A half-dozen high school boys were making last-minute adjustments to the white bed sheets artfully draped around their bodies when another boy joined the group.
"Hey, where's your toga?" asked one of the toga-clad teen-agers.
The latecomer, wearing regular clothes and looking as conspicuous as a galley slave in Cleopatra's boudoir, smiled sheepishly.
"You mean you didn't bring one?" the other boy gasped. "You're gonna feel like a fool! Everyone's going to have one on."
Indeed, "When in Rome. . ."
--or, in this case, Newport Beach where Corona del Mar High School hosted the 30th California Junior Classical League (JCL) convention last weekend.
More than 700 Latin language students, teachers and chaperones, representing 25 schools throughout the state, converged upon the Corona del Mar campus for three days of academic contests, art and classic Olympic competitions and seminars on such topics as "Mythology From Vases."
But don't think the Latin convention was all labor (work) and no ludus (play).
A bazaar in the school's quad, which had been decorated to resemble a Roman square, featured booths offering palm reading, T-vestes (T-shirts) , Simulacra et Effigies (photographs) and printed missives on parchment paper bearing such sentiments as De Te Cogitans (Thinking of You) and Totam Noctem Saltemus (Let's Dance All Night), which many students delivered to potential dance partners for the dance that night.
A makeshift carcer (jail), sponsored by University High School in Irvine, also did a booming business. For 25 cents, a student could buy a ticket to have vigiles (policemen) arrest a friend. (Those who were arrested either paid a ticket to get out or remained incarcerated for 15 minutes).
As state JCL president Bill D'Angelo, a fourth-year Latin student at Corona del Mar High School, defined the goal of the convention: "Corona del Mar's point of view, is to have fun and in that promote Latin and Greek and their culture.
"This convention has almost a carnival-like atmosphere, and it's purposeful: We want people to come here and be motivated and excited about Rome. Rome was like a carnival-like atmosphere itself."
And togas were definitely the order of the day.
By 7:30 Saturday morning, the quad resembled a January white sale as the horde of toga-clad students made its way to the Commons for the first general assembly. (The Pledge of Allegiance, naturally, was recited in Latin.)
The togas ranged from the makeshift bed-sheet variety to custom-made, pastel-colored outfits adorned with sashes, capes and decorative stripes. There were togas with long, flowing sleeves, short sleeves and, for the immodest, no sleeves.
Footwear ran the gamut from authentic leather-strapped sandals to red tennis shoes. Headwear was optional: Some students wore ersatz laurel wreathes made of everything from cardboard to Boston fern fronds.
Standing out among the crowd were a smattering of vampish Cleopatras and breast-plated Roman soldiers--contestants for a costume contest later in the morning.
"The convention is one time to come out here and just throw away any inhibitions you may have, hide behind the toga and have a lot of fun," observed James Chang, a fourth-year Latin student from Hoover High School in Glendale. "The people who take Latin are a little different than the people who take Spanish or French--it's more of an outgoing crowd."
The large turnout--nearly 300 more than have ever attended a JCL convention--symbolizes the nationwide renaissance of Latin in the nation's schools in recent years, a response, in part, to the back-to-basics movement. Surveys show that students who have studied Latin average about 150 points higher on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
"I think one main reason for taking Latin is that it helps you in English," said convention chairman Kristan Bentley, a second-year Corona del Mar High School Latin student. "I learn more about English in my Latin class than in my English class. You learn vocabulary much better by learning the roots of the words."
"Latin is a different type of discipline," observed D'Angelo, who plans to major in Latin and Greek in college. "It's difficult, but it gives you a feeling of triumph when you translate 100 lines of Virgil in a night."
The budding Latin scholars were given an opportunity to show off their command of the language throughout the day, particularly during the certamen (struggle) contests which resembled the old "College Bowl" show on television.
Enthusiastic cheers from each school's rooting section greeted a team's winning answers to such questions as, "What movie would you be seeing if you went to 'Umbrarum Fractores? ' " ("Ghostbusters"); "What form of literature did the Romans call their own?" (Satire), and "Distinguish these verb forms: docet and ducet" (He teaches; He will lead).
Schools Sweeps Contests