Rachel Fenske squinted at the smudged, dime-sized coin in her fingers. Tarnish the color of old leather blurred the raised letters and figures.
[Undaunted, the Kecoughtan High School 10th] grader rubbed the coin and again looked closely at it.
"At the bottom, it looks like R, T, S and either an O or a P," she reported.
"The background shows one wing or two wings on a horse. On the front it has an emperor, but I couldn't tell you which one. And it's green. There's more writing on it, but that's kind of smashed."
Fenske was one of 14 students in Lisa Auanger's Latin II class deciphering inscriptions on Roman coins.
Each student in class received one of the small bronze coins, which were donated by coin dealers through a nonprofit, nationwide program called Ancient Coins of Education.
The ancient pocket change, which dates from about 300 to 400 A.D, offers students a chance to practice not only language and detective skills, but also to study history, mythology, economics and civics.
They must prepare a Power Point presentation of their findings, adding technology skills to the lesson mix.
About 68 percent of Virginia's public school districts offer Latin classes to high school students.
All four of Hampton's high schools have classes in the language, which Auanger said is far from dead.
The class provides a strong foundation for college-level humanities classes, ranging from philosophy to classic literature to law and sciences, she said.
The multifaceted nature of Auanger's Latin II class is one reason 10th-grader John Blackwood enrolled.
"I don't think they're doing stuff with coins in Spanish or French," Blackwood said. "We do other things. It's more than just language. That adds to the fun factor."
"Latin isn't just Virgil anymore," Auanger added.
Hampton students have connected with other high school students learning the language through activities organized by area chapters of the Junior Classical League, a nonprofit extracurricular organization dedicated to studying Latin and classical subjects.
They also participated in Hampton Roads Latin Day.
Auanger said students enroll in Latin for a variety of reasons, but improving vocabulary skills is one of the top draws.
That's the reason 16-year-old Siedah Holmes decided to enroll.
She said she now can figure out English word definitions and origins based on her Latin lessons.
Fenske offered another reason for taking the course: medicine.
"I wanted to know what doctors were putting in medicine bottles," she explained.
Neither Fenske nor Holmes had expected to use toothbrushes or microscopes in a language class.
Students cleaned the Roman coins with old toothbrushes and used microscopes to study mint marks and other details.
Holmes said students also spent time on the Internet, looking up empires and campaigns.
"We did a lot of research," she said.
While some of the coin inscriptions were rubbed almost bare, Blackwood said his looked fairly crisp.
"This coin is in better condition than most pennies I see," he said, holding the bronze coin to the light.
Holmes said being able to read an inscription did not mean deciphering it was easy.
"A lot is in Roman numbers, and they were different back then," she said, holding her coin against a poster filled with coins. "It's a challenge."
So was identifying the ruler on her coin. During the centuries in which the coins were minted, the empire was in a state of flux, with a constantly changing cast of rulers and military leaders, each of whom had coins minted in his image.
Auanger said the coin detective work helps sharpen other skills students will need for college and work.
"They have to think about things they don't know and not jump to conclusions," she said, watching Holmes try to match her coin to the examples on the poster.
"It's got to be one of them," Holmes said.