I heard the other week that one of my favourite teachers had died – he seemed ancient to me when I was at school in the 80s so he must have been a good age when he died, but it still shocked me.
He was a small man, with incredible energy, bustling around the cloisters with his black cloak billowing behind him: we called him Sir, because it was that kind of school, but amongst ourselves we knew him as Bingo Roberts and I never knew why. He was a classics teacher and a Methodist lay preacher, which meant that he regularly wrote lesson plans and sermons. In his lessons he used the initials JC for Julius Caesar, in his sermons he used the initials JC for Jesus Christ. He told us he once gave an entire sermon talking about Caesar without realizing til the end.
As Latin master, one of his jobs was to teach us correct form for the school anthem, 130. He did such a compelling job that I discovered on learning of his death that it’s still hardwired in: I can’t always remember whether I’ve locked the car, but I can still chant pretty much the whole thing in Latin:
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.
He gave great expression to the lines, rising on his toes and bellowing out the stressed syllables without a shred of self-consciousness:
Et in saecula, saecul-OR-um, A-men
I absolutely adored him, and I loved his lessons. My Latin now is sketchy at best, but looking back I realise what an impact it’s had. Discovering it was like going back to the root of language: the beautifully, mathematically regular grammar, the poetry of the conjugations (amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant) and the glorious arcane vocabulary around it – ablative, subjunctive passive pluperfect, datives, gerunds, vocative… It was irresistible.
And the etymological clues that litter any Latin text: ‘de profundis’ – whence profound – ‘out of the depths’. ‘Clamavi’ – like clamour – ‘I called’. It’s not my language but somehow I have a part of it.
So thank you Bingo: I never even realised it til now but it was your passion and enthusiasm for how language works under the hood that underpins so much of what I’ve done since I sat in your classroom so many years ago.
Be careful what you say in the day job: you never know who you’re inspiring.