Ann's dative with destiny

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Adi Bloom reports on an MP's classroom debut

"C'mon. Let's get this right. The ablative translates as by, with or from.

The dative translates asI what?" A redoubtable schoolmarm, with red jacket and a shock of blonde hair, writes on the board and then turns to the class. "Now. Does anyone know how to construct the future tense of a dependent verb?" There is a stunned silence. This is not the lesson the pupils are used to.

But their teacher is not one to be put off by a few reticent schoolboys.

The distinctive figure being addressed as "Miss Widdecombe" has, in her time, taken on Conservative leader Michael Howard and the ex-marine taskmaster of Celebrity Fit Club. When, last year, Ann Widdecombe was quoted in The TES professing an interest in teaching Latin, it was an opportunity that Julian Morgan, head of classics at Derby grammar school, an all-boys' independent, could not resist.

He invited Miss Widdecombe, who completed a degree in Latin 30 years ago, to teach a one-off lesson to his Year 10 students. She immediately accepted and, this week, stood in front of 11 pupils for the first time. "I wouldn't say I was nervous," she said, striding proprietorially into the classroom.

"If I hadn't been a politician, I'd have been a Latin teacher. My challenge is to bring on young minds, to get them to think, to give them something to think about."

Miss Widdecombe's lesson was meticulously planned, focusing on the phrase "non omnis moriar"("I shall not altogether die", she translated. "I will live on. Do you think Tony Blair looks in the mirror each morning and says that?", and the Ode by Horace from which it was derived. With the assistance of a copious crib, she and the pupils tackled Horace's complex grammatical phrases, before turning their attention to his equally complex ideas: "I'd like you to think about durability of form and durability of content. What do you think might live on from the present day?"

A muted shuffling of 15-year-old feet. Similar silences accompanied subsequent questions about Virgil. And joking comparisons between Miss Widdecombe's own oratorical skills and those of Cicero met with a bemused hush. "She assumed we'd read all the great works," said Matt Betts. "I'd not even heard of that CaesarI someone.

"Still, I thought she would be yelling, as though she was standing at the dispatch box. But there was no cane, no slipper. She was all right, actually."

"You expect politicians just to talk at you," said his classmate, Phil Eacott. "But she wasn't interested in giving a speech. She tried to understand individuals."

Mr Morgan, too, was pleasantly surprised. Brushing over the awkward classroom silences, he said: "One shouldn't pretend she's a qualified teacher. But she's got the enthusiasm and the knowledge, and she's got a razor-sharp mind. We'd employ her."

But, though pleased by this approval, for Miss Widdecombe the true rewards of the experiment lay elsewhere. "In my day, vocab had to be in our head.

So I was struck by the boys' reliance on the crib. But they knew what parsing was. Hallelujah, they knew what parsing was."

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