Nearly two dozen trophies are displayed in Ann Graham's Latin classroom. Students have won them in Junior Classical League competitions since Graham started the club at Smithfield High School in the 2003-04 school year.
"These are the kids who will latch on to a love of learning and carry it with them," said Graham, 24, who came to Smithfield High three years ago, after studying Latin and classics at the University of Georgia.
Stuart Robertson, a 33-year-old former archaeologist from Britain, started teaching Latin at Windsor High School last year. Graham and Robertson teach all levels of the language. They've had an effect at their schools, boosting enrollment in Latin classes and spreading their enthusiasm for the language to students.
"I love the challenge," said Graham, who calls herself a strict grammarian. "You're not going to walk down the street and hear (Latin). You have to memorize it."
Locally and nationally, Latin saw an upsurge in recent years, in part because of pop-culture elements such as the movie "Gladiator" and the magic spells of fictitious young wizard Harry Potter. About 68 percent of Virginia school systems offer Latin, the state Department of Education reported. A higher percentage of schools offer Spanish and French - both of which have roots in Latin.
At Smithfield High, 121 students are enrolled in Latin classes this school year, up from about 90 in the 2003-04 school year. At Windsor High, 113 students are taking Latin this year, up from 86 two years ago.
Both of Isle of Wight's Latin teachers said they're happy that their classes attracted minority students. Multicultural classrooms better reflect the Roman Empire, which included black and Arabic leaders, Robertson said. "It was a very diverse society," he said.
Students say Latin improves their grammar and vocabulary, which helps them in other classes and on the verbal section of the SAT. Teachers say learning the difficult language instills discipline in students. Advanced students read passages by classical authors such as Virgil, Cicero and Ovid. "They have to think very precisely about sentence structure," Robertson said.
But Latin class isn't just about language. Students learn about ancient mythology and Roman history. They study Venus and Neptune, Hannibal and Caesar.
"I like introducing high schoolers to a different world - of art, history, grammar, culture," Robertson said. "I try to give them a broad exposure to beliefs, ideas and understandings of all the peoples in the ancient world."
Many Latin students also enjoy the camaraderie of Junior Classical League, a club with about 50 active members at Smithfield High.
"You make a lot of good friends," said Caleb Holland, a Smithfield High junior and first vice president of the state's league.
Students say their teachers make Latin fun and interesting.
When Graham teaches, she likes to sit on a desk facing students. Despite her petite frame, she possesses a powerful voice that keeps students' attention.
Graham's students exercise creativity by crafting posters and videos that illustrate aspects of Roman culture. Some students are creating "Law and Order: Roman Victims Unit," telling the story of a young girl turned into a cow by Jupiter.
Robertson's students give speeches and PowerPoint presentations and even translate pop songs into Latin. He engages students with his dynamic teaching style and constant movement around the classroom.
"I swear he gets a full-body workout," said Evan Callaway, a Windsor High sophomore. "People call (Latin) a dead language. That's not the case with a teacher like" Robertson, he said.
To cover travel costs for coming competitions, Smithfield High Junior Classical League students are conducting a fundraiser Jan. 14 in the school auditorium. The Miss Winter Wonderland Pageant will feature male students dressed in drag. The $4 event is open to the public.
The school will soon host its first Certamen, a sort of Latin quiz bowl, which Graham hopes will draw Latin students from throughout Hampton Roads.
Smithfield High students started offering a "Romapalooza" last year to introduce third-graders to mythology and Latin. Graham wants to expand the event and would like to see a Latin class start at the middle school. She said, "We hope the kids will grow up in the school system knowing Latin is a choice."