Teacher Justin Kramer began his first-period class Monday at Xavier High School by reviewing some vocabulary with his six students.
“Humerus means shoulder, and genu is the knee,” he said. “You may know the word genu from ‘genuflect.’ ”
These terms would not be out of place in an anatomy class, but Kramer doesn’t teach anatomy. He is one of the few Latin teachers currently working with high school students in Iowa.
Often called a dead language because it has no native speakers anymore, Latin traditionally is taught at Catholic schools like Xavier because of the language’s historical importance to the Catholic Church.
In Iowa, though, Latin is rarely taught to high school students, public or private. Valley High School in West Des Moines, a public school, is the only other school in the state that teaches the language, said Glenn Storey, a classics professor at University of Iowa.
“A number of places in the country have pretty healthy Latin programs, but the upper Midwest is not one of them,” said Storey.
Kramer has taught Latin in Cedar Rapids Catholic schools for more than 40 years, starting with Regis High School in 1965. When Regis merged with La Salle High School to form Xavier in 1998, Kramer left teaching to become a guidance counselor.
He returned to the classroom again following a personal plea.
“My two granddaughters came to me and said, ‘We’ll come to Xavier if you teach us Latin,’ ” said Kramer. “Then a couple other students caught wind of it, and that’s how it got started.”
Keeping her grandfather’s tradition alive was important for sophomore Abi Kramer, 15.
“He taught my dad and so many other people, so why not keep it going?” she said.
The students begin each class by reviewing medical terminology influenced by Latin, after which Kramer teaches them a new facet of the language. He ends the period by showing parts of the classic movie “Ben-Hur,” which contains many details of ancient Roman culture, the last civilization to speak Latin.
The class is an elective, not a foreign language, in Xavier’s curriculum — an important detail for Kramer.
“When they take it as an elective, not a core class, it’s a gift that they’re giving themselves. That’s why it’s so fun teaching,” said Kramer.
Although a small group, Kramer’s students are confidant they made the right choice to study the ancient language.
Sophomore Kayla Anderson, 15, plans to enter a medical profession and believes Latin will help her understand medical terms.
“We’ve learned a lot of specific medical vocabulary. Cardio means heart, pulm and pulmus mean lungs,” Anderson said.
Senior Ryan McGraw, 18, is looking for more general terms.
“Vocabulary is not one of my strongest subjects,” McGraw said. “Taking Latin has significantly helped with my ACTs.”
His approach is well-documented. According to Storey, only students who take calculus score higher than Latin students on all three areas of the SAT college entrance exam.
Sophomore Henry Satterlee, 15, uses his Latin knowledge a bit differently. He works the language into poetry and prose he writes in his spare time.
“It sounds very mysterious and spooky,” Satterlee said.
The class currently runs for two years, and the current group is finishing up its second year. Interest among the student body is growing, though, and Kramer said the school is considering opening up the class to more students next year.
“I just really love teaching Latin,” he said.