Y FATHER USED TO TALK about the necessity of understanding a culture through its language and food. Like most things my parents taught me, the message was lost until much later, yet subconsciously had seeped into my being. Studies now show that one’s language has a direct relationship with the way in which one views the world; it helps frame our existence. It is clear to me that Cathedral understood this way before science confirmed it. The importance of language and food has been part of Cathedral’s fabric for years, and it has always been coupled with dynamic teachers who bring this concept alive in seemingly inexplicable ways.
IN 1982, Anna Quindlen discussed
Latin Week at The Cathedral School in a New York Times article, “About New York: On 110th Street, a Taste of Old Rome.” Created by Dean Jack Langton, Latin Week placed sixth and seventh graders in an experiential learning environment as a means to make Latin more interesting. Students spoke Latin and dressed in togas while enjoying Roman food and drink. There are not many students I have met who are excited to study Latin. The rote memorization it requires at times can be summed up by a Cathedral choir boy, interviewed by The New York Sun in the midst of World War II: “I sure hope that if we ever have an air raid, it comes in Latin class.” Mr. Langton saw an opportunity to change this. “When I was taught Latin, it was like a system of mathematics, with no reality behind the numbers,” he told The New York Times. “I had probably studied Latin three or four years before I knew that Julius Caesar had really existed, what he wore, how he lived. Those are the things that make a language come alive.” Quindlen accurately observed that “entering the world of the Romans [made] the language more interesting” for Cathedral students. Though Roman banquets are no longer part of the curriculum, Cathedral found an even better way
to make Latin both relevant and alive. His name is John Vitale. I had the honor of having Dr. Vitale as both my English and Latin teacher during his first year at Cathedral. His passion for words was infectious, to say the least, so much so that one of my classmates went on to study four other languages and become an ESL teacher, another a classics major, and one an opera singer. This is no coincidence. Dr. Vitale planted a seed early on in our educational careers.
TWENTY YEARS AGO, “Doc” (as I like to call him) became a staple of the Cathedral community, and he has ignited a passion for learning in his students ever since. Below are some of their own words: The summer before seventh grade, I was excited about many things— starting Latin was not one of them. Every person I spoke to would relate some horror story about memorizing verb conjugations or how it was a “dead language” that is pointless to learn. That is, every person I talked to outside of the Cathedral family. At Cathedral, Latin was an integral part of rounding out an education. There was a strong tradition of respect and reverence for it. Studying Latin was crucial to understanding the past and navigating our paths ahead of
Dr. Vitale teaches a seventh grade Latin class.
us. I discovered I loved singing in Latin when I became a Chorister, but that was mostly because I loved to sing. I was struggling with the idea of learning a language that no one speaks. It was not a language of a 12-year-old. But I trusted Cathedral. Adding to this unease was the fact that we had a brand-new Latin teacher, Dr. Vitale. I don’t think any of us could have expected the impact he and Latin would have. The moment we entered our first Latin class, we knew we were in for something different. Dr. Vitale realized he was starting from a tough position. He took one look at the classroom of skeptical 12and 13-year-olds and knew we weren’t expecting much. Instead of launching into a lecture on the importance of Latin to the foundation of a person’s education, however, he simply started doing what he did best. He taught. He spoke in a confident cadence. He must have done this thousands of times, but there was nothing tired about his presentation—nothing to indicate that this was some simple, rote exercise. We knew about principal parts and conjugation from Spanish and French. But there was
TH E M A G A Z I N E O F TH E CATH E D RA L SCH OO L O F S T. J OH N THE DI VI NE