Colin Van Lang does not dream of becoming a classicist. The 18-year-old recent Brunswick School graduate will probably major in engineering when he gets to Stanford University this fall.
But when admissions officers asked him which teacher had the most profound effect on his life, he said it was his high school Latin teacher, the Rev. Richard Cipolla.
"He stretches your mind," Van Lang said. "The course was much more challenging than any other AP (Advanced Placement) course. Most of my motivation to stay with Latin was because of the teacher."
Van Lang's response was among those that recently earned Cipolla a place on the National Honor Roll of Outstanding American Teachers, and is typical among students of Latin, according to both school officials and national experts who have been watching the language gain popularity in recent years.
"What kids are drawn to is teachers who love what they teach," said Tom Philip, Brunswick School's headmaster. "And there is no debate that Cipolla loves what he does."
This enthusiasm has helped inspire more students to study the dead language, and to follow it through the two levels of AP courses the school offers to juniors and seniors, he said.
"The numbers have been rising slowly every year," Philip said. "It's been uniquely popular, and that has not always been the case. Six years ago, we only had a few sections of Latin classes. Now we have three Latin teachers in (the Upper School of) Brunswick."
Partly to help better prepare the many students who want to sign up for Latin as freshmen, and partly to keep up with peer institutions who are requiring that students start studying the language at an earlier age, the school has decided to make Latin mandatory for sixth-graders for the first time this year.
In the past, seventh- and eighth-graders were only required to take Latin a few days a week. After students pass these requirements, they can choose between continuing with Latin exclusively, studying Latin and a modern language like French, Spanish or Chinese; or switching to a modern language exclusively.
Latin has been a "flexible requirement" for students at Greenwich Academy, Brunswick's sister institution, beginning in sixth grade for almost a decade, according to Jill Riverain, head of the languages department.
"Ten years ago, interest in Latin really started to wane, and we felt it was too important to lose," Riverain said. But recently, she said, "the pendulum has been swinging back."
Enrollment in the National Latin Exam has grown steadily in recent years, according to Jeri Dutra, director of the American Classical League, which sponsors the test. She believes the biggest reason for the rise is that Latin teachers are unusually passionate about what they teach.
"A lot of times, I put the interest on the teacher, because they are definitely really into their subject and into their students, so they have the kids really interested."
Cipolla, 64, a Catholic priest who got his first doctorate degree in chemistry and his second in theology, believes the resurgence of interest in Latin has several sources.
"I think that our parents are so conscious of the SAT scores of their sons, and of course their daughters at Greenwich Academy, and all the statistics indicate that those kids who have had Latin do better," he said. His courses are open to students at both Brunswick and Greenwich Academy.
He also thinks the language's notorious difficulty scores points with college admissions officers, but believes the reasons it grips students run deeper. A knowledge of Latin is an opening to the very foundations of Western culture," he said. "In a multicultural age, there is a renewed interest in what does it mean to be Western? What does it mean to have a European background? I would hope that that driving force is at least as important as SAT scores and the value of Latin in the eyes of the college admissions officials."
Getting to commune directly with the founding texts of Western civilization, from the Bible to the Aeneid, was what turned on recent Greenwich Academy graduate Isabelle Schless, 18, but she doesn't believe having advanced Latin courses on her transcript hurt her application to Dartmouth College, where she plans to major in either classics or international relations.
She noted that her classmates in her advanced Latin class all seemed to be going to the country's top colleges.
"Classics majors have the highest acceptance rates into medical and law school because of the way it helps you think and memorize," she said. "It's a very methodical language."
But also a very beautiful one, she added. "It has the aspect of puzzle-solving, but it also has the most unbelievable literature that went with it," she said. "It appealed to both sides of my brain."
That said, she added there were times when the homework was so frustrating she would run around her house screaming, "The Romans killed it for a reason!"
But in the end, the difficulty of the language is its allure, Cipolla said.
"I believe strongly that be-cause of the difficulty of Latin, and the very nature of the language, it forces students to think more," he said. "I tell my kids, I have been to many schools, and gotten all these degrees, but where I learned to think was in high school Latin."