It’s pretty easy for me to say that Mr. Callahan was the best teacher I ever had. Much more difficult is the task of explaining what exactly makes that so. The stakes for making such a claim seem rather high right now, too, as many of the prevailing education reform narratives involve teacher assessment — the identification and rewarding of great teachers and concomitantly, the elimination of the bad ones.
Many of these calls for “teacher accountability” tie teacher assessment to student assessment. And that’s where I balk. There are no standardized tests by which you can assess Mr. Callahan’s impact on me or on any of the thousands of junior high school students that took his Latin classes. It was Latin, after all, not a subject currently tracked as part of the litany of government-mandated examinations.
I did get an A’s in Mr. Callahan’s Latin classes, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure you can make too much of that assessment either. I got A’s in everything.
I can still rattle off Latin verb conjugations, and with a little brushing up, I imagine I could decline nouns quite handily. I don’t know how much we want to make of 25 some-odd years of Latin retention, but it counts for something, I’d wager. More importantly, perhaps, the solid foundation Mr. Callahan gave me in Latin helped me easily learn French, Italian, and Russian. But that’s not on “the test” either, is it?
Then again, the rules of grammar (English grammar, that is) probably are on some test — somewhere. So thank you, Mr. Callahan, for the lessons in the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases. And a little Latin knowledge does wonders for your vocabulary as well. That’s bound to come in handy on multiple choice tests, so again, thanks.
Understanding language’s infrastructure is important (I’m a writer, so what do you expect me to say), but Mr. Callahan’s Latin class involved much more than teaching these fundamentals. He taught us about Roman history and culture — all in a way that was compelling, interactive and memorable. “Salvete!” his booming voice would begin class. “Salve!” we would stand and answer in unison.
He was a large man — tall, balding, and round. So when he would lead the class on field trips, all of us dressed in our Roman togas and stollas (everyone was required to make one), I have no doubt we made quite a sight. This was Casper, Wyoming, I should add — not exactly a place where you would expect to find a classroom re-enacting Saturnalian rituals.
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