The Oberlin Stories Project

On becoming a Latin major

Maggie Killman ’13

“I realized how passionate everyone around me was about the exact same things ... they all shared the exact same joy I felt from studying such an obscure but wonderful language and culture.”

Maggie with a friend.

I started studying Latin in middle school, because I loved words and wanted to be good at them. I continued studying it through high school, but back then, it was far from my passion. I was good at math and really loved it, so I was convinced that I would pursue that all through college. My high school Latin teacher, Ms. Sorrel, was tough (I later found out she graduated from Oberlin, too, go figure). At times I didn’t want to stick with it — but I made it through the APs and started to discover the actual literature of Latin, not just the language, and became a little more interested.

As an incoming student I was checking out the course catalog, I noticed a Latin class I thought sounded interesting: The Latin Novel: Petronius and Apuleius. I’d read a little Petronius in high school and thought it could be fun. The only problem was that it was a 300-level class, ambitious for an incoming first-year, but with six years of study and two APs under my belt, I thought it was worth a try. I spoke to the professor teaching it, and after hearing me out, he told me, “Go for it.” If it was too much I could always drop out and pick another class. It turns out that those three words, “go for it,” became the green light for my academic career at Oberlin.

The class was tough, no doubt about it. I was the only freshman there, everyone already seemed to know each other, and the first night’s homework was 60 lines of prose translation — more than I’d ever done in one sitting in my life — and it was daunting. But I love a challenge. So I sat down and did it, and it wasn’t too bad. As the class went on, I realized that I was not the only person nervous and unsteady, and that comforted me. I became more outspoken, contributed to the discussion, and even answered a few of the seniors’ grammar questions (thanks so much to Ms. Sorrel for scaring the knowledge into me!). Before too long, I realized that this had become my passion: analyzing minute details of complicated grammatical structures and extracting a literary meaning out of the carefully crafted Latin texts. As I took more classes in the classics department, I realized how passionate everyone around me was about the exact same things — not just the professors, who were amazing — but the students, too, all shared the exact same joy I felt from studying such an obscure but wonderful language and culture.

I gave in, declared my Latin major, and this summer I’ve been working on my honors proposal in preparation for what (I hope) will be an intensive and educational year-long project on Martial, a poet who is unheard of to 98 percent of the world’s population. By the end of the year, I’ll have written a 25 to 30 page paper entirely on the literary theory and critique of poetry in a language most people will never learn. Somehow, I have found my passion in examining every minute aspect of poetry, both romantic and invective, themes that Martial explores thoroughly through his writing. It’s a daunting endeavor, but I also know that I’m going to have the time of my life learning as much as I can about him.

I never thought I was going to be a Latin major, but this is what Oberlin does for you. It takes your preconceived notions of something, what a discipline entails, what a group of people is like, and it turns those notions completely around in a way that opens up your view of the world and presents you with opportunities you never imagined. There are hundreds of secret worlds around Oberlin campus, full of individuals with passions as obscure and incredible as Latin, and all you have to do is walk around and pay attention to find them. Everyone here is passionate about something, because we are unafraid to pursue whatever interests us and stimulates our brains, and that is what makes us Obies. This is one of the most important things the classics department has taught me: you can’t be afraid to try new things and find the passion you didn’t even know you had.