When more than 400 enthusiastic young Latin lovers packed Great Hall of the Memorial Union this week, their whoops and cheers were loud enough to, well, awaken a dead language.
Hailing from both public and private high schools, the exuberant students were attending the annual Wisconsin Junior Classical League Convention, which began Thursday and ends today. The unlikely object of their enthusiasm was the study of Latin, which was, repeatedly, described as awesome, amazing and life-altering.
Carolyn Briggs, a Madison West junior who is president-elect of WJCL, said, "When I first went to the national convention, I fell in love. Not with a person, but with a language. Now my devotion to Latin, and to WJCL, borders on an obsession."
Briggs, dressed for the Spirit (pep rally) portion of the convention, was wearing boxer shorts emblazoned with the legend LATIN KICKS across the back.
"This convention, and the national convention, is an incredible way to meet the most wonderful, zany friends," she said.
Carolyn Hill, also from West, is a senior and outgoing WJCL historian. A beginning student in Greek, she said she intends to become a classics major.
"I really want to be a Latin teacher, and I think I'd like to teach in a public high school. Latin has been an amazing class, a great thing to study. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist, so maybe my interest is an extension of that.
"But it's conventions like these that really get you going," she added. "I mean, where else would you find people willing, or able, to sing 'Yellow Submarine' in Latin?"
Aaron and Caleb Burr, a senior and freshman brother duo who are part of a 33-student convention delegation from Edgewood High School, are also Latin fans. Aaron, who is taking Advanced Placement 4th year Latin, finds the ancient history compelling, and he loves a competition called Certamen that poses tough Latin questions in a Jeopardy-style format.
Caleb, a freshman in his first year of studying the language, confessed he wasn't very good, but that he liked the challenge. He keeps at it because, rugged or not, he enjoys it. "I also like the mythology," he said.
West is Madison's only public high school that still maintains a Latin program.
According to Gale Stone, West's Latin teacher and convention co-chair, there are about 100 Latin students in any given year at her school. A Latin teacher for 25 years, 18 of them at the high school level, she brought 67 of her students this year to the state convention.
In addition to the deafening Spirit competition on Friday morning and Certamen, events included a war machines competition, memorized and impromptu oratory, testing in Latin proficiency, a costume contest, a Roman banquet and an impromptu art competition. Part of the JCL creed promises "to hand on the torch of classical civilization in the modern world."
Eight public schools and seven private schools, including a home school association, were represented at the convention. "I try to make my classes fun, and a little different," Stone said, explaining the devotion her students show toward Latin.
"The language is extremely difficult, and it takes at least a couple of years for students to get much of a sense of proficiency. It's important for them to be able to find their own passion," she said.
"It's kind of like checking in at a hotel. There are lots of different rooms to capture the imagination, from mythology to military history to engineering feats to how they made their underwear," she laughed.
"Another great thing about Latin is that it's a great leveler of backgrounds for the students. Very few kids come in with an advantage. It doesn't matter whether you come from a professorial household, or a janitorial household. At the outset, it's unfamiliar to everyone," she said.