The Lake Of Dead Languages
I have been told to make the Latin curriculum relevant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions, "Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella . . ." like novices counting their rosaries.
When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I don't trust them? If I don't look, will they think I am naive? When they put their upturned hands in mine--so light-boned and delicate--it is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.
In class I see only the tops of their hands--the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand--an intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh--their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into class. "Bona fortuna," I say. "Good luck on the test."
When I first came back to Heart Lake I was surprised at the new girls, but I soon realized that since my own time here the school has become a sort of last resort for a certain kind of girl. I have learned that even though the Heart Lake School for Girls still looks like a prestigious boarding school, it is not. It is really a place for girls who have already been kicked out of two or three of the really good schools. A place for girls whose parents have grown sick of drama, sick of blood on the bathroom floor, sick of the policeman at the door.
Athena (her real name is Ellen Craven, but I have come to think of the girls by the classical names they've chosen for class) is the last to finish washing. She has asked for extra credit, for more declensions and verb conjugations to learn, so she is up to her elbows in blue ink. She holds out her forearms for me to see and there is no way to avoid looking at the scar on her right arm that starts at the base of her palm and snakes up to the crook of her elbow. She sees me wince.
Athena shrugs. "It was a stupid thing to do," she says. "I was all messed up over this boy last year, you know?"
I try to remember caring that much for a boy--I almost see a face--but it's like trying to remember labor pains, you remember the symptoms of pain--the blurred vision, the way your mind moves in an ever-tightening circle around a nucleus so dense gravity itself seems to bend toward it--but not the pain itself.
"That's why my aunt sent me to an all girls school," Athena continues. "So I wouldn't get so caught up with boys again. Like my mother goes to this place upstate when she needs to dry out--you know, get away from booze and pills? So, I'm here drying out from boys."
I look up from her hands to her pale face--a paleness accentuated by her hair, which is dyed a blue-black that matches the circles under her eyes. I think I hear tears in her voice, but instead she is laughing. Before I can help myself I laugh, too. Then I turn away from her and yank paper towels from the dispenser so she can dry her arms.
I let the girls out early after the test. They whoop with delight and crowd the doorway. I am not insulted. This is part of the game we play. They like it when I'm strict. Up to a point. They like that the class is hard. They like me, I think. At first I flattered myself that it was because I understood them, but then one day I retrieved a note left on the floor.
Excerpted from The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman Copyright 2002 by Carol Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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