Left in Andover: A Latin lover lives in Vermont

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I was the beneficiary of my father’s unfulfilled ambition to be a high school Latin teacher. An insatiable lifelong learner, he sprinkled his every day speech with Latin phrases and aphorisms. Of course, more than 60 percent of the English language has roots in Latin and Greek.

In a family joke, Non compos mentis (of unsound mind) turned into compost. Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) best summed up many an adventure. Laborare est Orare (to work is to pray), the Benedictine motto, encapsulated Dad’s life philosophy.

Dad’s special Latin report, 1931

By the turn of this century, studying Latin had ceased to be the sine qua non (without which, not) of an American liberal education. But back when I was in high school, Latin was still an integral part of most curricula.

The term “liberal education” is derived from the Latin word liber (free). It originated in the ancient Greek concept of free people being at liberty to devote themselves to wide ranging studies that, while not vocational or “practical” in the short run, ultimately offered a strong basis for independent thinking and informed citizenship.

A former reference librarian, Dad always kept a dictionary close at hand. And he never wasted an opportunity to consult his beloved 1911 edition Britannica. July 6, 1958, prescribing this habit “to the general public,” Dad managed to raise the hackles of an editor at the New York Times, who printed his letter to the editor anyway.

Dad’s 1911 edition Encyclopedia Britannica holds many treasures

Dad was an accomplished student of Latin by the time he graduated Bennington High in 1934. But he was not unusual in this respect. Since the early 19th century even remote Andover area students chose between classical courses of study at both Black River Academy and Chester Academy.

In addition to his hard working childhood on the family farm at Plymouth Notch, Calvin Coolidge attributed the development of his moral fiber to his study of Latin and Greek, mathematics and history. He later wrote of matriculation at Black River Academy at age 13: “I was perfectly certain that I was traveling out of darkness into the light.”

Dad irritated an editor of the New York Times, who also confused Virginia and Vermont.

It was Dad’s bright idea that I sign up for Latin I in 1963, the year my family spent in France and I attended public school there. Twelve years old and already negotiating the French language for the first time, I agreed.

This marked the beginning of our study-buddy tradition. Every day after school Dad sat with me and together we drilled Latin in French. Dad enjoyed keeping up his chops, and I was happy for his company as we inched our way through my assignments.

The two of us continued our study arrangement through my high school years. As well as enjoying another four years of Latin together, Dad delighted in helping me brainstorm ideas for term papers. As a result, I ended up being extraordinarily well versed — for my demographic — in the Spanish Civil War.

The tradition has persisted into the next generation. As my own children navigated their school work, I enjoyed countless brainstorming sessions with them.

Dad’s favorite saying about education came from President James Garfield. In reference to his mentor Mark Hopkins, a prominent educator of the day and president of Williams College, Garfield opined that the best education was “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other .”

Our respective positions on the log reversed, I am proud to say that my kids to this day continue to be my best teachers.

Dad and I were great study-buddies. Here we are in 1981.

Although I hesitate to claim that I still know Latin, studying it intensively at a young age enhanced my relationship with the English language. No longer did I see words as random individuals, but rather as fun-to-know members of colorful extended word families. Grammatical concepts and sentence structure came into focus in logical fashion. Despite my enthusiasm, I failed to talk my own kids into studying Latin.

But I am convinced it is a real abdication ( ab= away from, dicare = declare) or should I say betrayal (be= English, tradere= hand over) of the liberal arts and education in our state as a whole, if UVM moves forward, as presently planned, to eliminate its classics department.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Susan Leader says:

    I offer my humble apologies to the Benedictine Order. Its motto is (let’s hope I get it right this time) Ora et Labora, or pray AND work. My father just pointed out to me (from beyond the grave) that the phrase Laborare est Orare, to work IS to pray, is a variation I improvised such a long time ago that I conflated the two.

  2. Stacia Spaulding says:

    The initialism UVM derives from the Latin phrase “Universitas Viridis Montis (University of the Green Mountains). One of my favorite classes at UVM was Etymology (probably because it came easily to me) and was a nice break from Algebra, Physics, Chemistry, and Geology (my major). They’re also planning on eliminating the Geology Department…

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