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Vance Kipper, Jackson , If Latin Is Not a Language Worthy of Study, Then I Inquire, What Is?


Jackson Vance Kipper
Age: 17, Grade: 12

School Name: Brooklyn Friends School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Sarah Levy

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir

If Latin Is Not a Language Worthy of Study, Then I Inquire, What Is?

At curriculum night when I was in seventh grade, as Dr. Steve was discussing the Intro to Latin course that twenty of us had just begun taking, one of the parents asked what the purpose of Latin was in the modern day. Dr. Steve, being Dr. Steve, saw this question as a perfect opportunity to teach some people something new, so he immediately turned the question around and asked the parents what they thought the purpose might be. One parent responded by suggesting that it had useful applications in linguistics or history. Another noted that there are many legal and scientific terms that are in Latin, and thus it’s useful to know. A third said that it looked good on a college application. Steve acknowledged that these were all good answers, but then he gave his own: to read and appreciate the poetry in its native tongue. For Dr. Steve, the point of studying Latin was Latin. The importance of its study was far more than any practical application or etymological legacy for Romance and Germanic languages. Latin carried a weight – a very piece of humanity. For Dr. Steve, Latin was an art; it delved into a fundamental part of human history and philosophy. And he was duty-bound to its study.        Before I took Latin, I had never known what it was like to fall in love with a language. I felt no animosity towards Spanish, but I had no connection to what I was learning either; it was simply another requirement of my education. However, Latin was different, very different. In my first class with Dr. Steve, I immediately was entranced by Latin itself, and I eventually gained a greater appreciation for not only the study of language, but scholarship as a whole. The way Dr. Steve taught Latin was so engrossing; since Latin is rarely spoken today, he taught it through stories. I translated a series of connected, chronological stories about the lives of actual historical figures, from the senators of the Republic to the poets of the Empire. These stories taught me not only a language, but how to appreciate a language in all of its beautiful intricacies and its unique ways of interacting with a people, becoming a flesh and blood part of them. Latin took me into a new world: an ancient world, filled to the brim with some of the greatest thinkers, generals, and statesmen that the world has ever seen. 
    I vividly remember one of the first stories I translated. It was called “Fabula Mirabilis,” or “Strange Story.” In it, while Caecilius and his family and friends are enjoying dinner, a centurion, off in the woods, is transforming into a werewolf, much to the shock of the house cook. The cook then finds that this centurion’s toga has somehow turned to solid stone on the ground. This was only Intro to Latin. The next year, I translated stories about the cruel and manipulative slavemaster Salvius and his manipulations of Caecilius’ son Quintus. The following year I saw Quintus and Clemens on the run, framed by Salvius for the attempted assassination of a politician. The plots reeled me in, but it was how the stories were written (with their slow burn, followed by rapid development and their witty gramatical hooks), and how they fit together into a whole narrative, that made me stay. I discovered that Latin, regardless of how much it is still spoken, is one of the most important languages in the world, both linguistically and culturally. The importance and relevance of a language rests not in how much it is spoken, but in how influential it is in human history and in human experience, its structure and grammatical rules, and its literary and oratorical legacy. However, to an arguably greater degree, it is the humanistic aspect of studying a language for its own sake that makes Latin worth studying. Each language contains a piece of humanity and our culture, and a language as old and as storied as Latin holds within itself a grand shard of humanity. 
Latin began to define who I was, both in school and out, with my peers starting to refer to me by the Latinized name that Steve had given me: Jacksonius. People came to me for help on homework or for little insights that my immersion into the Lingua Latina Sacrosancta had taught me. By ninth grade, Dr. Steve and I had begun to meet outside of class for hours to start translating iconic texts, from Horace to Vergil. We bonded over the confounding grammatical constructions of Cicero’s oratory, marveled at the vivid imagery of Ovid’s mythological tellings, and both laughed and wept at Catullus’ most brilliant poetic displays of irony and his most crushing lamentations of death and loss. It was in fact that last poem, Catullus 101, that would serve as both the most joyful bond between me and my friend Steve and the most sorrowful reminder of his loss. 
    On the morning of August 17, 2019, Dr. Stephen E. Wortman died of complications due to a vicious cancer with which he had been recently diagnosed. I had learned of his cancer a mere seven days prior when I called him to ask about an Ovid translation. I had been translating the Metamorphoses and Amores in preparation for twelfth grade Latin, what would have been my sixth straight year under his guidance. The first thing that I thought of was the last words that I spoke to him: “Atque in perpetuum, [magister], ave atque vale” (Catullus 101). By sixth grade, I was an introverted, socially hopeless dork who found refuge in his academics, but nothing had given me real belonging. Latin gave me something that that nerdy little boy was searching for his whole life. It became a part of who I was. Latin awakened in me an intellectual renaissance, and even more importantly, it gifted me true companionship in the form of a mentor like no other. Both Steve and the Roman Empire may be gone, but their influence, their wisdom, and their unconquerable legacies live on for eternity. The passage of time may be able to pierce all with its innumeris sagittis, but Roma invicta and Stephanus invictus pierce time.