By Darius E. Bennett, Esq.
Terence was a playwright during the time of the Roman Republic who had originally been brought to Rome as a slave, from what is now considered North Africa. His owner, Terentius Lucanus, saw his humanity, educated him, and later freed him. Terence went on to author multiple plays with broad-ranging impact, including a reported influence over the teachings of the first popular Martin Luther. The above citation, according to the poet, scholar, author and sage linguist Maya Angelou, translates as, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” In referencing Terence, Dr. Angelou challenges the listener to internalize this thought and acknowledge that we are all capable of the same heights and lows that another human reaches. She further edifies the audience with the proposition that one can choose to use his energies constructively as opposed to destructively, that we are capable of the same feats of human greatness as our fellow human beings who have dared to be great.
The inducement is to stretch ourselves toward greatness.
Dr. Clayton Gray, Jr. was an Associate Professor of German, Italian and Russian at my undergraduate. A true polyglot. I had a chance encounter with him during the first weeks of my freshmen year. It was the Universe conspiring to help me. Our meeting was actuated by a conversation had in Spanish in front of my dorm. Martina, a striking and statuesque Venezuelan, conversed naturally with the quintessentially Spanish Rafael, from Tarragona. Her lilting intonations danced balletically over and around the resonant bass of his crisp and lisping Castilian. I understood less than little, laughing raucously once or twice when my high school Spanish finally served me. At this, they both looked toward me, bemused. As I recall, the very next weekday I went to the Registrar and enquired about Spanish-language studies. The Registrar informed me that a competency test was required, and that I would be placed based on the Modern Languages and Literatures Department’s assessment of my ease or difficulty with the language. An “overachiever,” I graduated high school a member of the Spanish Honor Society; I was certain I would be placed at the intermediate level. The competency exam was in part oral comprehension and in additional part written. After scoring my placement exam, the Department recommended that I start at the very beginning: the alphabet, numbers, vowels, pictures and their corresponding Spanish descriptors. A deserved but nonetheless humbling result. Crestfallen, I then had that chance encounter with Dr. Gray, who caught my attention while conversing flowingly with one of his German students, in perfect German. I had never seen a fellow Black person speak German. I waited patiently to speak with him, and he was approached by a Russian student just as he ended his conversation in German. His Russian felt as proficient as his German, and my heart, in a flash, was suffused with hope. When I finally spoke with him –dejectedly in English– I told him of my goal to learn Spanish as masterfully as he spoke German or Russian. Dr. Gray regaled me with a little Dutch and even more French, before closing our conversation in Spanish. I thought, “If he can do it, then I can do it,” and unwittingly began living the principle that I was capable of the very same greatness as any other human being.
I began that elementary-level Spanish course with a simple goal: to one day sit with Martina and Rafael, and understand every word as effortlessly as they exchanged them, to engage in that beautiful dance. It would be four years of exacting relentlessness on my part before that happened. I would go on to write lengthy papers in Spanish on subjects such as Latin American theatre and the socio-politics of Spanish colonialism. For one of my final undergraduate courses taught in Spanish, I crossed the threshold and saw all the native Spanish speakers who had helped me along the way. In my mind, magically we were in the same class. I have no idea what was taught during that first lecture; I spent the entirety of it on a cloud.