When she started teaching Latin 40 years ago, Patty Mullis used to drill her students on grammar and structure.

These days, Mullis and other Latin teachers are using new teaching methods to keep the “dead language” from languishing in the classroom.

“I tell the kids, Latin is everywhere you look! Medical terms, legal terms, even Harry Potter spells!” Mullis said, beaming after cheering on the Nokomis Regional High School Latin students in a muddy tug of war at the Maine Junior Classical League spring convention last week.

“Teaching at first was all geared to grammar and we’d bring in the mythology and culture to keep the kids from going crazy,” Mullis said. Today, students read original works in Latin, recite the poetry and study the political and cultural history of the Roman Empire.

Gardiner Area High School freshman Kiersten Weed, in helmet, appears to enjoy her role in a chariot race at the Maine Junior Classical League event. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

But even while Latin enthusiasts find new ways to teach and learn a dead language, there are signs that interest in it is waning.

There’s been a 16 percent drop in the number of Maine students taking the National Latin Exam over the last five years, to 888 students in 2017, from 1,059 in 2013. From 2012 to 2016, the number of Maine students taking the AP Latin exam dropped 39 percent, from 84 students to 51.

Even Cheverus High School in Portland, the last Jesuit school in northern New England, is dropping its Latin program next fall. It will not offer Latin to incoming freshmen and current students will finish out their Latin studies online.

“We have seen a sharp decrease in our enrollment in our Latin classes,” Cheverus spokeswoman Bethany Hanley said. “Education evolves.”

Hanley said the school still valued Latin, but “we also have to be forward thinking about global leaders, and the demand now is for Spanish and French.”

GENUINE CAMARADERIE AROUND LATIN

Latin was once a required core subject in many schools, but there are conflicting signs about how well it’s doing in Maine today, and the state doesn’t track the number of students taking a particular language.

Some schools, even in rural areas like Nokomis, have robust Latin programs with multiple courses and AP courses available. The Maine Junior Classical League convention drew more than 400 students from 16 schools last fall, and 350 attended the spring convention, a two-day event held earlier this month at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop.

Jay Ketner, the language specialist at the Department of Education, said he thinks Latin popularity depends on the local district’s priorities. If there is a strong program and teacher, it thrives. If a Latin teacher retires, or the district wants to redirect its resources to modern languages such as Mandarin or Arabic, it could threaten a Latin program, even if students are still interested.

“It’s not necessarily from a lack of interest,” he said. “And where it’s growing, I think it’s very actively growing.”

Teachers, parents and teachers agree that there are some core reasons to take Latin: It’s helpful for students planning to go into law or medicine. It gives students a greater command of English and other languages once they understand the root Latin words. For some, it’s a family tradition.

At the MJCL spring convention, several students had one more reason – because it’s fun.

Hampden Academy senior Dalton Adams releases a catapult during a competition at the Maine Junior Classical League Spring Convention at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer) Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Schools with Latin classes frequently have Latin clubs, and if they are part of the Maine Junior Classical League, a whole culture evolves around building the chariots and catapults, figuring out the best costumes for “spirit” – a procession and competition – and practicing together for “certamen,” a “Jeopardy”-like quiz with questions that ask things like when Vesuvius erupted or who was the first Roman king with an Etruscan background.

Students build a genuine camaraderie in the buildup to the convention, and from meeting up with Latin students statewide at MJCL events.

It all makes Latin much more than a classroom experience.

“Latin is a really hard language but MJCL makes it really fun. You meet a lot of people,” said Abigail Mosson, a senior at Sacopee Valley High School who plans to teach math after college. She talks or texts almost every day with her friend Colby Kreider, a senior from Nokomis High School and president of the MJCL, who lives more than 100 miles away.

“JCL shows the fun side, not just the boring stuff,” said Kreider, who is taking AP Latin this year, and will attend the University of Maine as a psychology major. As they talk in a loose huddle with a half-dozen other students, the crowd behind them roars as another wave of chariot races begin.

“I don’t know why anyone would take Latin without the JCL,” said Dayna Cyr-Parker, 18, a senior at Sacopee Valley High School. An athlete, she’s doing the shotput in the next day’s Olympics competition.

Plus, the students agree, Latin looks good on the transcript: “Colleges know it’s intense,” Kreider said, describing the hard work of translating hundreds of lines of Latin poetry and memorizing passages. “The grammar makes you want to cry.”

But he likes the idea that he’s part of a larger, storied tradition.

“I know that JFK and Clinton had to memorize and translate the same lines,” he said, of past presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. “It’s so cool that you’re translating what former presidents had to translate.” But Kreider insists Latin students aren’t just “nerds.”

“People think it’s just nerds but you have your jocks here, and artists,” he said. Dayna jumps in – “The Olympics! It’s cutthroat!” – and the group dissolves into laughter.

Sage Landry, a senior at Leavitt High School and member of the school’s Latin Club, looks over her shoulder while clapping and chanting during a general assembly at the Maine Junior Classical League Spring Convention at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. The latin on the back of the shirt worn by Karlee Barry, right, roughly translates to “Whatever you say in Latin sounds lofty.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

A DEARTH OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE TEACHERS

Any decline in Latin offerings is also tied to a general decline in student enrollment; Maine’s K-12 enrollment has dropped 11 percent in the last 10 years, and teachers are getting older and more are retiring. Colleges, as part of their budget-trimming efforts, are cutting classics programs.

Couple that with a shortage of language teachers in general and persistent budget pressure in most districts, and some school boards are more willing to cut Latin or not renew a program if the teacher retires.

Mary Oches, who has been teaching Latin for 20 years at Erskine Academy, said all that has an effect on the teaching of the classics.

“We’re definitely seeing a shortage of teachers for any modern or classical language in Maine,” Oches said, noting that many teaching colleges are cutting their classics programs, including the University of Southern Maine. “It’s hard to find foreign language teachers of any language in Maine.”

But at Erskine, which offers six language courses despite having fewer than 600 students, they still get at least two or three students a year who want to attend because of the Latin program, she said.

“I think there is still quite a bit of interest in Latin,” said Oches.

On the first day of class, Oches said she likes to ask the students why they are taking Latin.

“Most of the students say, I want to go into a medical field, or biology or some other science. Some of them say, I want to be a lawyer,” said Oches. “They know there is going to be a connection.”

Mullis said parents and students have “always seen the value” in Latin.

“They can see it all around them,” she said. “In a perfect world, we’d all learn Latin.”

Paul Wlodkowski, an engineering professor at Maine Maritime Academy, said he loved taking Latin at Cony High School and is glad his son Roman is carrying on the tradition at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.

“The classics are extremely important,” said Wlodkowski, who was watching Roman compete in the chariot race. “I’m inspired to see all these kids continue with the classics.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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