October 5 was World Teachers Day, so I compose this belated tribute to someone to whom I owe a lot. I’ve been wanting to look him up lately, as I’ve recently picked up a thread that started with him, and now I find that I am too late. By six months.
The thread has to do with my entire conception of culture. I’ve been obsessing a lot about the Old World lately, the New World having revealed itself to be a festering cesspool with little apparent hope of near-term salvation. I’ve always been fascinated by prehistory and the ancient world and the path that leads all the way up to us. I began both of my books, which are about modern forms of show business, several millennia in the past. My head is in that space a lot. I realized not long ago (and this is literally true) that at bottom, I’ve always considered the capital of the world to be Rome. STILL Rome. Not New York, not whatever Asian or Arabian capital has the tallest skyscrapers or the largest cache of gold ingots buried in a vault. I feel like the energy of the world was pulled to Rome, gathered there for a time, then exploded, and the last 1500 years or so have fallout from the pieces of shrapnel flying away from the capital of the world. Those corners of the globe untouched by Rome in the classical era were later colonized by Rome’s former colonies. And I realized not long ago that the kernel of this feeling probably came from, or was certainly heavily reinforced by, this teacher.
Naturally, many of us have been thinking about Europe more than usual for another reason. It’s not just that some of us have irreconcilable differences with our fellow Americans; some of us feared for a time (and the thought has not yet dissipated) that we may well have to flee to some other country. During the Covid lockdown I discovered language learning apps and a few months ago I started to buckle down and get serious. It’s always been a passion of mine, but with the exception of one particular dead language, I’d never got very deeply into the other ones I dabbled in. Until recently this was my dossier: 4 years of Latin, and a year each of French, Italian, and ancient Greek. I also learned the Russian alphabet when I was a small child and know a few words in that language (my brother is fluent for reasons having to do with the Cold War), and used to thumb through a German textbook for amusement. And it’s impossible, if you pay attention, for an American not to know a little Spanish. And Yiddish, of course! Many months ago I got serious about French though and have been working really hard at it, and then, because the software is so accessible and enjoyable, quickly got sucked back into Latin, then Italian, German, and Spanish, and have been refreshing my memory on the Greek alphabet so that I can at least sound out words again. I tried Welsh for five minutes and said “No way in hell!” All of this of course, not just as an expatriate back-up plan, but also to be a better writer, and to better understand the cultural history (theatre, cinema, literature) that is the focus of my life’s work. (e.g., French influence here; Italian influence here).
And yeah, this guy was my high school Latin teacher. His name was Joe Wojciechowski, and I think I can safely declare him to have been my favorite prof during those years (though another was more conspicuously influential on my career path). I liked Mr. Wojciechowski and Latin so much I stuck with it for three years. I can’t think why I didn’t take it as a senior, except that I couldn’t fit it into my schedule, which I’m sure by then was calculated in part to get me closer to pretty girls, and there sure were none of those in the Latin courses! But I returned to it during my year at the University of Rhode Island, along with Greek, so it’s not remotely like I was done with it. Woj seemed disappointed when I dropped it, though.
Yes, we called him “Woj” and “Wojo”, like the character Max Gail played on Barney Miller, though that character’s full name was Wojciehowicz, not Wojciechowski. Our Woj was also a character, extremely funny, but also eccentric. By extremely funny, I don’t mean it like it’s usually meant, capable of cracking the occasional joke. Mr. Wojciechowski was BROADLY funny. He did a Steve Martin impression. I seem to remember him doing one armed push ups off his desk, and chewing on his tie. If a kid’s attention was drifting, he’d chuck a chalkboard eraser at his head. Like, he was wild-eyed and antic. He was also very fond of wordplay. I have always remembered his joke that “ubi sub ubi” translated as “where under where” (i.e., “wear underwear”). I have even quoted something he used to say all the time on this blog: “EYDILC: Everything you do in life counts”.
For beneath the hilarity you could sense a serious, philosophical person, and when it was time to get serious, he got serious. He had opinions about right and wrong, and articulated them. For such a performative guy, one sensed someone who was pretty conservative about certain things, and possessed of a reserve. There was a wall. You know how some teachers are your friends? I’m still friends with a couple of my old teachers. But Woj was not that. One sensed that he couldn’t be that. He was a teacher, there to instruct. That was his role.
It was rumored that he had been a Catholic seminarian (friends and family, please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong there). It’s not surprising that Latin and Rome would be his thing, and that would be a major takeaway from his teachings. I had been a religious kid, though an Episcopalian. The center of OUR world was Canterbury, haha! But Rhode Island happens to be the most Catholic state in the union. It is inescapable, except of course in public school. So it’s not like we were learning the Te Deum. (Although we did sing the old college classic “Gaudeamus Igitur” — I still know the words by heart). Since Latin is not a living language, you spend a lot of time being exposed to quotations and writings of ancient authors, secular ones, and so this is where I first learned about (and from) Livy, Pliny, Ovid, Cato, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Juvenal, Martial, Seneca, etc. (Most assuredly NOT Petronius!) In my young adulthood, I spent a lot of time on my own studying Plautus and Terence, and most of my first full length plays were based on theirs. It’s also what drew me to modern classicists like Joe Orton and Charles Ludlam. I once used a monologue from Plautus as an audition piece! (The producer said “What the hell is that from?) So what I learned from Woj really oughtn’t to take a backseat to the great theatrical education which I got from my other favorite teacher.
Woj also taught living languages like French and Spanish, and plenty of kids in those classes loved him too. Most kids loved him for being funny. Those to whom languages came naturally all enjoyed learning from him. I do recall some kids whining about “not learning anything” from him, but those were the typical grumblings I heard in EVERY class from kids who struggled and apparently expected teachers to download information directly into their brains somehow whilst they occupied themselves watching Welcome Back Kotter.
I started in Woj’s class in 1979, eight years into his teaching career at my school, which lasted nearly four decades. Of his background prior to that, I know little, except that he came from Fall River. The broken nose, I think, was, like most broken noses, from playing hockey, but I might be wrong. Anyway I learned of his passing because I specifically wanted to look him up and tell him of his lasting influence upon someone who went out and did something rare in today’s world: put an old fashioned Latin education to good use. It feels especially appropriate to put my gratitude to him into words on a Sunday morning.
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