Thursday, November 02, 2006


It took only a few days for me to discover that I wasn’t the smartest kid in the freshman class at St Ignatius. I wasn’t even the smartest kid in my alphabetically derived group of forty known as Class 1D. I did well enough as a freshman, however, to be put in the “honor class” for the remaining three years.

The honor class comprised the forty smartest kids out of a freshman class of 280, so, the top 15%. Considering that SI was the most academically rigorous of San Francisco’s three Catholic boys high schools, there were some really smart kids in the honor class.

The honor curriculum included two years of Homeric Greek, while the other kids got Spanish instead, and four years of Latin, instead of just two. This exposure to the classics, pagan classics, is the platform from which I’ve taken my literary dive.

When you ask me what a word means I immediately think etymology. Not that I’m a scholar, I’m a non-scholar, but I’m a non-scholar of the Classics. I pick up stuff by osmosis.

In the first week of Sophomore year in the honor class, we received an English assignment, to write a Shakespearian sonnet, the subject didn’t matter but it had to be iambic pentameter, the standard rhyme scheme, and three quatrains and a couplet.

When Mr McCurdy returned the graded sonnets he asked one kid to stand and read his aloud. I was astounded. This kid, Don Casper, had written his sonnet in Latin! A perfect Shakespearian sonnet, but in Latin! This was a another good hint to me that I was out of my depth. When the teacher asked him to tell the class what grade he had received, Don’s face reddened, “An F,” he said. The point was that this was English class, not Latin class. Whoa!

Anyway, I quickly became a role-player. It turns out I had a decent ear, so the elite students enjoyed my writing, and my, even then, skewed world view. And I filled, in a very mild way, the role of class clown.

In Sophomore English class I sat at the front of the room. Mr McCurdy would start each session reviewing a word from the previous night’s reading assignment. His first question was always, “Who can tell us the etymology of this word.”

My hand would always shoot up enthusiastically, and Mr McCurdy would call on me. Most of the time I had no idea of the etymology, so I would make something up. In addition to identifying the Latin or Greek root, we were supposed to give its “principle parts.” I would model my answers on highly irregular verbs and nouns.

Mr McCurdy: The word is “consist.” Who can tell us the root of the word “consist”? Mr Morrissey?

sfwillie: Yes, Mister. It comes from the Latin verb sist. The principle parts are sistor, sistex, sistivi sum. It means to act in the capacity of a sister.

The class would laugh and groan while I feigned hope that my “guess” had been correct.

Mr McCurdy: Wrong. Can somebody help Mr Morrissey out?

Then I’d punch the air, or slap my forehead, to show my supposed disappointment, and flop back in my seat deflated. I guess people enjoyed it, because it became ritual. Of course, every once in a while I’d actually know the correct answer, in which case the class would erupt in applause and I’d take a deep bow.

That year the really smart kids amused themselves by composing sentences in Latin, which when read aloud, made sense in English.

Anyway, the honor class rendered me completely comfortable about my own enormous ignorance. I have a younger-brother strategy. I hang around people who are smarter than me or know more than me, ask questions, and keep my ears open.

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1 comment:

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