Deborah Hickey's 11th-grade students at Notre Dame High School have spent the past year reading just one book.
But it's not just any book. Hickey's students have been working their way through "The Aeneid," Virgil's classical epic about the founding of Rome. And they have been doing so in the original Latin.
The book forms the spine of the students' Advanced Placement course, which is dedicated entirely to Virgil, and is being offered at Notre Dame in East Stroudsburg this year for the first time.
Written in the first century before the common era, "The Aeneid" follows Aeneas as he and his fellow Trojans escape from Troy after the Greeks lay siege to it.
A storm scuttles their boats and they land on the island of Carthage, where he meets and falls in love with Princess Dido.
"It's a love story," one of Hickey's students explained.
And one that ends badly. After Aeneas leaves the island on his quest to found a new nation, Dido climbs atop a pyre of his possessions and stabs herself with his sword.
Aeneas eventually conquers Italy and establishes the beginnings of the Roman republic. "It's about destiny and fate," another of Hickey's students said.
Hickey's students have been studying Latin with her since eighth grade, gradually building their skills until they were ready to take on the subject in an AP course.
The school had long been considering trying out the AP Virgil class. When Hickey brought up the idea to her students last year, they jumped at the chance. It is a special group, she explained, one that is unusually motivated and close.
"Everyone wants to be the best they can," said junior Carolina Dudzinski, 17, of East Stroudsburg. "They try to get into the most rigorous curriculum possible."
First, Hickey had her students try to translate 200 lines while they were still sophomores. "That kind of grabbed our attention," remembered junior Kelly O'Donnell, 17, of Stroudsburg.
Once they were juniors, they labored their way through much more of the text. On Monday, they were dissecting the text's dactylic hexameter, in which each line ends in a long syllable, followed by two short ones. Working mostly in small groups, they have translated 1,856 lines.
The AP course, which is designed to mirror college-level rigor, had introduced the already self-motivated students to a whole new world of expectation. "It's more gruelling," O'Donnell said.
"It was a lot harder than I thought," said Michael Primiano, 17, of Stroudsburg.
But the subject itself is also noteworthy — even in a private Catholic school like Notre Dame, where teaching Latin is common.
Latin once thrived as a staple of the curriculum, until it began to die out in the 1960s through the early 1990s when it came to be seen as fusty and dull, the dead language of a dead civilization.
In public schools, the language fell by the wayside. Notre Dame is the only high school in Monroe County to offer classes in the subject.
A sign in the back of Hickey's classroom gives voice to the subject's endurance. "Latin didn't fall with Rome," it reads.
Within the past decade, Latin has seen a resurgence, bolstered by evidence suggesting that studying the language can lead to higher achievement, especially in English. Elementary schools in such cities as Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; New York and Los Angeles have experimented with teaching about 20 minutes of Latin each day to their fourth- through sixth-grade students. The results, researchers found, led to gains in vocabulary, comprehension and reading skills.
Boosters of classical education also point to SAT results that show students who study Latin score higher on the verbal portion than those who learn other foreign languages.
"If you know Latin and Greek, your English is almost always beautiful," said Adam Blistein, director of the American Philological Association, a membership group of Classics scholars, housed in the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's a challenging discipline, if done right," he said. "It expands the mind."
But this growth in demand, following the previous decades' waning interest, has led to a gap in supply. "There's a real shortage of high school Latin teachers," Blistein said. Groups have sponsored annual recruitment drives in an effort to build the corps of Latin teachers.
Demographics are part of the problem. The teachers with expertise, many of them baby boomers, are some of the only ones who went to school when the language was still taught widely. "Teachers are afraid to retire and see their program die," Blistein said.
Hickey, who has been teaching Latin as well as American and British literature at Notre Dame for 23 years, has tried to keep her students engaged by connecting the language to its wider context. "It's taught as a whole culture, mythology and history," she said.
Hickey's approach and her enthusiasm for the subject have rubbed off on the students, according to Jeffrey Lyons, Notre Dame High School's principal.
If the subject is a luxury in today's age of standardized testing, Lyons thinks it should not be.
"It's the core of some of those tests," he said.