JACKSON, Miss. – Inner city schools are tough places. In Jackson, only 60 percent of kids make it out with a diploma, and far fewer leave ready for college work. But on occasion, a teacher can nurture a science scholar or even get a whole class to geek-out on grammar.
Micah Everson is a young teacher at Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss. It’s his job to share his love for Latin – yes, the so-called dead language – with inner city teens.
“We are going to look at the lyrics from this,” Everson says holding up a worksheet. “And we are going to parse each one of these in English first and then we are going to look at the principal parts and figure out how to translate it to Latin.”
Students are translating the hip-hop song “Coming Home” by Diddy and Dirty Money. They are asked to look at a phrase from the song and analyze what is going on grammatically so they can translate it into the correct Latin form.
LISTEN: Micah and his students work through translation of a rap into Latin
“It’s kind of difficult for us now,” says Marcandice Gant. ”But once you learn it and get down the concept, it’s easy. And, it’s kind of fun.”
This is Gant’s second year taking Latin with Everson. And, she says, his nerdiness is rubbing off on her.
“If you are in the car riding, you think of a Latin word, and you are going to say, ‘is that word in this song,” says Gant. “Let me listen and see.’ And you find the word and are like ‘man I’m such nerd in Latin.’ That’s not good. I mean it is good, but it’s kind of weird.”
Exactly how Everson makes Latin seem cool is tough to pinpoint. On the surface, it seems his students would have a tough time relating to him, much less joining in his quest to keep a dead language alive simply for intellectual pleasure (Everson says that’s the paramount reason to pursue Latin). The contrast is apparent immediately. These are inner city black kids, the majority of whom come from low-income homes, and as student Quinton Williams explains, Everson is a white guy from Montana who geeks out over Latin grammar.
“For instance, on his computer he has a picture of Darth Vader, and it’s only Mr. E. That’s how you describe him,” says Williams. “It’s normal. It’s alright.”
And Williams adds, Everson is confident in his nerdiness. He owns it. And to high school kids struggling towards self actualization, Everson’s strong posture gets their utmost respect, even if his pants may be a little too short.
In education speak, Everson’s nerdiness as an asset would span the categories of teacher temperament and content knowledge. But Everson avoids jargon. In fact, he says his teaching style flies in the face of most prescriptions of good teaching. When asked to describe what motivates the unmotivated to learn, Everson pushes against clichés.
“That’s the golden question,” says Everson. “You do everything that everyone has been trying to do for the past 10 or 20 years. And you change schedules, you have state tests, and you give them ridiculous rewards and you raise standards and change standards. And you dance around and around until you start to think that maybe something is working.”
Everson’s secret to success is older than, well, Ancient Rome, and is even said to give Jedi an edge in the imagined futuristic world of Star Wars. It’s simple, though. Model a love for learning for learning’s sake, pursue knowledge for the sheer satisfaction of finding it. And let pragmatism fall by the wayside. After all, Everson says, a practical approach to Latin would be to forget the dead language all together.