Latin Praised Even by Those Who Try to Master It : Education: University High School's Junior Classical League, with 208 members, is the second largest in the nation.

"Bark like a dog! Roll over and beg!"

On command, a group of teen-agers fell to their knees in imitation of Cerberus, the three-headed canine that guarded the gate of Hades in Greek mythology.

These same teens also crawled through a cardboard-constructed labyrinth (remember the Minotaur?) and were asked to roll trash cans up hills that had been greased with salad oil, mimicking the punishment set aside for Sisyphus.

Welcome to "Adventure to the Underworld," the annual initiation ceremonies for the Junior Classical League of University High School.

Last weekend, 55 Latin students participated in the 17th annual ceremonies in their quest for promotion from servus (slave) to libertus (freed person) status.

Traditionally the largest club on the University campus, this year's JCL boasts 208 members--mostly former and current Latin students--and is still growing. University's chapter, which was begun in 1973, is the second largest in the nation--only 20 members shy of Corpus Christi High School's in Texas.

In Orange County, 14 high schools have JCL clubs, and next to University's in size are Marina's with 133 members and Newport Harbor's with 78.

"Latin is one of the most helpful subjects a young person can take in high school," said Les Johnson, University's JCL co-adviser who has taught foreign languages since 1972. "It enhances so many other subject areas and reinforces critical thinking skills."

Added JCL co-adviser Josh Davis: "Latin also builds self-esteem and allows young students to succeed."

JCL is governed by an executive council that is composed of a pro consul (student adviser), two co-consuls (co-presidents), two quaestores (treasurers), two celebritas praeses (publicity chairpersons), two scribas (corresponding and recording secretaries), an editor (editor of club newsletter), agitas rector (activities director) and a historicus (historian).

"JCL is more than a club, it's an inspiration," said senior Jared Haddock, JCL co-consul. "It serves as a stage upon which the ideas and many talents of its members can be expressed for the benefit of all. At University, it is a very well-respected organization."

That respect grew statewide last March, when University played host to 1,300 students from 42 high schools at the 1990 California JCL convention.

The state convention featured general assemblies, a banquet and a dance, but the participants came primarily for the fun of competition. There were contests in Latin arts, athletics and academics, along with chariot races and a club scrapbook contest.

The ultimate prize was the sweepstakes award, which University had won five consecutive years. But that streak was broken before the convention even started because University, being the host school, removed itself from consideration for the award, which went to Palos Verdes High.

"The state convention was impressive," said University senior Christine Mar, a Latin IV student last year. "The hard work was definitely worth it because the purpose of having fun with Latin was fulfilled.

"The dance and banquet at the (UC Irvine) Bren Events Center brought all the students together."

The 1991 state convention will be held next spring at San Marino High.

The national JCL convention was held this past summer in Texas, and University's two delegates were among the 1,350 students from 35 states and Canada in attendance.

With all this activity on the local, state and national level, how can anyone consider Latin to be a "dead" language?

"It really bothers me when I hear people say Latin is a 'dead' language," said sophomore Huy Tran, a Latin II student at University. "How can a classical art, a mechanism that established the core of civilizations for the last 2,000 years, die?

"Latin is more than just a language, it binds us to the past and better prepares us for the future. JCL is more than just a club, it is a brotherhood that unites those who want to relive history."

Some of the other activities sponsored by University's JCL club include fund-raisers--candy sales, car washes, club T-shirts--and the annual Toga Dance. At the year-end banquet, scholarships are presented to those senior members who have made the greatest contributions, the National Latin Exam award recipients are presented, and the new executive council is announced.

And don't tell Johnson or his Latin students that their language is dying, for they have taken to performing resuscitation with an after-school Latin class at nearby Turtle Rock Elementary School.

"I think Latin class is very interesting, and I would like to take it in high school if Mr. Johnson is still there," said Gene Lee, an 11-year-old member of the class.

Said Johnson: "Schools that offer their students Latin are providing a real service. It is a language that assures further success in life."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World