Today for students at the Roxbury Latin School, where I spent the last three years of high school, is Exelauno Day. Exelauno is a recurring Greek verb from Xenophon’s Anabasis meaning “to march forth.” And so, every March 4th, or a day close to it, is Exelauno Day. This morning, the students—about 280 boys, grades 7-12, all of whom get a basic grounding in Latin—assembled in the school’s hall in coats and ties. The head of the Classics department gave an introduction in Latin, and then the fun began.
Throughout the morning, the school sang a number of old songs in Latin (including an especially silly one whose chorus consisted mainly of repetitions of ” Optima optima fortis laeta “). But Exelauno Day centers on the declamations of classical texts in the original languages by students from nearly all the Latin and Greek classes (for videos of this year’s winners, click here ). I will never forget when a future football player at Williams sauntered up the stairs to the stage. He rolled the rug to one side, and at the feet of the headmaster, trustees, and teachers hopped up and down—each hop resounding through the floorboards of the hall—as an Aristophanic frog croaking out “Koax! Koax!”
It is a wonderful tradition, and it requires a particular school environment in order to succeed, one part being the single-sex atmosphere. Were there a flock of pretty young girls in the school, many students would be less willing to play frogs and dying tyrants before their peers.
I was thinking about this as I read the cover article in the New York Times Magazine on single-sex education in public schools. Despite prosecution by the ACLU and critiques from feminist organizations, single-sex education has been making a comeback as a last-ditch effort to save at-risk youth. Some schools operate under the ideas of Dr. Leonard Sax, who argues that boys and girls are biologically different, from the kind of colors they chose to their ability to smell. Other proponents of single-sex education differ on Sax’s biological essentialism, but both sides agree that boys and girls develop and learn differently, and that these differences must be taken into account in their education.
By nature I interact more easily with women than with men, but I very much enjoyed my own time at an all-boys school. Because high-school drama did not occupy the center of our lives, we would discuss current events, books, movies, and other elements of culture (high and low) instead of fixating on who was going out with whom. Boys were quite comfortable wrestling during the winter, while acting and debating in the Spring. Those who would have been excluded because they were too nerdy or not good enough with girls found friends they would not have otherwise had. Of course the school was not a paradise, but the advantages of single-sex education were clear to me then and remain so now. And so, this Exelauno Day I will remember the joys of my youth and echo the song we sang each year:
Triumphales, O soldales
fulget corda tollite!