It is literally true that Oberlin taught me the meaning of life. During my first spring at Oberlin, I grieved the loss of my closest friend; during my second, I experienced the death of one of my parents. Over the course of the third autumn of my Oberlin career, I applied to study Latin in Rome that spring at the suggestion of my very enthusiastic professors. Without exception, they told me that I would be changed by Rome, the greatest city in the world, and that I was ready to see what I had spent so much time studying. I privately hoped only to relax and concentrate on studying.
As a very shy 11-year-old, I chose to study Latin in middle school, based solely on the fact that it was the only language I could study without the necessity of conversing in it. Latin remained an afterthought for me right up until the fall semester of my third year at Oberlin. Although I had studied Latin avidly throughout high school and was a Latin major in college, it was something I did only after I finished writing for my next poetry workshop. Latin was a habit, something I kept up because I liked the classics professors and preferred reading literature in its original language when possible. I thought of myself as a poet with a translating problem.
But when I arrived Rome, I found myself living an all-classics, all-the-time lifestyle. During daily field trips into the Forum and the other ruins of Roma aeterna‘s awe-inspiring public buildings, which had been designed to have meaning independently of words and time and culture, I found myself again staring directly into the eyes of death. Destruction was all around me. The culture I had never been able to admit to loving but had so, so loved (for its rigid moral grounding, for the beauty and flexibility of its language and so of its thought, for its absolutely indomitable spirit) was not just dead—it had been torn down, reappropriated, buried over, and forgotten.
For the first time, I understood the meaning of the brevity with which I had twice been faced at Oberlin, and for the first time I understood the brevity of which I had twice failed to make sense. I was alone in a sea of Serious Classicists, none of whom saw what I saw in the rotting remains of the Coliseum. My heart broke with each new spoliated column, but outside of Oberlin, I couldn’t turn to my support system of writers, teachers, and friends. What was the point of trying to communicate with someone else, especially in broken Italian, when the words I wanted to use were in Latin? What was the point of education, knowing that it is true that nothing lasts, least of all our minds and memories?
By the time I returned to Ohio that summer to begin work as a research assistant to archeologist and Greek professor extraordinaire Drew Wilburn, I was a wreck, aimless and angry. But when we met to discuss his book and the work he needed me to get done, Drew spent the hour talking to me about Rome instead. He told me he’d never thought of ruins as evidence of destruction, but that my perspective wasn’t invaluable simply because it was different from the perspectives of most classicists. It only freed me to follow my love of Latin literature and Roman society down a nontraditional path, whether it be the path of an archeologist or a poet-translator or a middle school teacher. Either way, Drew told me, I was more prepared to solve the myriad problems I’d experienced in Rome, both for myself and for those who would come after me, simply because I’d witnessed them.
Which, of course, I’d known all along. That’s the Oberlin philosophy: one person’s difference of understanding can change everything. My professors had suggested that I go to Rome so that I would be able make my own decision about the worth of a classical education and the possibility of communication in a constantly decaying world. They wanted me to find my own perspective, and so I have. I’ve found beauty and strength in recognizing temporality, which has brought me to understand translation across language and temporal boundaries as a positive and connective process. I’ve found that one thing is sure: the classical world is not in the past; rather, it’s my future.