Latin has the reputation of being edifying and educational - but fun?
Latin teacher Sean Smith's students say he makes it fun. That's just one of the good things people have to say about the longtime Amherst Regional High School teacher, himself a 1978 school graduate.
Smith's scholarship (he co-authored a book on the Roman poet Catullus) and his service (he's taught everyone from middle school to college graduate students) are well regarded enough that the American Philological Association has given him its 2007 award for Excellence in Teaching at the Precollegiate Level.
The group supports the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures and civilizations, according to its Web site. It has given the national award for a precollegiate teacher since 1999.
Smith is the second of the recipients since then to have graduated from the masters of arts Latin teaching program at the University of Massachusetts.
"He's like an all-pro utility infielder, he can do anything," said Kenneth Kitchell, a UMass professor of Latin, with whom Smith co-authored the book, "Catullus: A Legamus Transitional Reader."
"He teaches middle school students and teaches them very well. He single-handedly gets them to take Latin over and over again," Kitchell said. "By the same token, he also teaches high school AP courses, and when I had an operation a while back, I asked Sean to come in for me and teach at the graduate level in college."
Smith has directed the production of audiotapes to go with one of the major Latin textbook series, lectures to teachers in training and mentors student teachers. His students routinely win commendations for their essays.
The seventh of eight children of Francis Smith, the first dean of Humanities and Arts at Hampshire College. and Margaret Smith, who founded the first Montessori School in Amherst, Smith says he always knew he wanted to teach. After he took Latin with the late Betty Jane Donley, he knew he wanted to teach it. Donley had taught for so long in the Amherst schools she called generations of students by their parents' names, Smith said.
"I like teaching language because it is so central," Smith said. "I think it's sort of the defining thing for humans. That, and the opposable thumb, but I can't talk about the opposable thumb much."
It's the Latin
Smith is possibly the last person who would tout his own accomplishments. His students love Latin, and he doesn't think it's because of him, he said. "I think it's because of Latin."
"He's self-effacing, if you want. He doesn't brag," Kitchell said.
But it's not hard to get Smith started on fascinating characters of ancient literature.
"A lot of students get interested in the mythology. They like the stories and then they find out how fascinating the language is and it gives them insight into their own language and that's always exciting to see when they get turned on to the language," Smith said.
There's Aeneas, the protagonist of the poet Virgil's "The Aeneid."
"A question for Aeneas is what is more important," Smith said, "his public responsibilities or his private commitments?" The answer disappoints some modern readers, since Aeneas is an epic hero focused on the public.
But in writing the great Roman epic, Virgil posed questions that Americans ask themselves today, Smith said, namely, "What is our place in the world as the most powerful nation?"
The Roman poet Catullus, on the other hand, "doesn't want to talk about that," Smith said. "Catullus is the anti-epic writer. He doesn't want to write of great mythological achievements and public sphere. It's about you and me and us. Kids love Catullus."
Caters to all
ARHS senior Thomas Benfey, who wrote a letter to the American Philological Association praising Smith, agreed. "Catullus is sort of like an angry teenage poet," Benfey said.
"What I really like about Mr. Smith," Benfey added, "is that he finds a way to cater to everyone in the class. He's also a really fun guy in general and a warm person."
Patti Appelbaum, whose daughter Margaret Holladay studied Latin with Smith at the middle school, said, "He manages this brilliant balance of fun and high standards. Who would think Latin would be fun?"
The plays his students put on every year for elementary students are "hilarious," Appelbaum said. "He really brings out the best in them."
Smith, who is married to Marilyn Smith, a Russian scholar, and has three grown children, has taught at the middle and high schools since 1984. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has a master's degree from UMass. The Regional School Committee recognized him for his achievement at its meeting Tuesday.