By Christian Potter '18
Aut disce aut discede. “Either learn or leave.” If you’d like to enter Mr. Ragan’s classroom, according to the sign on the door’s exterior, you must be prepared to learn. Despite the occasional Monday when I would rather have said, “All right, I’ll leave,” the provocative Latin printed on the tall, Gothic door of black wood entices me, even though LJ-103 has disappeared from my schedule.
Gripping the brass doorknob, dulled for decades by students’ palms, I swing the door inward. Its creak meets every expectation set by the Lane-Johnston Building’s age. However, stepping into the classroom, I am transported to times far more distant than 1907.
If you had not already known, you could now discern that Mr. Ragan is a teacher of the Classics. Maps of the ancient Mediterranean, scenes from classical mythology, and photographs of Greek statues and Roman weaponry have colonized the classroom’s left wall, leaving no bare paint visible. But Mr. Ragan is as much a student of the Classics as he wishes us to be. Clusters of tall bookcases climb towards the ceiling in all four corners of his classroom, like time-tested columns supporting an ancient temple. Books pack themselves vertically, horizontally, diagonally into, above, and around the shelves. If you were to try to nestle in just one more book, the wood might crack, the cases burst, and the ceiling crumble to ruins. Any flat surface above or between these bookcases serves as a pedestal for one of Mr. Ragan’s many busts of Dante Alighieri. Chin up, eyes focused, the poet surveys us students from every direction, reminding us of the posture we ought to display in class.
The opposite wall, the right wall, features a large chalkboard, perhaps the last of its kind in the Western World, unchallenged by a sleek whiteboard or an avant-garde smartboard. Poorly erased chalk marks reveal Greek verb charts, pivotal dates from the Roman Republic, and names of unfamiliar literary devices, all conjured up within the previous few days. Plaster figures personifying the Seven Deadly Sins line the wooden frame above the chalkboard. Lust’s oddly contorted grin and Envy’s piercing gaze instruct us in morality, albeit differently than the dignified Dantes do.
A large gothic window with stained-glass panels, characteristic of St. Albans’ older buildings, illuminates the room from the third wall, the far wall, opposite the room’s entrance. On a hot day last spring, during a test, when we had decided to open the window, a gust of wind slammed it shut, causing the Class of 1910’s stained-glass panel to loosen from the window’s lead cross-hatches and shatter on the stone of the courtyard below. The memento of those forefathers gone, we gained a new, bittersweet memory of our own, along with a lesson: time passes.
Mr. Ragan’s classroom is just as vibrant today as the Forum in a time of plenty. Until a recent flood, a table dominated the classroom’s floorplan, around which we’d debate Cicero’s political strategy, compete in the “translation game,” and laugh over outdated movies. Pending the table’s triumphant return, the gaping hole in its stead reminds me again of change: not just changes to the classroom but changes I underwent in the classroom. Mr. Ragan’s time machine seeks to produce not only Latin scholars but also good young men. If and when the maps come down and a smartboard is installed, I will remain grateful for the countless times I entered Mr. Ragan’s classroom and learned.