LEWISTON — Lewiston High School’s Bernie Fortier makes Latin fun.

Think breaking out in song. Think bringing students in front of the class to act out conjugated verbs.

“Latin can be tedious – it’s primarily grammar, vocabulary, translation, and if you have insomnia, it can be the perfect cure,” said Fortier, 61. “That’s why I think you have to add flavor, you have to add zest, you have to add zaniness.

“A couple students, more than a few, have compared me to Steve Martin,” he said. “I’m not Steve Martin, I’m not trying to say that, but I do some crazy stuff in the classroom and I think it hooks the kids.”

Students who have fun learn more, he said.

Evidence zest works: His classes have between 125 and 140 students, freshmen to seniors, a year.

Fortier is now in his 28th year at LHS. His career path wasn’t a straight shot to Latin. Or even teaching.

Growing up in Biddeford, he figured he’d like to be a lawyer.

Fortier graduated from Bowdoin College and a year into Boston College Law School knew the law wasn’t for him.

“And then I went into the seminary for three years in Rome,” Fortier said. “I studied philosophy and theology in Rome, Italy, and decided, nope, don’t want to be a priest either.”

He said he did still want to serve God’s people in some capacity. Fortier came home, took a job at Sears, and in stocking cans of paints and passing on how-tos to customers, arrived at his calling.

He should teach.

Fortier was in the classroom by age 29 and hopped around to different schools the first few years.

“My dad’s just shaking his head, ‘Are you ever going to stop moving around and pick a place?’ ” Fortier said. “It was driving him nuts, but I hadn’t found my fit.”

In 1991, LHS had an opening for a French teacher and he had an aptitude for language. Fortier grew up speaking French and English at home, and he’d taught himself Italian after arriving in Italy so he could follow along in seminary.

His second year at LHS, he took on a Latin class with, back then, 25 to 30 students.

“People have said for years that Latin is a dead language, what’s the point? And I will tell you, I wish I had studied more Latin in high school and college because it’s a very cerebral, analytical subject matter,” Fortier said.

For students going into the medical field, it’s vital.

“The most important reason I teach Latin, it’s like algebra, it’s like chemistry, it teaches you to engage in critical thinking,” Fortier said. “When you translate, all you’re doing is analyzing endings on nouns, verbs and adjectives and you have to draw conclusions. The gift I want to give my kids is thinking skills.”

Nearly three decades in, he’s had a few cases of teaching both parents and their children in his class. He’s taught six children from the same family. They all create connections that make the high school students and staff feel like a family, he said.

Fortier is eyeing retirement in four to five years. There’s no rush.

“I still love what I do,” he said.

In his spare time, Fortier said he enjoys reading, cutting wood and spending time with his wife and three children. For the past eight years, he’s also run the Maine Senior Skaters league, playing at Bates College in Lewiston. He started playing hockey at 50.

When he’s not getting a workout there, you might find him in front of the classroom busting a move while he conjugates.

“We do it kinesthetically – I have students who are class clowns come up in front and we act it out. You’d have to see it – it’s bizarre,” he said.

Kathryn Skelton can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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