An Interview with John Piazza
By Taima Dugan
John Piazza is a teacher of Latin at Berkeley High, beloved by students for his accessible teaching, and his recognition that teenagers, although they sometimes act like a different species, should nevertheless be treated as human beings. Piazza grew up in the Bay Area, and after going to Maybeck High School, attended the Dominican University in San Rafael and San Francisco State University. During his time at college, he fell in love with the philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, and eventually decided to learn Greek and Latin in order to delve deeper into these philosophies. While learning Latin from the Pope’s latinist in Rome, he made the decision to become a high school teacher and has been teaching Latin to Berkeley teenagers for two years now.
What made you want to learn Latin?
During my undergrad studies in philosophy and religion, I became fascinated with the big questions of the human condition. What does it mean to be a human being here on earth? What are our obligations to others? How should we be living our lives? What is real? All the big questions like, is there a God, etc. I was fascinated by those questions and by looking into the different traditions of the world to learn about their insights, not necessarily their answers, but how each tradition chooses to frame those big questions. So I ended up wanting to focus on the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and others. It was because I wanted to know them better that I made the decision to start learning ancient Greek, and when I decided to move into the world of classics, it also required me to know Latin as well.
What are some specific ways you can name that the philosophies of the ancient Romans and Greeks have affected you?
That’s a good question. I think what I liked about these ancient thinkers is that all of their abstract thinking was rooted in the practical question of “What ought we to do while we’re here?” The big questions of what is ultimate reality, known as metaphysics or theology, as well as questions regarding the mind, epistemology, which is, “what can I know?” The ancients believed that thinking about these questions gave people more insight about the ethical questions. What are my obligations to others? What ought I to be doing? Because in order to come to a solid understanding of one’s obligations, they believed it was important to know what it means to be a human being in the world. That idea in itself struck me because it showed me that philosophy wasn’t just about thinking about things for their own sake, but it was informing a life that is lived intentionally. The idea of developing principles or guidelines, words to live by, whether it’s something like the Golden Rule about treating others the way you’d want to be treated, or the idea that retaliation is just as much an act of violence or injustice as the act that instigated that retaliation. And I think that it goes back to this intentionality, the idea that we can live our lives in a way in we’re just reacting to what the world does to us, or we can make very conscious choices about what we are going to do during our lives. The ancients understood that life was very precarious, and that a long life was not guaranteed, a happy life was not guaranteed, wealth and health, not guaranteed. Given all of that, what can we still do and what should we still do in spite of that.
I was wondering if you had any other college experiences to share, anything that impacted you?
Yeah, college for me was a wonderful experience. A big part of it is because I did not immediately go to college after high school. In fact when I finished high school I didn’t have much intention of going to college. I was very focused on other things, I was a competitive cyclist. I wasn’t, by any means an athletic specimen. I didn’t have any pretensions of going and being a professional or winning a bunch of races. But I loved the sport. I loved being a cyclist, I loved the long meditative, often solitary training rides in the Berkeley hills and out to the various mountains. Doing that kind of training was not only physically great for me, but it helped me to maintain my sanity through those teenage years. It grounded me and it was meditative in a lot of ways. And at the same time I was fascinated by this culture of cycling that existed mostly in Europe because it was so much older, so I wanted to go over to Europe. Not necessarily to be a champion but to participate in that tradition and be a part of the peloton as they call it. I ended up working in bike shops here for a good part of a year, and then I moved over to Belgium and just plopped myself in Gent with a bike and started to enter races and ride with other people, it was an amazing experience. Long story short, I realized that cycling wasn’t for me, I sent my bike home, and then I started to travel around and really explore the more intellectual and artistic things that Europe had to offer. I spent a lot of time in museums and cafes, a lot of time reading books, and thinking about what I wanted to do next. By the time I came back to America, I was excited to get back into an academic life that was on my terms. It wasn’t what I had to do because I was in high school or because I was being forced to do this, but I had the luxury to come back and enroll and make a fresh start in education. I ended up spending probably a decade in school before I ever got my Master’s. It took me a while to explore and figure that out, but that process was great. I had the good fortune of encountering many professors who were so receptive to my enthusiasm, that I felt like I could really connect with them, and they helped me to connect with the various subject matter.
I also studied music when I was at SF State, I took up a few musical instruments I settled on the trumpet, I was taking private lessons there, and I was in the swing band and the modern big band, and I sort of tried to put together a jazz combo. My college experience at SF State allowed me to connect with so many amazingly accomplished people in so many different fields. I was also able to study at UC Berkeley as a SF State student so when I decided to focus more on the Greek and Roman philosophers, I was able to come over to Berkeley and be in seminars with some truly amazing scholars. That was part of what inspired me to continue with ancient thought and ultimately to go into becoming a latin teacher.
What made you want to become a latin teacher?
Well I knew I wanted to be involved in education, because the work of study and of questioning one’s ideas, of challenging and refining our assumptions and our thoughts about a variety of things fascinated me, and I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in it. As I became more interested in ancient Greek and Roman civilization and thought, that option of being a latin teacher was one of the few that was open to me. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that I thought that being a Latin teacher would allow me to do what I wanted to do. That does go back to this teacher whose picture is up on my wall, it’s Reginald Foster. He has literally dedicated his life to Latin. He lived most of his life as a scholar but also as a teacher. And it was spending a summer with Reggie, that I consciously made the decision. And I said to myself “You know what, I can see myself doing this everyday,” because of his example. This is someone who had read seemingly everything that was written in Latin. It was working with Reggie, learning Latin in Rome, and being with a large group of incredibly motivated people. There were like sixty of us and we crammed into a little classroom that looked like it was made for fifth graders. It was in the basement of a convent, near Reggie’s monastery. I need to add that Reggie taught his class free of charge. So you still had to make it to Rome and find a place to stay, but this is free, this was his calling, his vocation. It was sitting in that sweltering little classroom, where Reggie was showing us some beautiful piece of literature and showing us a sentence and saying “ look at how beautiful that is, look at the structure of that sentence, look not only at what this person is saying but how they say it.” To have somebody who is so experienced in Latin that they can show you that about the seemingly obscure and ancient and supposedly dead language. That was very inspiring to me, that’s when it occurred to me that this is what I really want to be doing.
Were you imagining yourself as a professor or a high school teacher?
That was a specific decision to be a high school teacher. In a high school setting you actually get to spend a lot more time with your students, as a Latin teacher in a relatively small department, I get to teach the same students for two, three, sometimes four years, five days a week, for the entire academic year. That’s a teaching opportunity that very few professors have.
Do you plan to continue teaching for a long time?
I think so. Teaching is hard work, it’s very challenging in many ways. The interpersonal aspects of dealing with more than a hundred teenagers on a daily basis, requires you to think on your feet. And not just in terms of your intellectual thought, but also in terms of your emotional responses. How you respond to positive interactions, how you respond to being provoked. It’s not a requirement, but being a teacher, just like being a parent I’ve found, is an invitation to introspection. If an interaction is going badly, or if something isn’t working, that I see as an invitation for me to not just investigate what’s going on with the other person, but also to think about why I’m responding in that way. Maybe trying to improve those interactions by thinking about my role in it. I’ve found it to be beneficial to examine my own thoughts and my own responses in a situation. That if I do that and am able even for a little while to think clearly about what I’m bringing to the classroom, I find that helps me to not make the same mistakes again. Knowing that I’m going to be in here tomorrow with the same group of people is another chance to get it right.