The Passion of Latin Lovers
When Virginia's all-star team of young scholars competes in a national quiz bowl, a dead language is very much alive
IT'S A BEAUTIFUL AFTERNOON, BUT MICHAEL VELCHIK, A RISING SENIOR AT ST. ALBANS SCHOOL IN WASHINGTON, ISN'T OUTSIDE ENJOYING THE SUN. Instead, he's sitting in a basement classroom at the University of Tennessee with a buzzer in one hand, resting his cheek on his desk as he and four other high school students answer questions about Latin.
His coach, Laurie Covington, looks up from the huge book of questions that she's been reading to her Virginia state team, notices Velchik, and stops mid-sentence.
"Are you putting your head down on the desk because of the agony of listening to me read the passage in a bad Southern accent?" she asks. Covington, 57, is wearing a T-shirt that says, "When Good Latin Goes Bad." Head of the Latin department at the Flint Hill School in Oakton, she has a slight accent that gives away her South Carolina roots and a sarcastic sense of humor that students love.
"No," says Velchik dryly, looking up at her sideways. "I'm doing it for a variety of reasons. Carry on."
She does, asking the team a question about the word "res," which means "thing" or "matter." After someone answers, Covington points out that "res" is also why we write "re" at the top of memos or e-mails -- short for "in re," which roughly translates as "in the matter of." She says it as an aside, but this gets Velchik's head off the desk.
"Really?" he says, sitting upright in his seat. "I always thought it was from 'reply.' Oh, that is awesome. I feel so enlightened."
Velchik isn't kidding; he really is excited. And he's not alone. He and his teammates are at the annual summer convention of the National Junior Classical League, which has drawn more than 1,500 students, teachers and chaperons to Knoxville, Tenn., for a week full of Greek- and Roman-themed activities and contests. Velchik and his Virginia teammates are there to compete in a game called certamen, but that's far from the only thing going on. There are Olympika games and academic competitions; there are "Virgilicious" T-shirts and "What would Julius Caesar do?" buttons. There are state cheers in Latin, a Rent-a-Roman fundraising auction and a final procession and banquet for which each student has packed a toga.
IN LATIN, THE WORD "CERTAMEN" (pronounced "kur-TAH-min") means "fight" or "struggle." It's an accurate description for many students' relationship with the language, which is often reviled for its declensions, verb conjugations and irritating gendered nouns. But for Velchik and his teammates, certamen doesn't mean struggle. It means "competition," and it refers to a quiz-bowl-style contest, based on Roman literature, mythology, history and grammar, that is the Latin equivalent of the McDonald's All-American basketball games. This version of certamen requires speed, countless hours of preparation, and knowledge of grammatical intricacies and mythological details that most people have never heard of. There are local certamen matches through the year, and, in late spring, states hold tryouts for teams that will represent them at JCL's national championship. Certamen was invented in Virginia in 1971 by a Richmond teacher named Tony Ruffa; a year later, a Winchester teacher named Susan Schearer introduced the game at the national convention. She describes certamen like this: "To watch three advanced teams playing in the finals dumbfounds college professors who have been teaching for years. There are 12 kids onstage, each of whom knows more than anyone in [the professors'] department."
Virginia's upper-level team has six players -- a grammarian, a historian, a mythologist, an all-around player and two alternates. Its grammarian and captain is Erik Fredericksen, a tall, shaggy-haired rising senior at Flint Hill whose calm, easygoing demeanor belies the fact that he's one of the strongest certamen players in the country -- quick on the buzzer, with an astounding ability to translate, conjugate and decline on the spot.
In his life outside of certamen, Fredericksen isn't particularly competitive. He used to play soccer and lacrosse but stopped after his sophomore year when a thyroid problem weakened his bones to the point that he got a stress fracture in a femur. His bone density has since improved, but he hasn't gone back to sports. Instead, he's started doing theater and says he tries to balance "the Latin nerd thing" with having a "normal life."
"I can be intense and focused in certamen," he says, "but usually I'm pretty laid-back."
One of Fredericksen's good friends is Michael Velchik, the team's historian. Also tall, often ruddy-cheeked, Velchik is captain of the St. Albans math team, plays tennis and football, and competes in the local TV quiz game "It's Academic."