Ides of March

My freshman year in high school, I was functionally illiterate. However, my high school required that all freshmen take and pass second-year Latin. I have never understood how a group of intelligent, well-educated adults thought that somehow I would be able to learn to read and write Latin when I could not read or write English. If you have never been condemned to study second-year Latin you would not know that involves translating the works of Julius Caesar. I came, I saw, I failed and failed and failed...It was a train wreck. Halfway through the first semester, I had straight F’s and things were getting worse.

Since I could not understand what was going on in class, I usually daydreamed or fantasized about objects in the classroom. I went to an all boys’ school so there were no girls to fantasize about. My teacher loved Roman history, so there were all sorts of models of Roman warriors and weapons. One day I became fascinated with the small model of a catapult. I had an epiphany. I would build my teacher a life-size catapult. I stunk at Latin, but I was good at working with my hands. I convinced my best friend, who was also failing, that this was a good idea and together we approached the teacher. He was skeptical at first; I think he had forgotten that we were in his class. Fairly quickly he became excited. This was around the time education began to try to reinvent itself. This was a perfect project.

Next, I had to approach my parents. This was going to be much more difficult. My parents always strove to put distance between any kind of weapon or explosive and their son. Looking back this was very responsible. A catapult was a weapon and it was gigantic. To my surprise, my parents were enthusiastic about the project. At this point, I think they were willing to do about anything to get me more involved in school.

I convinced most of my friends, the kids in the back of the classroom, to help. The parents contributed materials for the catapult. In fact, one parent owned a metal shop and he volunteered to make wrought iron hardware for the catapult. This motley crew and my teacher, who was about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, met after school and on Saturdays. My friend and I had drawn up the plans with the help of another father, who was an engineer. It was exciting to be working on something that I was good at, but frightening because I had never built anything this large. Also, we were beginning to get some notoriety at school. Even some of the good students were coming by to help. It was a trip to be able to teach them something.

We used 6 x 6 rough-cut beams stained gray to make the frame of the catapult. It was hard work; but as a catapult began to take shape we couldn’t believe our eyes. It looked wicked cool. It was huge, about the size of a Volkswagen bug. The rough-cut logs and wrought iron hardware made it look ancient and deadly.

Other people at the school also seemed excited about our project, particularly our teacher. He decided that the whole school should have a festival on the Ides of March to celebrate and christen the catapult.

The Ides of March finally arrived. This was a bad day for Mr. Caesar but looked to be a good one for us. Students and some teachers dressed up in Roman garb, which consisted of white sheets. In retrospect, it looked a lot like a toga party in the movie Animal House. The ceremony began with a parade from the gymnasium in which we built the catapult to the football field. The Latin honors students were the Roman senators and got to lead the parade. My friend and I were the slaves who pulled the catapult. There was much celebration and pageantry as the parade progressed to its destination. Unbeknownst to the students, the principal had called all the national news networks about the event. To our surprise Huntley-Brinkley sent a team to videotape our event.

As we approached our destination, the 20-yard line, the Roman senators congratulated each other and shook hands. At the appointed time, my friend and I loaded a bowling ball into the catapult arm and ratcheted the arm back. Of course, the Star Latin student got to fire the catapult. But, I was happy because I was afraid the darn thing was going to explode. To my amazement, the bowling ball went 35 to 40 feet.

That night our catapult and many of our classmates were on the Huntley-Brinkley report. My friend and I did not make it onto television. However, we ended up being very pleased because we both received a C- for second-year Latin. This, in fact, was a miracle.

Be well and make a bit of noise,

Dr. Michael Ryan

Dr. Michael Ryan