A Berkeley High School Latin class's mosaic in process

By Karla Herndon

You might think words like “exacting,” “painstaking,” “laborious” wouldn’t have much appeal to high school seniors just a few weeks away from graduation. With their college plans in place and their exams behind them, wouldn’t they be just as happy sitting around watching movies, signing yearbooks or just contemplating their favorite spot on the wall?

This year’s fourth year Latin students at Berkeley High were especially spent, their teacher flattened. Now that the school has added the International Baccalaureate, all the while maintaining its Advanced Placement offerings, the Latin kids find themselves riding two bucking broncos instead of the customary one. The language is the same, but the reading lists just don’t overlap very much. To keep the thing from falling into factions requires exceptional hard work, patience, fortitude: drinking from a fire hydrant.

AP was over by mid-May, IB a week later. As these dates approached we began to think about what would be the very best way to spend the last four weeks of the past four years together. Every class is different and it’s usually best to tailor-make the last days, rather than grab something off the rack. I hadn’t had two minutes to think about this problem, when into my mailbox came a brief video produced by New York’s Metropolitan Museum, describing the process of finding, funding, lifting and conserving the magnificent Lod Mosaic on display at the the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

With it came the seed of a project. The students were enthusiastic and the plan to replicate a portion of the mosaic in paper began immediately. Shopping, calculating, sketching and cutting the tesserae took much more time than anticipated, so once gluing began, only 11 class periods remained. We could fit at most 10-12 around the table, 8 if they were all lacrosse players, so it was immediately apparent that the minutes would not add up.

Undaunted, the kids came through with overtime: before school, during lunch, after school. One evening I finally had to drive them out at 8 p.m., but by then several of the emblemata were done, the rest within reach of finishing; substantial portions of braid had at least been started; the final 3-D effect of outlining it in black was clearly evident on both ends. Enthusiasm was running high. Day by day, period by period, the huddle of heads around the table grew, until by Friday afternoon, the last week of classes, I was confident they would finish. I had to find a way to honor this extraordinary effort.

A student working on the mosaic

I dredged up a bit of my own ancient history and recalled a classmate of mine from college days who worked at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Once I finally found her she immediately put the ball into motion and within a few hours we had an invitation. The afternoon after our final class period together we assembled at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, paper replica in hand. How lovely to watch the faces of my students as they entered the gallery and gravitated to the far end of the mosaic, the section they had copied. They brought their 2011 paper replica right up, as close as they could get to the 300 A.D. original, a heady and potent image of contact across the centuries, but to me also strangely reminiscent of those underwater photos of whale calves sidling up to their mothers. It was a thing of beauty.

The Lod Mosaic will be on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor until July 24, 2011. Here is an article by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco about the class’s visit.

Karla Herndon has been teaching Latin at Berkeley High for 24 years. Berkeley High is one of the few public schools in the Bay Area that still offers Latin. (Others include Miramonte in Orinda and Lowell in San Francisco)

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