Latin Surviving in Sonoma County

The incipit of a lengthy piece in the Press Democrat:

The cars begin pulling to the curb at Montgomery High in Santa Rosa at 6:45 a.m. Sleepy teens pile out, heading to classes that start an hour before first period.

In Room 50, Latin teacher Jennifer Lehman welcomes a decidedly retro group of students. Her 32 pupils are the only teens studying Latin in the county’s public high schools, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education.

“I love this class,” said the 65-year-old instructor with 44 years of classroom experience.

“I’m teaching five levels of Latin at once to four different classes in a 50-minute session,” she said. “It is so cool, you just can’t believe it.”

Latin language classes are a rarity these days. They still can be found in some parochial schools, and some determined students sign up for Latin at Santa Rosa Junior College. Private tutoring is available.

But teachers and students say that where Latin is taught, devotion and sacrifice can be found.

Lehman’s students gather five mornings a week for 7 a.m. classes. Despite the hour, they exhibit enthusiasm and energy.

“The nice part about Latin is it’s like a puzzle. Some days I have to look up every other word. Some days, every word,” said sophomore honors student Graham Miller, 16.

He said he took Latin for the challenge and was rewarded recently when visiting his brother, who is attending Princeton University.

“In a campus courtyard there was something carved into the cement in Latin. I could just read it. It was about how families that support Princeton had never let Princeton down,” Miller said.

Once a staple of American high schools, Latin today is mostly known as the script carved into granite buildings or gracing currency, legal documents and medication instructions.

Yet Latin, the unspoken language, speaks to us still. Carpe diem (seize the day), semper fidelis (forever faithful) and ad infinitum (without limit) are common Latin terms interwoven into daily communication.

It also is valuable in understanding other languages.

“In history, we were watching a film about the Holocaust. It had German language in it and I could see how German and Latin had similarities,” said Allison Brooke, a 15-year-old honors sophomore in Lehman’s class. “I recognize connections between other languages and Latin all the time.”

The near-demise of Latin instruction has made the hiring of teachers for public institutions challenging.

“It’s sort of a chicken-or-the-egg thing. It’s hard to hire someone full-time when you are starting a class … with a few students,” said Ron Everett, Petaluma district director of education. His district does not provide Latin instruction.

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