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Latin, Third-Graders, and a Centipede

By August 8, 2019May 8th, 2021English

     One day, when I was a literacy specialist at an elementary school, I had to drop something off for a third grader teacher.  When I got to the door, a substitute was trying to teach meters and centimeters to a below-level math group without even a meter stick. It was chaotic. I snuck in, put the items on the teacher’s desk, and then wondered what to do. (I can be a bit overbearing at times.)  It didn’t take long. I jumped in.

     Walking up to the teacher, I whispered, “Would you like me to share information about centimeters and meters?”

     “Have at it,” she said. I asked if she would pull up a photo on her laptop and she gladly went to sit at the teacher’s desk.

     I explained meter and centimeter and included centi-/centum in Latin, which means one hundred. “How many of you have gone to Centennial Park?”

       There was total silence.

     I continued, gesturing with my hands. “It’s the park downtown where the water comes up from the ground in fountains.”

        Everyone raised their hand enthusiastically. 

     Why do you think it’s called Centennial Park?  CENtennial. Centi/Centum. CENtennial.

     Total silence.

     I then said something that’s not heard much in schools.  “Guess.”

     One boy raised his hand. “What if I guess wrong?”

   I responded, “What IF you guess wrong?  Is the sky going to fall down?”

     He chuckled. “No.”  

     I probably said a few other silly things too. But another boy raised his hand.

     “Because the park is 100 meters by 100 meters?”

     I lifted up my hands and shrugged. “Could be.”

     Someone else asked, “Because one hundred people can fit there?”

     “Maybe,” I said.  And there were a few other answers. No one had the right answer and I really didn’t expect a third grader to know the definition of centennial, but I didn’t tell them that. 

     The point, I told the students, was that if there was a test and the answers were 100 people could fit at the park, 50 people could fit, or 25 people could fit, which would you choose?”  Of course they said one hundred based on knowing centi/centum or the inside of that word.

     I then moved on and showed them a photo of a Roman centurion and explained the time period when he lived.  “And how many men do you think were under his command?” I asked. (I love those leading questions.)

     All hands went up enthusiastically. “One hundred,” they yelled out.

    “You guys are brilliant,” I said.  

     Before I left the class I decided to tell them my “claim to fame.” When I was in 5th grade and living in Hawaii, I found a really big centipede. I asked if they knew what that was.  Then we figured out that centi means one hundred and –pede comes from pedis which means foot. So it’s a critter with maybe not exactly one hundred legs/feet but quite a few.

     I continued with the story: A friend helped me get the centipede into a jar (I was not going to touch it.) and I brought it to my science teacher. He put it in formaldehyde (gave an explanation) and it was brought to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and displayed as the largest centipede ever found in the Islands. Cool, huh?

     Later that morning when I was on lunch duty, I felt a poke, poke, poke on my thigh.  I turned and a third grade boy, having just got my attention stated, “You were in my class.”

     I smiled. “I was in your class.”

     Without hesitation he proceeded. “The information you gave us about centi-/centum is the most interesting thing I’ve ever learned in school.” He then turned and eased into the lunch line.

     And you wonder why I finally put together the book, Word Archeology: Digging Up Latin and Greek Roots!