Today I had a very special visitor in my seventh grade Latin class. She is a young woman from China, who has just finished a year and a half in America completing a graduate program for teaching English as a second language. Nemo’s college degree back home was in Chinese and the history of the Chinese. Like me, she is a word and language person.
The first time I met Nemo she gave me my first ever lesson in Chinese. We sat at the coffee table in my friend’s house in Manchester, where Nemo was staying over the summer. Nemo showed me several characters and explained what the shapes represented and why they meant what they meant. I almost forget them now, but one was an open mouth at a door. I think it was the character for asking. In any case, the experience of learning some characters with her opened a new door for me. I have studied French, Italian, German, Latin, Greek, Turkish and Arabic, but Nemo unlocked the world of Chinese for me with this unforgettable first lesson.
I got to see Nemo a few more times with my friend and found her to be the most warm, curious, kind, thoughtful and open-minded person imaginable. She is fascinated by language and culture, and we never ran out of things to talk about as she asked questions or made observations about American culture, and let us ask her questions about China. In every exchange, her wonderful, positive energy filled your heart, while her bright intellect inspired your mind.
Several days before returning to China, Nemo came to spend a day at the middle school where I teach and where the son of her host family is a student. She asked if she could sit in on my Latin classes, and of course I said, “Yes.” We westerners always think of Chinese, with all its characters, as impossibly hard, but Nemo found the idea of Latin, with its high degree of inflection, to be much harder. She was intrigued by this language, and curious to watch me teach it.
I am conscious that both my seventh grade Latin classes are quite rambunctious, and especially when we meet at the end of the day, as we did today. In each of the two sections there are at least two boys who talk constantly, laugh, interrupt and tip precariously backward in their chairs. This may sound problematic, but these particular boys are so smart, curious, well-meaning and sweet that they are truly positive members or our class. Never the less, I was a little nervous for a Chinese educator, with her presumed experience of a perfectly ordered classroom, to see the noisy, high-spirited scene that is my Latin 7 class at the end of the day.
It didn’t help that my lesson plan for today was to do a dramatization of the current chapter dialogue. Letting your students come up to the front of the class and act things out can be one more recipe for a wild class. Never mind, here goes.
I decided to begin the class with a brief lesson on infinitives. This is where we are in our first-year text, and I thought it might interest Nemo to see me present a verb form. I gave my short lesson on infinitives and asked the students to take notes. I made the basic points I wanted to make and then summed it all up by singing my original song “When I First Learned Infinitives” to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Each verse is a new fact about infinitives and a repetition of all the previous ones. We got as far as this: When I first learned infinitives my teacher said to me: “Only verbs have them, they mean “to do” something, and in Latin they end in -re.” We proceeded to have a lively sing-a-long with the whole class.
The kids had fun with the song, and now everyone was warmed up to do a little acting in Latin. The scene we were re-enacting was between two Roman girls, sitting beside a cool brook in the summer and talking about boys. “Is your brother a coward?” asks Flavia “Most certainly not,” responds Cornelia. “Why don’t you like my brother? He is neither cowardly nor reckless.” Then Flavia says, “But your brother is always nervous. Nothing scares Sextus.”
I wrote the lines of the three-line dialogue on the board in Latin. There was some idea of memorizing lines, but we weren’t really there yet. We transposed the conversation from the bank of a river to the little cafe table I have in my classroom. “Let’s pretend the dialogue between the girls is taking place over a latte at Starbucks.” The students were delighted with the transposition, and it helped them perform the scene with expression and spontaneity.
We did the dialogue over and over again. Every student had to go up at least once to play Cornelia or Flavia. Every one else listened to the repetition of the Latin sentences that we are working to memorize. The scene got looser and looser. We did one version where there were two Flavias who spoke the lines in perfect unison. Next, Flavia was interpreted as a “mean girl”, confronting a cowering Cornelia in the locker room. In every case, all the lines had to be delivered in Latin. The memorization and fluency of delivery got better and better with each version.
When the students left, Nemo and I had a long discussion about the virtues of memorization in language learning. We talked about how small children first learn language, building up lists and lists of individual spoken words, mostly nouns: table, chair, spoon, book, dog, flower etc. The two language teachers were in agreement and excited by the process of teaching.
Now Nemo is flying back to China, our collaboration barely begun. She taught me one or two characters, but we are teachers together, worlds apart. For Nemo I am the representative of Latin and the Western languages. For me she is the representative of all of Chinese: characters, dynasties, poets, emperors contemplating nature and composing verse in their gardens in the Forbidden city. She is all these things and also a colleague, a collaborator and a new friend. I miss her already.