By Hannah Reich Berman

In the high school I attended, it was mandatory to take Latin. And one year of it wasn’t enough. We had to take it for two years. Ugh! What good it ever did me, I have yet to discover; but there was no choice in the matter. It felt like a total waste of my time, and I hated that class. And based on my final grade at the end of each semester, it appeared that my teacher felt the same way about having me there.

To this day, the only words I remember from that class are amo, amas, amat. And you can imagine how often I have used any of them over the years. For me, studying Latin was useless. I also know a few other words, such as E pluribus unum, but I did not learn them in school. Those words, however, could be useful because, if I ever get bored and find myself without any reading material, I can always read some coins.

Also included in my Latin repertoire are the famous words uttered by Julius Caesar, veni, vidi, vici, but those too I did not learn in the classroom. Other Latin words that have stayed with me are semper fidelis, which might come in handy if I ever decide to join the Marine Corps. And along with the rest of the world, I know the Latin phrase et cetera. The bottom line is that after studying Latin for two full years, I have in my memory bank a grand total of (drumroll here) thirteen words, and only three of them were learned in school!

But all was not lost on me in school, at least not in the language department. Students were allowed to take a second language, as an elective. I chose French. I got slightly more use out of French than I did out of Latin–but not much. Somewhere during my high-school career (and to me those years felt so long that I thought of it as a career) I also took German. For my purposes, that choice proved to be somewhat more valuable. Since there are many similarities between German and Yiddish, it gave me a sense of familiarity and comfort. But, more importantly, it enabled me to understand what my European-born parents were saying to one another–particularly when they didn’t want me to understand!

Due to my choice of taking French and German, I never got the opportunity to learn Spanish. Over the years I have often felt that I missed the boat, since so many people in my life speak Spanish. Lucy, the gal who comes to clean my house each week, is from somewhere in Central America. So you know she isn’t speaking French. The friendly cashiers at my favorite supermarket also hail from south of the border and are usually chatting with one another, or with whoever is bagging the groceries, and I have never heard them speak in Latin. For that matter, they don’t speak in German or Yiddish either. Spanish it is. Not only am I curious to know what they are saying, but it would be nice to join in now and then, or at least be able to give them a friendly greeting in Spanish. After all, they took the time and trouble to learn my language, so why shouldn’t I do the same for them?

Not long ago, I was delighted to discover that Spanish classes were being given at our local JCC. Unfortunately, the classes were for intermediate and advanced students so, needless to say, I did not qualify. I asked the director of programming to let me know if and when there was a class for beginners. And I didn’t have long to wait. A month later, she called to let me know that indeed there would be a beginners’ class starting shortly. Thrilled, I jumped at the chance and immediately signed up. When I casually mentioned this to my friend Gaye, she said that she too was interested. That surprised me, because I was beginning to think I was the only non-Spanish-speaking person left on the planet. Gaye signed up too and off we went.

Once a week, we sit ourselves down in the room provided for us and attempt to learn the language. The teacher is lovely and she does an amazing job. Gaye is, without question, the best student in the class. My status is somewhat lower. I am the third-best student in the group–which consists of three students!

It now occurs to me that, in addition to advanced, intermediate, and beginners’ classes, there should be a fourth classification entitled “Spanish for people over the age of seventy.” At this stage of life, my memory, or what is left of it, prevents me from retaining anything for longer than a day. I should have known that would be a problem for me, because the same thing happens when I read a novel. It is imperative that I read a book in one day, because if I pick it up 24 hours later I don’t remember who the characters are, so I have to start thumbing through earlier pages. Needless to say, I am having a bit of difficulty with my Spanish adventure. “But I have an advantage,” I said to myself. “I can practice with Lucy when she comes to clean. After all, I used to help her when she was first learning English.” It seemed like a reasonable expectation. It was not.

Sadly, not everyone has the patience for teaching. Some people just don’t want to be bothered. As Lucy and I have gotten along well for nearly a quarter century, I assumed that she would want to help me; I even thought she would be happy that I wanted to learn her language and possibly converse with her in her native tongue. I was wrong. Apparently she isn’t all that thrilled, because after ten minutes of making what I thought was a somewhat a feeble effort to assist me, she said, “Missy Berman, if you want to learn Spanish, why don’t you watch Dora the Explorer? She can teach you.” For those unfamiliar with Dora, she is a character on a children’s program who, along with her friend Diego, sings songs in Spanish. I got the message. Lucy prefers to stick to housecleaning and is not interested in becoming my tutor. It looks like I’ll be getting to know Dora.

That’s the way it is! v

Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and is a licensed real-estate broker associated with Marjorie Hausman Realty. She can be reached at or 516-902-3733.

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