Ann Arborite Jason McKnight
Bringing Latin to life
In his blue hoodie and jean overalls, Jason McKnight blends right in with his twenty-nine Latin One students. But though his manner is as cheerful as his style is casual, McKnight is clearly in control of this early-morning class at Community High School.
"What do the words 'despair' and 'inspiration' and the state of South Carolina have in common?" he asks. Answering his own question, he leads the class through the Latin words spiro (I breathe) and spero (I hope) to the Palmetto State's motto--Dum Spiro Spero--"While I breathe, I hope." Despite detours along the way for comparisons with cognates in Spanish and French--and the early hour--the class is mostly quiet and wholly engaged.
McKnight jokes as he takes them through Latin verbs, and the kids laugh. He tells the Oedipus story, and they groan at the thought of marrying their moms. And he concludes by telling them that if they don't learn their Latin verbs at home, they'll be learning them in class for the rest of the semester.
"My job is to teach you Latin and I will do that," he says seriously. "I'd rather talk about fun things that make us more interesting people, but one way or another, I will teach you Latin."
Before McKnight took Latin, he didn't even expect to go to college.
"I grew up in Alpena, and I grew up poor," the thirty-eight-year-old teacher explains after school. A big man with a goatee and a nearly shaved head, he looks like a Muppet version of Simon "Shaun of the Dead" Pegg. "I was always interested in Latin--the myths and the heroes--but the first time I signed up, not enough other students did, so it didn't happen. I tried again senior year, and this time it did.
"I was a reader," continues McKnight. "But that was as far as I thought I'd go in school. After I graduated, I was looking forward to forty hours a week at the Big Boy as a line chef.
That was my big ambition.
"Then about a month into classes, the Latin teacher asked me where I was going to college, and I said I wasn't going to college. He said he thought I should try, and he helped me fill out the U-M application and wrote me a letter of recommendation."
The teacher was Michael Brinkman--who, coincidentally, moved to Ann Arbor himself in retirement. "He was a wonderful student," remembers Brinkman. "Of course, he had long hair, but he was a mannerly, respectful, and dedicated student. And he was hungry for knowledge. He took Latin and just fell in love with the language."
McKnight's mom and dad weren't regularly employed. "We had the basics," he remembers, "but we didn't have a lot of stuff like my friends." Though his dad, a Vietnam War veteran, wasn't involved much with his son before that, he made a point of dropping him off at college.
"In retrospect, I guess it was out of pride and not an overwhelming desire to rid himself of me," recalls McKnight in an email. "We drove down from Alpena and he unloaded my stuff onto the sidewalk in front of Couzens dorm in 1992. Then he surprised me by pulling out a camera and snapping a photo of the occasion.
"Neither parent spent any money on college for me. I cobbled together enough loans and scholarships to pay the big bills and then I worked 30-40 hours a week at restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and bakeries throughout my five years to pay for living expenses.
"Teaching seemed like a natural step after I decided to commit to Latin, so I applied to the School of Ed for my junior year." He graduated in 1997, and landed his first job in a little town called Ardmore, in Oklahoma. "Let's just say I didn't see eye to eye with the administration," McKnight says, "so I resigned and moved back here to be with the love of my life."
That would be Chelsi McKnight, whom he met at party in East Lansing when he was at Michigan and she was at Michigan State. After leaving Oklahoma, he joined her in Lansing, where he subbed for a year. Then, in 2002, he was hired at Community, "where I really wanted to be."
Since McKnight arrived, the number of CHS students taking Latin has risen by a third. With ninety-six students this year, he has almost one in five kids at Community learning the language--much to the delight of his own former teacher.
"I was absolutely astounded and delighted that he became a Latin teacher," says Brinkman. "He's a gift to his students."
With his wife teaching hearing-impaired students at Tappan Middle School and their two daughters Penelope and Anabel currently in pre-school and first grade at Thurston, the whole family is now in the Ann Arbor school district. "It's nice to have close colleagues teach our kids," McKnight says. "We take education seriously in our family."
His avocations include hunting and reading--"history, fantasy, fiction, whatever I can get my hands on. I'm currently reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series--and I'm not finished, so don't spoil it for me!" He aspires to be an author himself, and he emphasizes that knowing Latin has helped his own writing: "After I had my 'Latin breakthrough,' which occurred in Latin 231, I finally understood how to write," he emails. "I always tell my students that Latin is the reason I get As on papers."
The "dead language" seems very alive to McKnight. "Some of the greatest people in the history of mankind were Romans: Caesar, Cicero, and my favorite, Marcus Aurelius, a true philosopher king."
Nor is McKnight satisfied teaching just a fifth of his school's students. "I would love to see Latin required. I know it's a pipe dream, but Latin changed the course of my ship, and I'd like to see it afforded to as many people as possible."
[Originally published in December, 2012.]