Jeffrey Dubuisson, 17, is rattling off the names of the rulers of the Roman Empire in chronological order as he munches on pizza (derived from the Latin verb pinsere, to pound) at Papa Gino’s in Cleary Square. He speaks with authority on the satirical writings of Juvenal and the epic poetry of Vergil. Boston’s public school system is doing something right.
Dubuisson, an incoming senior at Boston Latin Academy, is fresh from Las Vegas where he and three teammates won the national title in the advanced division of the classics competition hosted by the National Junior Classical League. There is no higher honor for players of Certamen, a form of intellectual combat requiring rapid recall of facts about the culture, peoples, and languages of ancient Rome and Greece. After years of falling short to Virginia, Florida, and other powerhouses, a Massachusetts team finally has taken its rightful place in the Pantheon of high school brainiacs.
Educators have jousted for decades over the value of Latin. During the 1970s and '80s, urban schools introduced the subject in the hope of building their students' vocabulary, grammar skills, and sense of academic accomplishment. Funding dried up as the momentum shifted in favor of the skeptics. With just so many hours in the day, they argue, why waste time learning a dead language?
The National Junior Classical League, which brings ancient cultures alive for middle- and high-school students, wants everyone to relax. The theme of this summer's national convention was the gentle admonition from the poet Horace: "Cease to inquire what the future has in store, and take as a gift whatever the day brings forth."
Dubuisson, who lives in Hyde Park, can trace his interest in the classics back to a day in eighth grade at Boston Latin Academy when he was fretting about his D-plus average in Latin. Legendary Latin teacher Janet Fillion urged him to attend Certamen practice as a way to earn extra credit.
"I went to save my grades and ended up loving it,'' said Dubuisson, whose friends refer to him in the third person as "the Latin dude.''
The championship team is made up of immigrants or children of immigrants from Haiti, China, Albania, and India. Dubuisson is the go-to player for literature, history, and derivatives. Christopher Liao, an incoming junior at Boston Latin School, specializes in translation. Joana Jankulla, an incoming senior at Latin Academy, excels in Latin grammar and mythology. And Meghana Vagwala, an incoming senior at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, specializes in mythology, quotations, and figures of speech.
"I relate to the culture,'' said Dubuisson, citing the technological innovations and evolving family mores of the Romans.
The team got off to a slow start at the Las Vegas competition, earning only the 8th seed in the semifinals. But they erupted in the finals, besting California and longtime nemesis Florida. Team coach Sheri Hausey, who has taught Latin in Boston schools for 27 years, called it a "decisive'' victory. She credits the relentless attention of co-coach Michael Howard, her former student at Latin Academy.
Howard, 21, entered Boston University to study engineering. But by sophomore year, the Mattapan resident could no longer resist the draw of BU's classics department. Howard now says his dream job is to teach Latin in the Boston schools.
In Massachusetts, only 42 schools host chapters of the National Junior Classical League. In Boston, only two of the city's schools — Latin Academy and Boston Latin — offer Latin. Introducing the subject at the city's middle schools — even for an hour or two a week — could provide students with needed structure and stimulation. Boston's mayoral candidates are talking about the qualities they want to see in the next school superintendent. An educator who appreciates the importance of the classics belongs on that list.
Meanwhile, Bostonians shouldn't be too surprised if a former Certamen standout shows up on their doorsteps with some literature — campaign literature. Michelle Wu, an at-large candidate for Boston City Council, led her high school team from Illinois to the National Junior Classical League convention in 2003. She emerged with the national presidency of the student organization and an enduring taste for politics.
It will be nice to see where Dubuisson and the rest of the 2013 national championship team pop up in a few years. As they say in Latin: Ad astra per aspera. Through hardship to the stars.