14 October 2008

Me and Fodder Rudi

Success in learning another language like Spanish can often depend upon how well one can maintain clarity of thought during particularly difficult situations. I learned my first important lesson in thinking on my feet during my freshman year of high school in Father Rudolph Mueller's Latin grammar class. Back in those days Latin was still a required subject, especially in Catholic prep schools for boys like the school that I attended. It was run by Catholic priests of the Vincentian Order and they were stern taskmasters indeed. Father Rudolph Mueller, our Latin teacher, whom we called "Fodder Rudi" amongst ourselves wasn't a mean man, oh no, not at all. It was just that he was such a big, strong, no nonsense kind of guy who had little room for levity in his busy schedule and who truly believed in corporal punishment. I am forever ready to testify in the courts of priestly justice that the good Father should never be accused of "sparing the rod" in the discharge of his teaching responsibilities. In Fodder Rudi's case, however, it wasn't the "rod" as such, it was his hand. It was a big hand. He did have a sense of humor but it was very dry, sarcastic, and brittle from not being used much. He was a very serious scholar. His favorite pastime, for example, was studying and memorizing obscure German verbs and he was a recognized expert in that language.

On the day that I was to learn my lesson we were assembled in Fodder Rudi's class to conjugate. Now conjugating, especially in this day and age, sounds like some real "earthy" activity but all that it really means is putting verb forms in their proper inflectional order as in "I love, you love, she loves" etc. In Latin, just as in Spanish, the pronouns are combined with the verb into one word and as the subject changes number and form, the verb changes accordingly. Thus the "I love, you love, he or she loves" of English becomes simply "amo, amas, amat" in Latin (or amo, amas, ama" in Spanish). The majority of Latin verbs are regular and to a certain extent they take the same pronoun endings over and over again. However, just as in Spanish, there are also some irregular verbs that change randomly (to trip you up) and it takes a lot of study and practice to be able to use the correct form.

That is what we were doing one memorable day in Latin class, conjugating our verbs. Fodder Rudi would call out a verb and whoever was seated next in the row had to stand up and conjugate it correctly. I emphasize "correctly" because in Fodder Rudi's life there was no room for "incorrectly". You either knew the material or you didn't and if you didn't you were condemned automatically to a purgatory of after school activity that was appropriately nicknamed "The Jug". One after another my classmates took turns standing up before Fodder Rudi to conjugate a verb. Over and over again we conjugated in earnest, " amo, amas, amat; I love, you love, he or she loves". In fact, it was making us all rather drowsy. The sun was shining and the windows were open and we could see the leaves on the trees changing colors.

The session dragged on an on. The clock stood still or so it seemed to us...amo, amas, amat. Finally it was my turn and I began to perk up in preparation. It was no time to be caught napping. Fodder Rudi had been slowly pacing the aisles and browsing through a book of German verbs while he idly tossed out Latin verbs to us. He was quite an amazing fellow. Suddenly he stopped directly in front of me and called out the word "scire", which is the infinitive form of the verb, "to know". As I slowly stood up to take my turn a sense of real panic began to overtake me but not because I didn't know the verb. Oh, no! The problem was that I did know the verb. I knew it all too well and so did my classmates and they were all ready to see me roast. In regular usage the Latin word scire is a perfectly respectable word but when you isolate it and conjugate it in front of an English speaking audience like my goofy buddies the situation can really get out of hand. My fellow students were well aware of the problem and were planning to have a good time at my expense.

The first person singular form of the verb scire is "scio", or "I know", and it is no problem at all. The second person singular of the verb is "scis" or, "you know", and again it is no problem. The third person singular form which corresponds to the English pronouns "he, she, or it" is the real problem. The Latin form is "scit" and is pronounced almost the same as a common vulgar four letter word in English. It is the "S" word, so to speak. The task that I faced had to be pulled off with military precision and a clear and steady voice in order to escape the blow from Fodder Rudi's large hand and a late afternoon session in "The Jug". My audience was grateful not only because they were about to witness a good show but also because it was me and not them. They were interested in seeing if I would suffer which is only fair, I guess, since I would have been thinking the same way if one of them had been called instead. My seat was near the back of the room and as I stood I could see the neck muscles of those in front of me quiver from the pressure of repressed laughter. The few that could not possibly control their visage sufficiently to escape Fodder Rudi's gaze had twisted around in their seats to look the other way and I could see in their contorted torsos the mighty struggle they were having to keep from bursting forth in riotous glee.

It was very tense. I could feel my body bunch up as if I were a cat about to leap. My breath came fast and shallow and my mouth was paper dry. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and I knew by the hot flush at the back of my neck that my face was slowly turning beet red. I took a deep breath and as slowly and as solemnly as I could I intoned the first word. "Scio", I said in a loud, clear, and steady voice. The clock stood still. A fly idly buzzed by the nearby window. My classmates were frozen in the dead silence of anticipation. I had completed the first of three parts successfully. "Don't give up now", I told myself, "press on". I gathered my courage for the second word. "Scis", I said without much hesitation. The first two words had taken only a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity to me.

I was now standing in front of a large and serious Catholic priest who had slowly moved as close as he could to where I stood. I was staring into the clear, steel grey eyes of Fodder Rudi. This was it, my first true test of concentration and control. I opened my mouth and with an air of confident authority I crisply pronounced the third and final word. "Scit" (SHIT), I said, and followed quickly with the plural forms. Nothing happened and no one moved a muscle for several seconds. There we were eyeball to eyeball as the seconds ticked. The world was absolutely still until Fodder Rudi finally spoke. "Correct", he said, "sit down...next!". I don't know much about what happened after that. Just short of fainting from relief I sank back into my chair in triumph. In the last few seconds I had risen from a mediocre plebe to the rank of a class legend and I was an instant hero in my little universe. I must say that it felt good. I had actually done it. I had faced down Father Rudolph Mueller on his own turf and emerged unscathed to gloat about it. It could have easily gone the other way and I could have faltered and suffered the consequences but I didn't and I am glad. Too bad for you, Fodder Rudi, ha-ha, better luck next time, eh?

Now...there IS a moral to this story. If you want to learn to speak another language with confidence and clarity and feel sure of yourself in any situation you must buckle down and study. Soooo, what are you waiting for? Get busy!...or do you want me to call Fodder Rudi?


Steve Cotton said...

Bob -- I loved the story. My Latin teacher in high school was one of my favorite teachers. I yoo have a Latin tale. But I cannot relate it here -- simply because it is effective only as an oral story.

YayaOrchid said...

I don't know why, but as you relate your story, I can see it as big screen movie scene! It's so vivid too! And funny!

Unknown said...

Bob, I don't want to have a good laugh but, can you conjugate the verb "scire" in the third person for us again. I did not understand you very well. Repeat it please. I know you can do it claro y preciso.


Billie Mercer said...

I agree with yayaorchid that the story could be on the big screen, because it reminds me of the school scenes in the movie "Christmas Story."

Well written! Great Story!

Bob Mrotek said...

When you visit the Bajío region of Mexico and the "Cuna de Independencia" you will have to tell us your story.

Yaya and Billie,
Maybe I will expand it into a movie based upon my wayward youth. I will be sure to invite you both to the premiere and, of course, the Oscar party :)

Alfredo, I am not sure what you are asking me. Please send me an e-mail and help me understand the question better so that I can answer you properly.

GlorV1 said...

I want to go to your premiere also. I always knew your descriptions were "showtime." I agree with yaya and billie, you are good at your descriptions. Thx for sharing.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.