for him to know I didn’t have my homework. Stepping out from behind his desk he walked slowly back and forth across the front of the room, running his eye up and down each aisle.

All appeared in order and that disapproving scowl we all knew so well surfaced in his face. He ordered us to sit then pulled from his briefcase our Latin text, its name I no longer recall. I do, however, remember fragments of its stories, varying accounts of Roman and Greek history – Gauls, Archimedes, Romulus and Remus – in themselves wonderful tales, but which quickly lost their sparkle when discussion of heroic adventure was ignored for humdrum mysteries of Latin grammar, vocabulary, and  warped syntax.  

As in every lesson, Beef’s first business of the day was to expose those who had fallen short of expectations and not done their homework, so when he rose to his feet to begin interrogations, I drew in a deep breath.

“Stand those boys who haven’t done their homework,” he instructed, his tone deliberate, measured.

Initially no one moved. But then, behind me, a chair scraped achingly across the floor. I glanced back unsurprised to see Sullivan on his feet, a serial offender who rarely produced homework in any subject. As more boys stood, chairs screeched across the tiles. With my heart thumping and mind racing, I thought of saying nothing, keeping quiet, tricking him. He rarely checked our books, I might have got away with it, but such wicked deception was too risky, and besides, I was sure he already knew. So, reluctantly, I pushed back my chair – the last to stand.  

He slumped into his chair and cleared his throat. Drumming his fingers on the desk, a quiet fury stirred within him. I kept my head bowed staring at my shoes, but foolishly stole a quick look up and he caught me, our eyes locked, his terrifying gaze so penetrating, so unnerving, I knew he would be dealing with me first.

 But then, quite unexpectedly from the back of the room, another chair suddenly screeched across the tiles. All heads turned shocked to see Jeremy Jones on his feet. Arms crossed, head held high, a strange lull hung in the room as he glared at Beef, a half-grin slowly rising in his face, this unexpected distraction diverting his attention from me and back to the unfortunate Sullivan.   

“Sullivan. Where’s your homework?”

“I’ve not done it, Brother,” he mumbled.

“And why haven’t you done it boy?”

“I forgot Brother.”

“Well, I’ll be dealing with you in a minute,” he said, a warning issued to two more boys before he turned back to Jeremy.

What is it that moulds any of us into principled and decent human beings? A sense of fairness? Compassion? One might assume to those schooled in a prescriptive religious dogma knowing right from wrong would come easily. However, from what we witnessed in class that morning it was clear Beef lacked any semblance of these traits, and what followed showed us exactly the type of man he had become.

And it had little to do with Jeremy not doing his homework.

“Now, boy. I must say, to see you on your feet is quite the surprise. But, I suppose,” he said, pausing, drawing in a sharp intake of air, “it was just a matter of time before you showed your true colours. It appears the heathen has an Achilles heel. Why have you not done your homework boy?”

Calling Jeremy a heathen, a blatant insult, startled us all. That is, everyone except Jeremy who continued to hold Beef’s glare.

“Brother, I haven’t done my homework for one reason. I find your subject an incredible bore. And, quite frankly, I have more interesting things to do with my time,” he said, calmly, his stoic demeanour belying the grave danger he was in.  

“Come here boy,” Beef ordered, blinking quickly, his face growing ruddy.

The moment Jeremy stepped into the aisle Beef suddenly sprung up, charged down the aisle and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to the front of the classroom where he slung him against the blackboard and roared at him, Jeremy gasping for air, his body squirming, his feet barely touching the floor.  

“What did you say boy? What did you say? What did you say boy?” Beef screamed, pushing Jeremy higher up the board, their noses almost touching, glistening orbs of spittle twinkling on Jeremy’s face. Muttering and mumbling words hard to make out, with his enormous leathery hand he slapped Jeremy’s face over and over, each smack turning his smooth sepia cheeks a deeper shade of crimson. The thrashing, however, came to an unexpected end with a particularly vicious blow, one that sent a collective gasp hissing around the classroom, not for the stinging severity of the strike, but because Beef called Jeremy a “worthless darkie.”

His mask had slipped. He’d been caught. Flagrante delicto.

When Beef dropped him, Jeremy slumped to the floor like a limp puppet. Stooping, he again took him by the collar, dragging him across the floor towards the door.

“Now boy, let this is be a lesson to ye,” he said, issued a final slap, and flung him into the corridor, slamming the door after him.   

Out of breath, visibly shaken, Beef collapsed into his chair. Each of us knew he’d brought into our sacred place of learning something personal, something rancid, something corrupt, unbefitting of a teacher.

Beef knew it too.  

He fumbled in his cassock for a handkerchief. Wiping sweat from his crimson face he got to his feet, his sinister eyes jumping from boy to boy until again, they landed on me. He cleared his throat, and once more, his furious gaze made me tremble.

But then, suddenly, the door crashed open, and with fists clenched, Jeremy Jones rushed in and unleashed the most vicious punch, striking Beef squarely in the eye forcing him to stumble back and collapse into his chair, his head snapping back and smacking the blackboard forcing the chair up on two legs, his arms and legs flapping frantically, the last we saw of him, the soles of his shoes, momentarily hovering in the air, before the chair toppled and Beef disappeared, crashing to the floor and landing with a heavy thud below his desk.

Panting heavily, his knuckles glowing white, Jeremy glanced down at his handiwork.  

“Veni, vidi, fucking vici, you fat bastard,” he screamed down at Beef, then rushed from the room.

Wheezing heavily, Beef heaved himself out from under his desk. Unsteady on his feet, he wiped chalk dust from his cassock, his scalp glistening under a layer of sweat, a pink and puffy swelling clearly visible under his eye. Then, quite unexpectedly, he howled, “the little bastard,” and dashed from the room.

Looking at each other, none of us knew what to do. When Sullivan sprinted into the corridor, the rest of us followed, screaming our delight. Alarmed by this extraordinary uproar, teachers in other classroom abandoned lessons and ordered students to follow emergency procedures and assemble in the playground outside the Science labs.

Minutes later, staff and students had assembled outside. With exaggerated, slow-motion slapping, boys from my class acted out details of Beef’s incredulous attack until the Headmaster arrived and we fell silent.

As senior Brother, he didn’t teach, but like Beef had a nickname, Trug, and like the Latin teacher had a reputation for being a merciless bully. Responsible for fire drills, he demanded an explanation from the school secretary for this impromptu gathering. Shaking her head, she could only shrug her shoulders.   

Then came a small group of Brothers, among them Beef, his pinkish, puffy, bloodshot eye almost swollen closed. Trug examined the damage to his face and issued swift instruction, the Brothers disentangling and dispersing to various parts of the school in search of Jeremy. They returned empty-handed and again gathered around Trug for further instruction, their conference cut short by a terrible, deafening scream. All heads turned towards a dinner lady, her arm, as if in Nazi salute, pointing up towards the roof of the Science labs where our hero, Jeremy Jones, was teetering on the building’s edge.

Our spontaneous roar of delight was quelled immediately by Trug standing on a milk crate, waving his arms. Stepping down from the crate, he paused to collect his thoughts then whispered to the secretary who scuffled off in the direction of the school office. Then, turning, he drew in a deep breath and looked up at Jeremy.

“What is it you want boy?” he shouted, his tone similar to that Beef had used in the lesson.

Jeremy’s eyes remained fixed on the small dark knot of Brothers sheltering Beef.

“Boy, come down, we’ll talk about it in my office?” he added.

Jeremy’s wild gaze remained fixed solely on his attacker.

Trug looked at Beef, nodding for him to try and reason with him. Wiping sweat from his face, he cleared his throat and looked up.   

“What is it you want boy?” he shouted, a slight tremor in his voice.

“You!” Jeremy shouted defiantly, pointing directly at him.

An excited hum shivered through us.

“You! It’s you I want. You! You! You!” he continued, the anger in his voice provoking muffled cheers from a small group of boys behind me.

The school secretary suddenly re-appeared followed by six firemen carrying a large white jump sheet. And behind them, a woman, slight, ghostly pale, eyes brimming with tears, her terrified face looking up at her son swaying on the edge of the building.   

“You! You insulted me. You called me a heathen? What right do you have to call me that?” Jeremy continued, seemingly unaffected by his mother’s arrival.

“What did you call my boy?” she demanded, turning towards Beef.

“Why? Tell me why?” Jeremy persisted, a strange, ever-deepening fury in his voice. “You called me darkie too. Why? Why would you call me this?”

“You called my son that? Is this true?” screamed Jeremy’s mother, her face now just inches from Beef’s.   

“What do you want me to do?” Beef asked, stumbling back, his eyes jumping skittishly between Jeremy and his mother.

Trying to judge the potential drop zone, firemen gripping the sheet shuffled forward.

“I want you on your knees before me. I want you to pray for forgiveness from whichever master you claim to serve,” he commanded, his instruction decisive, unyielding.

A whisper shivered through us.

Perfectly still, Beef appeared unwilling to comply. But then Jeremy raised his arms and began rocking perilously back and forth over the edge of the building.

Trug ordered Beef to do as Jeremy instructed.     

“You too!” Jeremy shouted, his finger now pointing at Trug. “I want you on your knees too. You condone the brutal treatment of boys here. You’re responsible for the unnecessary brutality in this school. So, you too! Down on your knees. Now!” he demanded, a thunderous cheer ringing out as firemen gripped the jump sheet ever tighter, their straining necks arching back, their eyes skyward, fixed on Jeremy.

The Brothers looked at each other, each waiting for the other to submit. An unusual hush descended until from somewhere deep among us a brave boy shattered the stillness by shouting – “on your knees.” Others boys quickly followed, and soon every boy, even some teachers, as if rehearsed, were chanting in unison:

“ON-YOUR- KNEES, ON-YOUR-KNEES.”

“Do as the boy asks,” snarled one of the firemen.  

“Down!” Jeremy’s mother screamed, pointing to the ground.

Glancing at each other, Beef and Trug dropped submissively to their knees, each instinctively bringing his hands up together as if in prayer. Boys pushed forward eager to witness this sensational, humiliating submission.

But high above, Jeremy was waving his arms. He hadn’t quite finished.

“You must say sorry. Not for beating me, but for the boys you’ve beaten all your lives,” he ordered, the excited murmur among us quickly dwindling to a gentle hush, each of us desperate to hear the Brothers’ apology.  

Timidly, they looked at each other. Then came a low, inaudible mumbling.

“Louder, louder! Everyone must hear it,” Jeremy demanded, his arms outstretched, one foot now hanging out over the edge of the building.

Exhausted and humiliated, they finally caved, repeating – “sorry” – over and over again, their humiliation quickly drowned by a new, victorious chant – JE-RE-MY, JE-RE-MY, JE-RE-MY.

And with arms extended, our hero stepped off the building.