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74 MARCH 2005
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tales from the field

The Latin Lesson

Danny knocked on the door, clearly in a tizz. It was ten to eight and he was supposed to be at school by eight. Danny was fourteen. Patrick, Child and Youth Care worker to the core, jumped up, expecting there to be something of a crisis. A knock on his door at this time of the day meant that something was out of kilter.

Breathlessly, Danny implored: “Patrick, can I please have a pair of gym shorts?”

"You have a pair,” replied Patrick.

"Yes, but they’re not clean, and we get into all kinds of trouble if they’re not clean.”

"I know that well, Danny. I especially came round to your room yesterday afternoon to remind you that you have gym today and that you should wash your shorts.”

This was conclusive evidence. I rest my case for the Crown, m'Lud. Danny was crushed.

"Yes, but you know that I'll get into trouble; won’t you just give a spare pair from the linen room?”

"No, Danny. We've been through this. You know what we decided.”

“But, Jeez, Patrick! You ...”

"No.”

Sometimes you just have to do that. You realise also, knowing Danny, that his timing was superb. At ten to eight in the morning the care worker is most conscious of the time, and likely to be preoccupied by the necessity for the kids to be on time. If they’re late, this reflects badly on the care worker as much as the kid. But Patrick is one step ahead, he has warned Danny, and justice has been done.

* * *

That night Patrick is doing the homework duty in the dining room. There are a number of high school kids in his group, and he’s been kept pretty busy, shifting between English Lit, History, Math and Physics with aplomb.

Danny comes up to him. “Patrick, you’re good at Latin, aren’t you?”

Patrick basks in this recognition. He’s the only Child and Youth Care worker on the whole staff who knows Latin.

"Yes,” he replies, with obvious satisfaction. “Why?”

“Well,” replies Danny. “I got this assignment at school, and it’s harder than I thought. We have to write an essay about life in our town – in Latin! I know a lot of the words, but I’m hopeless about putting everything together in sentences.”

“Show me what you've done,” asks Patrick. “Not much here ...” he observes, as he reads the fragmentary lists of words assembled for the task.

"I know,” says Danny. “That’s why I’m asking for your help.”

Patrick begins to sort through Danny’s words (all of which he has pulled straight from a dictionary).

"Quite good,” he murmers. “Some good ideas here to build an essay with ...” He mumbles on, makes notes, rewrites them, talking as much to himself as to Danny, who watches with rapt admiration.

“Thanks for helping me,” says Danny, pushing his luck rather. But Patrick is having his own private moment of glory as, drawn by the obvious drama, two or three of the other kids watch his skillful orchestration of the incomprehensible words.

“Well, says Patrick at last.” There’s an idea for you. I must read it through to you and translate so that you know what it all means ...”

Danny is happy to listen to the schoolboy Latin which Patrick has rather cleverly composed, subconsciously realising that it had to sound like the work of a fourteen-year-old. It is entitled Nos Oppidani, We the Townspeople. Very cool.

* * *

Next afternoon Danny comes home from school and Patrick is quick to ask him how the essay had been received.

“Oh, it worked,” replies Danny.

“What do you mean worked?” demands Patrick.

“Well, I mean that Mr Griffiths thought it was OK and he accepted it ... You see, Patrick – the essay was my punishment for not having a clean pair of gym shorts yesterday!”

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