Kofi Ansong, Jordan "Bliss" Perry and Lyle Seeligson

Year of Graduation: 
2017
Classics scholars Kofi Ansong, Lyle Seeligson and Bliss Perry, class of 2017

"The classics are innately multidisciplinary, and studying them has exposed me to so much more than just Greece and Rome."

Embracing the classics as the teacher of life

Recent grads Kofi Ansong, Bliss Perry and Lyle Seeligson have been studying Latin since they were 6th-graders, but their passion for the classics deepened at Exeter through participation in experiential learning opportunities; membership in the National Junior Classical League and Exeter’s classics club, the Kirtland Society; and four full years of challenging coursework in the Classics Department.  

On June 4, the three friends, each crowned with a traditional laurel wreath, received their Classical Diplomas — an honor reserved for students who have completed advanced coursework through Greek 431 and Latin 611 or Latin 530.

Before graduation, they sat down to talk with us about the how the study of classics has enriched their time at Exeter. We’ve excerpted some of that conversation below.

 

The three of you are co-heads of Kirtland Society. How has your interest in classics grown through your involvement in the club?

Kofi Anson: I knew I liked classics, but I thought of myself as a math/science guy when I first got here. I joined Kirtland casually in my prep year, but it ended up being a phenomenal experience. The camaraderie I experienced with other members of the club instilled a love of the language for me, and I think it’s shaped my Exeter experience.

We host Friday night “Latin Conversation” dinners at Wetherell Dining Hall, where we practice speaking Latin, then go right into practicing for Certamen, a quiz bowl competition where teams of four players compete to answer questions about classical mythology and culture. It’s a two-hour chunk of time every week where people can relax and bond.

Lyle Seeligson: We all get to cook together, and sometimes we offer study sessions in the Library Commons. Kirtland Society also offers a lot of participation in the Junior Classical League. ... Mr. Unger is the chair of the New Hampshire JCL, so we host the forum here in Exeter every year. Through JCL and the state board, you get to know and work closely with other students from New Hampshire as you try to build up interest in the field.

As president of the National Junior Classical League, I’m helping to plan the convention this summer. We have 1,700 people coming, so the other six officers and I traveled to Alabama in the fall to do the bulk of the planning, and we met in Boston in March to iron out the details. It’s a daunting task, but we have so much support from the teachers. It’s been fun getting to know the other leaders and to have this kind of leadership opportunity with an organization that has 15,000 members.

Bliss Perry: We’ve crammed for those JCL competitions together, where we have met people from all over the country, all united in a very niche field. Nevertheless, we still retain many of our own Exeter traditions: at Roman Banquet, for example, we dress up in togas, cook Roman food and provide traditional Roman entertainment.

Our inner club dynamic has been described as somewhat cultish — we’re not afraid of running around in chariots with swords (and it’s always fun to see Mr. Unger dressed as a gladiator, swinging a sword)!  We’ve come to embrace a lot of that giddiness, for lack of better word; it’s become part of our identity, or mine at least.

"You’ve got writers who were living in two different times and places, but writing a history always requires you to learn about people. And then you make a decision — how do you capture the essence of the people?"
Kofi Ansong '17

Forgive my asking, but how do you learn to speak a language that is no longer spoken?

KA: [laughing] We’re not particularly good at it! The goal is not really to learn to speak Latin; we often end up speaking about Latin instead. But the whole aspect of practicing aloud reinforces the reading. It’s recreational, and part of the entertainment is speaking poorly to each other.

LS: The closest we come to really speaking is in higher level classes when we’re doing poem recitations. You have to do it in meter. Dr. Langford and Dr. Hartnett encourage us to pay attention to meaning and order of words, to let it flow. We take the logic of Latin and make it into something conversational.

BP:  Latin is quite grammatically precise compared to English, so the teachers like to spice it up for fun. There are classical, church, and modern variants, so we practice by playing around with word order and diction as we recite. Writing our own Latin helps a lot as well:  sometimes they have us craft our own poems. Once, for a final project, I wrote a poem in dactylic (six-footed epic Roman) meter.

 

Kofi and Bliss, can you tell me about the senior project, “Introduction to Old Norse,” that you’re working on with Classics Instructor Mr. Paul Langford this term?

BP: I’ve always been into all languages and linguistics; I like the rules and changes and I love the cultural insight they reveal about their speakers. I’m also interested in Scandinavia, among other reasons for its rich linguistic tradition closely tied to English, so I’m learning the Old Norse language and analyzing its shared prehistoric origins with Latin.

KA: I’m looking at the literature. I knew I’d like to get to know more about Viking literature, so I’m reading the Icelandic sagas, studying the language and literature, and comparing some of their authors to ancient Roman authors. It’s introduced me to a lot of general ideas about literature and the writing process. You’ve got writers who were living in two different times and places, but writing a history always requires you to learn about people. And then you make a decision — how do you capture the essence of the people? Our work has been forcing me to think more about literature itself.

BP: There’s a timelessness to a lot of ancient stories. Certain truths are expressed in the mythologies of many different cultures — ideas about justice, power, honor and shame — and they consistently appear throughout history. You learn much about the pattern of a story and of relationships in general through comparative methods like our project.

 

You mention timelessness. In what ways has studying these enduring works influenced your academic life?

KA: A lot of authors in the traditional Western canon were influenced by the classics, or they themselves were classics scholars, like Shakespeare. We know the context around his plays, and we’re familiar with Ovid, who was so influential to art. Knowing the context of these allusions is necessary for fully understanding the works.

LS: You do start to notice the same types of literary devices, so it’s definitely added another layer to my English analyses, and it’s been good for my writing in general. I had an English teacher ask if I was a Latin student. It was something about my syntax that tipped her off; she said she can always spot the classics students in her classes.

BP: For most disciplines, you can trace the influence of the classical world — whether it’s economics, math, military history, international relations or even comedy. The classics are innately multidisciplinary, and studying them has exposed me to so much more than just Greece and Rome.

LS: Being a student of the classics, you cultivate skills that help you in other disciplines. Everyone will tell you that it’s not easy to study, but I’m grateful to the department for not making it easy. It forces you to learn time management, and you begin to pay closer attention to details and think critically. You can take those skills and apply them to other subjects.

—Genny Beckman Moriarty