Latin, often said to be a dead language, was not only alive but also kicking at a recent celebration of Latin in Prince George's public schools.
"Look at these Roman legs," joked slender 10th-grader Neal Cuevas, hiking up his toga made from a flower print bedsheet with a pink border and displaying a sneakered foot.
Cuevas and about 20 classmates from Frederick Douglass High School were the best-dressed students at a combination Roman spectacle, Latin competition and toga party held in the auditorium of the Southern Area Administrative office March 15--the Ides of March.
Latin study is making a comeback in Prince George's county schools, school administrators say. About 150 students representing five south county high schools attended the system's first Latin festival, brimming with the spirit that ruled the known world just prior to the birth of Christ.
More than 900 Prince George's students are studying Latin this year, compared with 583 as recently as three years ago, school officials said.
Nationwide, the number of students taking Latin peaked at about 900,000 in 1934, according to University of Maryland classics professor Greg Staley. But by 1976 only 1.1 percent of all secondary students, a total of about 151,000, were studying the language of Caesar, he said.
Latin study declined in the early 1970s as colleges reduced all language requirements for entrance, Staley said. But lately colleges, including the University of Maryland, have beefed up their foreign language entrance requirements. Staley said his Latin enrollment has tripled in the past three years.
"The national trend as far as Latin is concerned is that students have realized that it builds their vocabulary and improves their grammar," said Dora Kennedy, supervisor of foreign languages for the county schools. "I hope it won't be a passing fad."
Cuevas, Latin champ of the Douglass crew, said he would always prefer a language that has had nearly 2,000 years to settle down to a stable, if intricate, form.
"All those other romance languages, they're still changing. Latin enhances your vocabulary--it's the base of all other languages," said Cuevas, who hopes Latin will help him in law school some day.
The Douglass students, all decked out in simple yet elegant sheets, set a lusty tone for the otherwise classical festival. They whooped and hollered their classmates to victory in the Latin contest and happily paraded around the grounds of the Southern Area Office.
Kennedy grilled the teams in an "It's Academic"-style forum, exactly 2,027 years after Julius Caesar was stabbed in another forum.
"What rock group might be called the "Mortui Gratis"?
"The Grateful Dead," answered a young woman from Friendly High School.
"Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse into their city?" asked Kennedy, but no one knew that the Trojans thought the horse was an offering to the goddess Minerva.
Near the end of the contest between Friendly and Oxon Hill high schools Kennedy asked quickly, "What does SPQR stand for," spinning on her heel and flinging a warning finger at the stage, "IN LATIN!," she added.
"Senatus Populesque Romanus," ("the Senate and the Roman People") said Oxon Hill sophomore Troy Bell, cowering as if he expected a rap on the knuckles from the stern-faced Kennedy for a wrong answer.
"Very good," said Kennedy, impressed. "I thought I had you on that one," she added.
The Roman-type spectacle that followed the contest was more sedate than spectacular. Potomac High School students staged a skit that might have been born in a vaudville routine based loosely around the Oracle at Delphi. The Douglass students did a "Guess My Deity" pantomime featuring Bacchus (replete with a Gallo wine bottle), Pan, Narcissus, the Fates and Tantalus.sus, the Fates and Tantalus.