One of the best things I have done was answer “Yes” to a question I was asked in 1961. I was moving to a new school and during my interview with the Headmistress, she asked if I would like to learn Greek for O Level. This was well before the days when pupils get glossy booklets to help them choose their subjects, so this was not an informed choice. But I loved the stories about Greek heroes like Odysseus and Theseus and I wanted to go to the school, so “yes” seemed the best answer.
What I hadn’t been told was that Ancient Greek wasn’t that easy, and that I would be the only pupil, with no chance of escaping the teacher’s attention. People think Greek is hard because the alphabet is different, but a lot of the letters are the same or similar and learning the alphabet is the easy bit. But I beavered away and passed O Level and found myself continuing for A Level, mainly because the Classics staff wanted someone to teach. The grammar got harder and I struggled but I was saved by Mr Franklin, who was that rare combination of knowledgeable scholar and inspiring teacher. When I got stuck he never told me the answer, but guided me to it by skilful questioning. And when Achilles chased Hector round the walls of Troy in the Iliad, he helped me to see that beyond the tricky verbs and vocabulary, was great literature. Thanks to him, and to my considerable surprise, I got a place at university to study Classics, and equally important, I had started learning to think problems out for myself.
Greek at university wasn’t as much fun as it would be these days. We had to read a lot with little time for appreciation. But it laid an excellent foundation to build on and I really began to enjoy the Greeks and their literature when I started teaching. The university syllabus had been academic in approach; school syllabuses aim to keep the pupils’ interest and link up with life. So I introduced the First Years to Greek gods and goddesses (“If she is wearing a helmet and carrying an owl, it’s Athene, goddess of wisdom”) or I guided GCSE students to find out about the lives of ancient Greek women by looking at the pictures on Greek vases, with all those spindles and looms giving big clues about how the women spent their time. With the Sixth Form I read the tragedy of Antigone and we discussed whether she was justified in disobeying the law. There are many worse ways to earn your money!
Ancient Greek has an important descendant, New Testament Greek. In fact it is the same language, a few centuries later. It is generally simpler, so you can read some of the New Testament after two or three terms, as I have found when teaching adults. And soon they realise that no translation can on its own bring out the full sense – a word may have two different meanings and the translators have to choose one, eg when Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead was he “angry”, or was he “deeply moved”? You get an extra dimension to reading the Bible if you can look at the Greek original.
There is another, more distant descendant, Modern Greek. Pronunciation has changed, but there are lots of similarities as I discovered when I went to Greece for my gap year. I stayed with a Greek family, and got acquainted with the language, the food – oh, those cream pies! – , Greek temples and the lively and hospitable Greek people. In one of my letters to my mother I wrote on the last line of a page “I have fallen in love”. She told me later how she turned over the page in fear and trembling as she contemplated the implications of a Greek son-in-law for her 17 year old daughter. To her immense relief she found I had fallen in love “with Greece”. Decades later I love it still. When I answered “Yes” to the Headmistress’ question, it was definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.