So what does a young man who has just graduated with a B.A. in Classical Studies and gotten married do next? Go teach Latin in the inner-city! My wife, also a soon-to-be Latin teacher, and I had applied in several different school districts, but one in particular showed promise, the Kansas City Missouri School District, and the reason was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Latin Grammar Magnet Middle School. Now an elementary school, King was part of KCMSD's magnet program to fight segregation. It had two Latin teachers in each of grades 6-8, and two Latin resource teachers as well. Our first thought was that this was heaven on earth. Eight Latin teachers in one school! A public school where students wore uniforms and were required to take Latin! Classical culture infused throughout the curriculum!
We soon learned that this was not Elysium, but then again, it was not Tartarus, either. We worked with many wonderful colleagues and learned the true craft of teaching, something that cannot be learned in education courses or even while student teaching. Our school was at 42nd and Indiana, just inside the 43rd Street gang zone that belonged to the Crips. While we taught there, I teaching 8th grade Latin and my wife teaching 7th, we learned about the Crips and Bloods and gang life in general. We discovered that the year before we arrived, there had been a gang lynching one block from our school and the body had still been hanging from the tree as the school buses full of children arrived at school. One of my own more disturbed students was eventually withdrawn from the school after being arrested for armed robbery the night before. Remember, I was teaching 8th grade. One of my students took off the tie from his uniform, lassoed another student with it, and began dragging him across the floor while shouting, "Come on, dog!" The mother of one of my students showed up for a parent conference wearing a pink leather mini-skirt and bustier, complete with bunny ears on her head. Another showed up at the school with a belt and chased her son around the second floor in an effort to deal out punishment.
As I say, we learned a lot while we were there. I learned just how much I love children. I learned how to control a classroom while attempting to deliver instruction. I learned the deep truth of the French essayist Montaigne when he wrote, "It is the achievement of a lofty and very strong soul to know how to come down to a childish gait and guide it. I walk more firmly and surely uphill than down." (Of the Education of Children)
I also began to develop more fully my beliefs about Latin instruction. We used a book called Cambridge Latin Course, which remains a popular textbook today. Pedagogically speaking, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the books I had in high school, Latin for Americans and Our Latin Heritage, and from the approach taken by the professors at Indiana University. In short, the Cambridge series presents stories on the assumption that students will pick up the grammar as they go. The books and instructors I had present the grammatical foundations of the language first, building up to more interesting stories. I began to be convinced, and remain convinced to this day, that two students who start out with each approach and complete an undergraduate degree in Classics will end up in about the same place. Most students, however, do not complete such a degree, and by the end of high school, the two students from the two different methods will be about as far apart as they could be. In the end, a great many students will not go on to read Latin fluently, but the student who has been trained in the grammatical foundations will have a structure by which he can learn well not only other languages, but any other subject.
After two years of teaching at King, my wife and I decided to make the move to graduate school. I remember a defining conversation about this decision taking place at the Pizza Hut near where we lived. My first act was to contact my good friend and former Greek professor, Dr. Tim Long, at IU. He gave me a list of the best graduate schools for Classical studies, and then drew a line, separating the top notch ones from those that were good and would hold almost guaranteed admission for me. I applied to several and visited the University of Illinois, where I would have had a teaching position immediately as part of my financial aid package. I had looked at The University of Texas, which was above the line on Dr. Long's list, but had decided not to apply. After going out to a movie with a colleague from King who had gone to U.T. for her graduate work, she convinced me that, based on my G.R.E. scores, I would be guaranteed financial aid. On a whim, I applied, and was accepted.
The next chapter in this story takes us to Texas, but I shall never forget the lessons I learned teaching inner-city middle school Latin my first years out of college. Whatever ability I have to relate to students and present material in a way they can understand was forged in that crucible.