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  • Writer's pictureKirby Lee Davis

A lesson learned: “This is perfect Spanish, but it’s not Latin”

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

This photo actually has nothing to do with this blog, but until I find that old test with the prof's scribblings, it provides about as entertaining an image as anything else I could think of at this moment.

Writing my The Spawn of Fashan blogs reminded me of another humorous academic anniversary. This one, from 43 years ago, tells how I met one of Oklahoma’s most famous storytellers, which led me down a road of betrayal, defeat, and enlightenment.

It all started at a summer 1978 science fiction convention in Oklahoma City. This small weekend gathering boasted a surprise contest: a private meal with up-and-coming author C.J. Cherryh. That grabbed my attention, for as my blog followers know, I was deep into writing my own fantasy epic. Imagine what I could learn while breaking bread with the John W. Campbell “Best New Writer” Award winner for 1977!

Thus I sought more info, but the event planners proved reluctant to discuss the contest. A few persistent questions uncovered the truth: their convention’s low turnout spurred worries Cherryh would not go through with it. Disappointed, I explained my naive writing experiences and ambitions, and like magic, their fears evaporated. They saw me as the ideal choice – a clean-cut kid newly graduated from high school whose gung-ho attitude and sincerity would put Cherryh to ease. One issue remained: where I would take her (for I had to provide her meal). When I suggested lunch at Crystal's Pizza – a new Italian eatery with romantic décor, live music, a film room, and more – they awarded me the prize.

Our encounter worked out quite well. Cherryh was a delightful guest, smiling through all my silly questions and youthful exuberance, forgiving my ignorance over her first two books. Cherryh shared her experiences and techniques with enthusiasm. One nugget changed my life – her strategy for tackling editing headaches. It went like this: when she faces challenges with phrasing, repetitive wordplay, or even writer’s block, Cherryh said she translates her text to Latin, then back to English. That simple process would refresh her mind, clarify her concepts, expose unexpected meanings, and reveal potential options.

Having two years of Spanish classes under my belt, I could see the value in this. As an incoming University of Oklahoma freshman, pursuing Latin could help fulfill my two foreign language course requirements. I figured I could test out of Spanish, allowing me to jump into Cherryh’s ancient speech. After all, as a high school senior, I’d finished fourth in a statewide Spanish exam. But that had been a written quiz… OU tested my spoken tongue. Since I struggle to trill Rs, I failed, which slid me into a remedial course my first semester. As that class relied on written testing, I flew through it with flying colors, opening the door for introductory Latin.

My high school advisors had warned against starting a foreign language at the university level, for the fast pace could prove brutal. But I was young, confident, and fresh from waltzing through a 15-hour first semester with two honors courses… so I signed up for 18 hours that spring, including two more in the honors program. My Latin professor sweetened the pot, promising to drop one test score before figuring my final grade. That gave me high hopes of extending my 4.0 grade-point average.

Several life elements collided that winter. As those Fashan blogs suggest, my friends and I plunged deep into Dungeons and Dragons as I realized that game’s fiction potentials. We extended our late-night pizza and Space Invaders escapades, which stretched my bank account to its end. We also made a spring break journey to Columbia, Missouri. That presented me with a mental challenge, for we drove through the night to get back to school even though I faced a Latin test the next morning. But I made this choice, stayed awake all through the exam, and felt redeemed. I knew I’d aced it! Imagine my surprise when the “F” result came back. My prof scribbled a note atop my page: “This is perfect Spanish, but it’s not Latin.”

Looking over my test, I saw his point. In my weariness, I had answered each Latin question in Spanish!

Shaken but not stirred, I put this down as a lesson learned and moved on. Other road bumps emerged, demonstrating why so many students cautioned against an 18-hour course load. But I finished the semester in good order and headed home for another summer of hard work, waiting all the while for that envelope in the mail that would reveal my final grades. I expected four As and a B, for I’d stumbled in a zoology class whose prof enjoyed tricky word puzzles. Instead, I found three As and two Bs, including one in Latin.

This made no sense to me, for my Latin exam record included four+ As, two Bs, and that isolated F. I tried calling my prof a few times, with no success, so when fall enrollment rolled around, I confronted him in his office. He sheepishly said that when it came time to determine my final grade, he decided he had to factor in my failed exam. I reminded him of his promise to drop our lowest grade, and he acknowledged that, but he still felt bound to include that F. Yes, he understood why it had happened. Yes, he recognized that result was far outside my norm. He even admitted to being impressed with my Spanish, which I fell back on so effectively, if absentmindedly. But in the end run, this stubborn professor felt ethically bound to factor in that F.

I had no answer for that, so I thanked him for his time and let it go. Another lesson learned, which I put to immediate use: no more Latin.


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