Dr. Tom Wright, the Head of Brearley’s Classics Department and an assistant coach for the varsity cross country team, wrote his PhD dissertation on the Roman iteration of the Argonaut saga written during the Flavian age. In a warm voice, he kindly explains that the Flavian Age began about 70 AD, after the more famous Julio-Claudians, and is most notable for the construction of the Roman Colosseum, among other things.
Dr. Wright says that back then you could go down to a store, almost like a Roman Barnes and Noble, and buy handwritten books, copied out by people who had been conquered and enslaved and who were often Greek, “because they were a bit more literate.” Enslaved Greeks, he points out, often were the tutors for the Roman upper classes. “And that’s where we get the word pedagogue, because that was the guy that would tutor the children and lead them to school. Pedagogue means ‘leading the child,’” he says as his eyes light up.
When asked how his academic work translates to teaching at Brearley, Dr. Wright notes, “The most exciting thing that I love to do—and the kids love it, too, because they’re nerdy like me—is just talk about words. You notice when you’re teaching Latin that the kids also love examining other cultures. They are all like miniature anthropologists. They love to see how other people worked, how other people enjoyed themselves, what they ate, and how they lived their lives—with an eye toward comparing it with what they do now, what current people do now.”
Over the summer, Dr. Wright worked with Brearley’s Classics teachers to develop a new Middle School curriculum, beginning with Class VII. The department felt that the current series they were using was outdated culturally and lacking a certain vigor in terms of its grammatical pacing. The department adopted a new textbook series, Suburani, to replace what they were currently using, textbooks that were written by people who, in his words, “depicted slaves as docile characters and comic foils to the protagonists. We wanted something that was a little more raw, a little more real. The new textbook series is much more diverse, it’s multiracial, and there are strong female characters which were lacking in the former.” With a curriculum grant in hand, they deconstructed the textbook and came up with strategies to make it approachable for their students, ensuring greater success when reading and translating the stories, which are the primary vehicles for grammar, syntax and vocabulary acquisition. “The kids love the narrative method because they’re readers,” he says. “They love the intricacies of character and plot. It works well and we have a pretty successful program as a result.”
“I love the fact that the main character in the [Class VII] textbook is a girl who works in a Roman bar owned by her aunt. And her aunt’s brother—the father of the child that works in the bar—he's the superintendent of an apartment building. So he’s always cleaning off graffiti, cleaning up trash all around his building, trying to rent out apartments that are too small or too dark.”
Dr Wright grew up in Staunton, Virginia. He attended Dickinson College as an undergrad and, after earning his PhD from the University of Virginia, found himself in Las Vegas for four years teaching Latin at a school founded by Brearley alum Carolyn Goodman, Class of 1957. After a move to New York and a year at Packer Collegiate, Dr. Wright ended up at Brearley and has taught here for the past eighteen years.
Written by Erik King and Melissa Raso