For generations of schoolchildren past, Latin was a dead language.
"First it killed the Romans and now it's killing me," went one schoolyard lament.
But a group of Agoura High School students who formed an experimental language class this year found that current events breathed new life into what they thought would be merely the study of an ancient tongue.
For example, the week that the Agoura High School class was busily translating a Latin account of an invasion of North Africa in 279 BC by Pyrrhus, the Greek king of Epirus, the United States attacked Libya.
The Greek attack is remembered by the term "Pyrrhic victory," which means a costly victory not worth having.
Pyrrhus' defense of his action had a familiar ring to it to the 27 Agoura High students who were studying the ancient attack in their textbook.
'Sounded Like Reagan'
"It sounded just like Ronald Reagan speaking," said teacher Robb Quint, who organized the Latin class last fall to beef up Agoura High's language curriculum, which consisted of Spanish and French.
Quint's students were surprised to find that they were encountering Latin every time the picked up a newspaper.
"You see Latin words everywhere in newspapers and magazines," said ninth-grader Emily Wilson, 15. Such contemporary sounding words as urban and suburban are 2,000 years old.
By this month's end of the school year, Latin had become so popular at Agoura High that officials were hurriedly scheduling three classes for next fall. Fifty students have signed up for two first-year classes; 15 of the current students will continue in a second-year Latin course.
Agoura High administrators say they began the first-ever Latin class last September not knowing how students would react to a language that nobody speaks--even if everyone does inevitably read its words.
Could Have Picked Russian
Students had been asked in an informal poll whether they would prefer Russian, Japanese, Hebrew or Latin introduced as an elective class. School officials figured Russian would win.
"I was a little surprised at first," Principal Michael Botsford said Thursday. "Then I figured that, considering the community, it wasn't that much of a surprise."
Agoura High draws its 1,700 students from the affluent communities of Agoura Hills and Westlake Village. About 80% of the school's students continue on to college, many of them to be doctors or lawyers.
On Thursday, Quint's students reached the last chapter in their textbook--"Lesson LXIX"--and went through their final daily ritual of blackboard translation.
Quint pronounced the last translation flawless: Post iter duorum dierum, ad urbem pulcherrimam pervenimus. "After a journey of two days, we arrived at a very beautiful city."
After discussing the final exam they will take next week, the students talked of how Latin has passed their personal relevancy tests.
Will Help Legal Career
Holly Thomas, 17, an 11th-grader, said she signed up for the class because she felt Latin would help her when she pursues a career as a medical malpractice lawyer.
"I'm already studying for the Scholastic Aptitude Test I'll be taking in October, and I know this is going to be helpful," she said.
Ninth-graders Jennifer Glasser and Alex Younker, both 15, said they jumped at the chance to study Latin because they hope to become veterinarians and will need to know Latin medical terms. Tenth-grader Ben Vine, 15, said he feels it will provide a similar advantage when he studies to become a forensic pathologist.
Senior Wyeth Collo, 18, said he had lobbied school officials since he was a freshman at Agoura High for a Latin class because he plans to become a neurosurgeon. He will enroll this fall in the bio-medical program at UC Riverside.
Collo said he was skeptical at first that there would be enough interest for the class to get off the ground.
Educators say Latin is slowly recovering from the near extinction that threatened it 25 years ago.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is slowly re-introducing Latin to its 49 high schools. Thirteen high schools offered it this year, although none were in the San Fernando Valley.
Jules Mandel, Los Angeles district foreign language curriculum specialist, said Thursday that the greatest interest in Latin is coming from the inner city. He said officials require about 40 students to start a Latin class.
Las Virgenes Unified School District Supt. Albert D. Marley said he was disappointed when an attempt to introduce a Latin program at Calabasas High School this fall fizzled.
"Only nine people signed up," Marley said Thursday. That wrote a finis to the Calabasas expansion, he said.