The death of Joseph Terranova at age 95 on August 3, 2013 brought a flood of memories.
I did well enough in sports and my studies to avoid many of the usual pains of teenage social life and its ruthless hierarchies. But like so many of us at that age, I felt displaced and disconnected. Other than “going to college,” I had little idea of what my future held, and my one abiding goal was to “fit in.” But there was one subject that became a home for me: Latin.
For four years, I studied under the greatest teacher I have ever known, Mr. Terranova. He lived and breathed Latin, and inspired his students to do the same. He referred to students’ girlfriends and boyfriends as the dreaded “ablative of accompaniment,” and he made us memorize Caesar’s military diction (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”; “Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts”) and scan Virgil’s dactyls and spondees (“Ar-ma vir-um que ca-no Troi–ae qui pri-mus ab or–is”; the famous “Arms and man, I sing…” opening of the Aeneid). Mr. Terranova didn’t expect us to become Latinists, but he promised that Latin would give us a mental discipline, whether we wished to become teachers, engineers, lawyers, surgeons, or anything else.
More than any other class in my high school, his prized intellect fostered a competitive ethos. And it unveiled the possibility of new identities and homelands far from our Rhode Island suburbs. Sure, English, history, and other subjects also prodded the imagination; but to dream in a foreign language, especially in an ancient, “dead” language—that fired the brain like nothing else.
Countering the usual attack that Latin was “dead” because nobody spoke it anymore, Mr. Terranova reminded us that actually many throughout the world still spoke Latin: we ourselves in his classroom; the clergy of the Vatican; the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who resort to Latin terminology. What makes a language dead, he claimed, is when it ceases to change. The grammar of Latin, long since codified, has stopped evolving with human culture, hence its mortality. But by studying Latin and applying it to the world around us, we were keeping the language among the living.
The brilliance of Mr. Terranova’s insights remain with me. They have helped me understand why, say, Dante would chose to write his Divine Comedy (c. 1307-19) in Tuscan rather than Latin, even though Latin would have guaranteed him a broader and more influential group of initial readers. Or why Wordsworth would reject the artificial poetic diction of the eighteenth-century and write his Lyrical Ballads (1800) in what he called the “real language of men.” Both authors sought a living idiom attuned to the rhythms and speech patterns of the everyday. Similarly, to Mr. T., as we affectionately called him, Latin was a key to living culture.
It pained me to read in Mr. Terranova’s obituary that he “often wondered whether he had a positive effect on his young charges.” One of these young charges, I would not be a professor of language and literature today if it hadn’t been for him. His class taught me how to love words and understand their power to reveal the mysteries of culture and knowledge. What is more, his passion for Latin showed how a subject of study can transform your life. No student—or future teacher—could have asked for more.
Gratias tibi ago, magister.