Make no mistake, the students in my classes are genuine teenagers. Some bring to class a stunning array of colored pens so they can take notes in alternating colors. Others write in multi-hued Sharpies on their backbacks. They wear t-shirts promoting their favorite bands, are quick to talk about movies like The Avengers, and display all the enthusiasm and humor of young people trying to discover their place in the world.
It is important to preface this post with such words, for when I describe the depth of thought displayed recently in our Latin II (3/4) and Latin IV (7/8) classes, one could easily think I teach an elite group of savants. This is not the case. These are normal teens, and this is what normal teens are capable of.
Yesterday, our Latin IV Advanced Placement class was reading Aeneid VI.594ff in which Venus speaks to the hero Aeneas. She tells him that it is not Helen who is responsible for the fall of Troy, but cruelty of the gods. One of our students observed that humans often made reference to the gods in a vague way when in fact they were speaking of the fates, some unseen force above them directing the circumstances of life. He asked if the fates were above the gods, as they often seem to be in ancient stories, and if so, whether the gods would refer to them as gods. The answer to this with regard to this particular passage comes in lines 610ff, where Venus points out specific deities who are undermining Troy, but this young man's question was a good one, and it led us to consider three scenarios: (1) humans-gods-fates, (2) humans-fates-gods, (3) humans-gods/fates, with gods and fates being at the same level in the third option. We also discussed the how our answers would differ whether the gods and fates were seen as anthropomorphic characters or purely as metaphors. I had not anticipated this line of discussion, but it was just one more in a long line of meaningful digressions that we often encounter in this class thanks to the brilliance of normal, everyday teens.
Then today, one of our freshmen in Latin II (3/4), who began her studies as an 8th grader coming to our high school last year, asked a brilliant question in our introduction to the perfect subjunctive. We drew the comparison in form between the perfect passive subjunctive and future perfect passive indicative. This young lady offered a hypothesis as to why these forms are so similar. She noted that the subjunctive already carries with it an uncertain, almost future feeling, and that it made sense for the perfect passive subjunctive to share forms with the future perfect passive indicative. That one stunned me. It was not that this young lady has not said brilliant things before. It was the breathtaking depth of linguistic speculation. In a freshman.
As I said at the beginning, my students are just regular kids. They joke and act silly just as we would expect. Yet they are also capable of intellectual engagement like what I have described. Such behavior really can be the norm.