Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dummy Latin, Idus Martiae


When I started seventh grade, beginning in a new school (a private college-prep academy in Los Angeles, where I had spent the previous two years in a disastrous public "magnet" school), I experienced the joy of having Latin thrust upon me, non-negotiable. We were all required to take it for at least two years—maybe longer, but since I eventually left the academy for a performing arts high school, I am not sure whether the suffering of unwilling students persisted beyond that point. I don't think, at that age, that any of us really took to the subject. Those who got good grades were academic strivers, and the rest of us, well . . . I had other things on my mind then. I held myself somewhat apart, caring only about "extracurricular" activities, which for me meant dance on a pre-professional level. I had no room for a dead language, and although my mother had been told repeatedly of my "good ear" and aptitude for language (when I was ten or eleven, she was told by a Greek tutor that my accent was impeccable, and that if taken to Athens, I could pass for a local), I was through all my secondary schooling, a resolute underachiever in academics. As for Latin, my seventh-grade teacher (Mrs. Bali, a short woman who looked French whether she was or not, with a flawless complexion, a thin pointed nose, and flaming orange-red hair that was generally well coiffed) threatened to fail me and make me repeat the class the next year. Somehow, I eked out a D instead, with mandatory summer school tutoring in order to pass to the next level. In eighth grade, everyone quickly caught on to the division of the Latin program into two sections, which were unofficially named: the "regular" class, and the "dummy Latin" class. I was, of course in "dummy Latin." I expected another horrible year, but sometimes, expectations are not met and for the better. Dummy Latin, as the kids called it, was taught by a man of wrinkled clothes and face; the classic picture of a classicist: meticulous yet with a rumpled aura, tweedy, poetic, lost in a conjugation of the past tense. I'm sure he didn't smoke in class, but somehow I am convinced he puffed a pipe (did he smell like sweet tobacco?). He was kind, patient, encouraging—and somehow he turned Latin from my worst into my best subject. Dr. Bruce Belt. I earned an A in his class that year, a lovely swing of the GPA pendulum. Not only that, but he became the first teacher, and the only one from that or any previous school, with whom I kept in touch. I am not sure what gave me the initiative (did he ask me to write to him, or did I take it on myself to do so?), but when I went to North Carolina School of the Arts to pursue a ballet career, I wrote to Dr. Belt, at least once. Who knows what I found to write, but in response, he described my letter as "charming." I know because I have committed to memory nearly the entirety of his letter back to me, which I saved for decades and probably still have tucked into a journal somewhere. I remember that the letter was written on cream-colored stationery from a Parisian hotel, where I assume he must have stayed once. It was the hotel Prince de Galles, and the hotel's letterhead showed a contrasting maroon type and a fussy logo that included a crown. Dr. Belt had nothing but words of admiration for my determination, my adventurous seeking of an artist's life, away from home. But he also had sage advice. He wanted to know about my dreams, my goals—he expressed such caring, such a desire to listen to the heart of a young girl—and yet, this is the part I remember best: he wrote, "Sometimes if we talk too much about a dream, all the determination we have seems to flow away with the talk and we lose the dream." He concluded the letter, rather abruptly, saying that he'd not ask about that, then, only about the school itself. I don't know if we exchanged other letters after that; this is the only one I remember and the only one I kept. I  stowed that letter away, guarding it as something sacred—not knowing yet that what he said was true, but somehow intuiting the importance of his words, and also the deeply personal story that must have been behind them. I never learned about how he himself arrived at that insight; I imagine the circumstances contain a story of loss and sadness, but maybe not. I wish I knew his whereabouts now, or even if he is still living. Today, on the Ides of March, I can't help thinking of him, of Latin (which, because of him and a bit of fate, I ended up taking in college as well), and of lost dreams. In a short time, I was bereft of my dancing life; I can commiserate with those for whom determination flows away. "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff," perhaps that's true. Yet, when others cry, is it not noble (as Antony suggests, in the words of Shakespeare, upon the death of Julius Caesar) to also weep? In Dr. Belt, I knew a humble teacher—no immortal Caesar—but one who would feel deeply on my behalf, and the benevolence in that is as amazing to me as the greatest of any emperor's achievements.

3 comments:

  1. Incredible story Allison! Taking the time, after so many years, to acknowledge the importance of a teacher highlights the impact that adults can have on the life of a middle school age child. As a writer with a keen interest in connecting middle school parents with quality resources, your story could not have come at a better time. I look forward to sharing your story in an upcoming show. Thanks again for the inspiration.

    Regards,
    Joe

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  2. This week, following the Ides of March post—at the urging of family, and with help from both friends and strangers—I launched an effort to renew contact with Dr. Belt. Happily, I have an update:

    Dr. Bruce Belt is alive and well (in his eighties, I figure, by an educated guess), retired to a more pastoral area of California now. We spoke on the phone earlier this afternoon, his voice and manner every bit as pleasant as I remembered. It was incredible indeed to have the opportunity to tell him in person, more than twenty-five years later, how much his teaching, his extension of friendship, and his sage advice have meant to me.

    I have his address, and I will be writing to him personally, enclosing also a copy of the letter he sent to me back in 1983, plus a printout of this blog tribute.

    I wish to thank most sincerely:
    My parents; a family friend, M. T., who still lives in L.A. and who was instrumental in the search; one W. Culpepper, for the Culpepper Family Tree and his willingness to help a stranger; a childhood friend and alum of the school, H. J. K., who also had Dr. Belt as a teacher and encouraged passing along this post; Joe B. of "Thinking Forward," who commented above, for his enthusiasm and commitment to making life better for families of middle-schoolers; and finally, E. Ellis of the school's Alumni Office, who ultimately tracked down a number and contacted Dr. Belt on my behalf, asking permission to put me in touch.

    The gratitude I feel toward Dr. Belt himself is of course a matter of public record on this blog.

    So now I ask: If you, unknown reader, are in any way touched by this story, then do me the favor of taking a moment to think, Who helped you when you were young and struggling? Have you told that person what s/he meant to you? If not, then what are you waiting for?

    nunc aut numquam

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  3. Oh my goodness--I love the internet! My name is Cay Enns and Dr. Belt taught me at Brentwood School (8th grade Biology) where I have taught for 12 years and counting. I would love to have his info, or at the very least, let him know that I am a high school Biology, Astronomy, and Ethics teacher. He was like a father to me after my own father died when I was in 7th grade. He had the most difficult multiple choice questions I EVER had. Thanks for the post. I have a very wide grin!

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