Their chariot is new, made of bicycle tires and gilded two-by-fours. The forum is just a one-room temporary structure behind the gymnasium at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County. But at a time when high school Latin is languishing, Woodson's students are carrying on as if Rome never fell.
"Quomodo nunc, spadix bos?" the blackboard graffiti reads. Translation: "How now, brown cow?"
Latin, says sophomore Victor Barocas, "is a varsity sport here. We get letters. We don't wear them, but people still say, 'There goes a Latin jock.' " Fortius Conamur--we try harder--is the Woodson motto, but it might as well be agemur--we are driven.
There are 286 students studying Latin at Woodson. That's nearly as many as take French, and more than twice the number enrolled in German classes. Woodson's Latin scholars practice after school, during lunch, on summer vacations.
They won national Latin competitions two years in a row and racked up trophy after trophy in area and state competitions. Of 36 perfect papers this year in the National Latin Exams from students in the United States, Britain, Canada and Japan, 11 were from Woodson.
The driving force behind that success has been Maureen O'Donnell, 50, Woodson's answer to Rome. Equal parts drill sergeant, mother superior and cheerleader, with a Boston accent as broad as the side of a barn, O'Donnell alternately cajoles, badgers and charms her charges into submission.
"Some people say it's a dead language. Mrs. O'Donnell says it's mental gymnastics," says Cindy McKimens. "There's such a legend about her, you sign up for Latin just to see if she's really that good. And she is."
"There's no question that she's exceptional," says assistant principal Charles E. Billak. "She takes students who shouldn't even be trying a foreign language, let alone Latin, and they'll make a C. It does wonders for their self-esteem and self-confidence."
The Woodson students are part of what educators and classicists say is a slow but steady increase of high school students interested in Latin. There are 203 high schools in the Washington area teaching Latin, according to University of Maryland classics professor Gregory Staley, and each year enrollment inches upward. But affluent Fairfax County, and in particular W.T. Woodson, outshines all the rest.
Part of the reason, theorize Staley and others, is that Fairfax's career-conscious students see Latin as a way to improved vocabularies and scholastic test scores. Second, tradition-conscious Virginia has always placed a high value on classical studies. And too, Virginia, along with a few other states, has a highly developed, highly competitive network of Latin teams.
But the main reason, most agree, is O'Donnell, who began at Woodson four years ago with no classroom, 75 students, and a little cart that she wheeled down the cinderblock hallways from room to room. She is now happily ensconced in her own one-room schoolhouse, a red temporary building known at Woodson as "The Latin Hut."
It is filled with trophies, posters and students who drop by during lunch and after school to make up tests, get some extra help or join in the bridge game or poker game that's often under way. They swarm over the desks, chattering, planning for an upcoming Roman circus in Staunton, Va., or borrowing money from the Latin Club bank, a coffee-can hanging from a string by the blackboard.
"These aren't eggheads," O'Donnell says. "It isn't like the old days. Practically the whole swim team takes Latin. Our classes are jammed with all kinds of kids."
O'Donnell's day usually begins at 4 a.m., when she gets up to prepare lessons and to draw up the daily quizzes all of her students take. She is at school on the southern edge of Fairfax City by 7, begins teaching her first class at 7:30. O'Donnell, who shares Latin teaching duties with a part-time instructor, eats no breakfast, seldom eats lunch and seems to run on hot coffee, a cigarette or two and will power.
She stays after school until 5, five days a week, coaching the Latin team and giving extra help. On Saturdays, she travels with the team members to their competitions, Latin bowls. In the spring she sails with students who can afford the $1,000 price tag, to Bath, England, or Sicily.
Four of her six children died several years ago of cystic fibrosis; her two surviving daughters are in college, and her husband teaches high school history. Do they mind her frequent absence? "Sure they mind. One of these days they're going to kick me out and tell me to move to the Hut. But I couldn't change if I tried," she says. "This is me, for better or worse."
Seeing four of her children die young, she says, has had its effect on her teaching. "How couldn't there be? I think of them: how much they wanted to live, how much they squeezed into their lives. Life is so short. You can't be petty, you can't be jealous. You really have to have an open heart and an open mind."
"Salvate omnes, hello." O'Donnell is greeting her 25 Latin I students. It is 11 a.m., hot and humid outside, and the class is deep in the throes of spring lethargy.
"Don't you want to know how I am?" O'Donnell cries. "I asked you how you are!" She gets her greeting, and begins grammar drills, dividing the class in two, pitting them against each other. Correct answers earn a "Good for you!" an "Aren't you clever?" or "Isn't he marvelous?" The praise is constant, as are the challenges. The teacher's hands are in constant motion, pulling words out of the air, patting a student on the back, hugging a recent graduate back for a visit. She doles out what she calls "magic pencils," which are ordinary No. 2s, inscribed with inspirational phrases like Verbum sapienti sat est (a word to the wise is sufficient).
"What's the construction of suplicus on line 10?" she demands. "I forget," says the student. "No you didn't. You can do it. Come on! What case is it in, honey? Come on ladies," she tells the team, "Rise up! Surgite, feminae! You're going to hate yourselves!"
Students react to her exhorations with the mix of pleasure and embarrassment peculiar to their station. "The way she teaches, you remember," says sophomore Tony Dobranski. "When you have Mrs. O'Donnell screaming up and down the aisle, you remember. My mother kept telling me I wasn't going to like Latin, that it was going to be boring. She was wrong."
At the beginning of the next period, one of her best students, and a varsity swimmer as well, drags himself into the room and, pleading illness, asks to be excused. O'Donnell strides over, feels his forehead, tells him he's young, handsome and healthy and "You've got too many irons in the fire. That's your problem. If you still feel bad in a little while, I'll give you a note." He stays.
O'Donnell is perpetual motion. She acts first and asks questions later. Her exuberant style has on occasion ruffled the feathers of colleagues.
"Sure there's jealousy, but that's normal when you're a winner," says O'Donnell. "Some people think I'm crazy. They tell me that all the time. My philosophy keeps me going." Latin is important, she says, but if her students don't come out of her classes "more honorable, more considerate, more giving, more understanding, if they're not a better person for having been in this class, then I've failed.
"Kids are the best investment you can make in your whole life. It isn't like interest in the bank. It just keeps coming back. I don't mean to be syrupy, but I really love these kids."
The Latin Hut is small, there is no trophy case for a tableful of awards. And despite recent increases, the fact is that fewer than 1 percent of the nation's high school students bother to study Latin. That's down from 7 percent in 1960, and 50 percent at the turn of the century. O'Donnell is not fazed. After all, neque protinus uno est Condita Roma die.
Rome wasn't built in a day.