Saturday, June 06, 2009

'Ave, Greenwald': MUHS Latin Teacher Retires

Thanks to Google Alerts, I learned today that Mr. James Greenwald, who has taught Latin at Marquette University High School (my alma mater) since 1968, is retiring as of the end of this academic year.

Jim Stingl writes
on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel web site today:

Greenwald is retiring from Marquette High after 41 years. He was 25 years old when he arrived at the school in 1968.

"When I started there, every freshman had to take Latin. But that was the last year of that. Then it stabilized at about two classes of Latin I, two classes of Latin II, and one or two advanced," he said.

Many schools have dropped Latin over the years, favoring instead foreign languages such as Spanish and German that you're likely to encounter around here. Milwaukee has just one public school, Rufus King, that still teaches it; it's more common in the suburbs.

I asked this hometown Mr. Chips to make his best case that Latin matters.

"I would say it's no longer the argument that you learn Latin grammar, you learn English grammar, although that's true to a degree. I think it's more a matter of learning the ancient world, mythology, history, derivation of words - that's something I've worked very, very hard at," he said as we spoke in his kitchen last week.
Although I never had the pleasure of being taught Latin by Mr. Greenwald, I had the nearly unique experience of playing him on stage.

In the November 1976 production of Blazing Seniors, the Class of '77's Senior Follies, a musical revue whose conceit was that each scene was a different period of the school day, from homeroom to dismissal, I played Mr. Greenwald as both Latin teacher and Astronomy Club faculty advisor. Note from the two nearby photographs how we dressed alike. (I'm the one in the color photo, with space aliens.)

In our scene, Mr. Greenwald lamented to his class that he had seen a UFO but nobody believed him. (His/my song: "Hey, Has Anybody Seen My Neat UFO?", a parody of the Tony Orlando pop ditty, "Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose?")

It was for this show -- the one that caused me to fall in love with the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd -- that I memorized what Monty Python's Flying Circus had identified as the world's most lethal joke, in Latin:
Erant duo homines.
Primus vir dixit, "Meus canis habet nullam nasem."
Alius vir rogavit, "Quomodo olfacit?"
Primus vir respondit, "Atrociter!"
(If you need a translation, you should have taken Latin in high school!)

In his profile article, the Journal-Sentinel's Stingl quotes one of my classmates at Marquette High:
George M. Schimmel, now a lawyer in Milwaukee, a profession still relying on Latin phrases, graduated from Marquette High in 1977 with four years of Latin under his belt.

He remembers Greenwald as a fair and helpful teacher, and said that back then his folks used to invite Greenwald to their home every Thanksgiving for dinner....

Greenwald said he has spotted a rather arrogant T-shirt out there that says, in Latin, "If you can read this, you're too smart."

It seems odd to say about a language one would study, but "you didn't have to speak it. That's one of the good things. I remember translating 'Winnie the Pooh' from Latin," Schimmel said.

Even Greenwald himself does not converse in Latin except haltingly on rare occasions.

Schimmel said Greenwald also turned him on to astronomy. "Because of him I own three telescopes," he said.

Greenwald will ponder the stars in his retirement. And he wants to study Greek.

Marquette plans to fill his spot. Think there aren't many Latin teachers out there anymore?

"They had 40 applicants," Greenwald said.
That's good news. There's still a place for classics in the 21st century.

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