(This is a question I get quite often from my students, and I will answer it the roundabout way.)
The first time Jude took me skiing, he generously spent his skiing time with me, telling me what to do at every turn and in between. I skied marvelously and had fun. Two days later, I had completely forgotten how to do it. Jude ditched me, and I spent twenty humiliating minutes sliding down the gentle hill, and then two hours trying to figure out how, in case Jude didn’t come back, I’d get down and over to the United States (this happened in the French Alps). Jude, of course, came back refreshed, and then we somehow got down.
This was also the first time I actually started thinking how my students might be feeling when I took them on the slopes of dead languages. I was an expert skier there, and they were beginners. How did I feel when I was a beginner??
Not a rhetorical question, this one. I don’t clearly remember how I felt. I declared Classics as my major right away, because I thought Classics involved reading great books. It never occurred to me that it would take some time until I got to those great books, in untranslated form. At my first class, the young professor informed us, lips twitched in disappointed sarcasm, that we girls will never graduate, because girls don’t do well with Latin and Greek.
The professor’s arrogance probably motivated me some, but what really got me was that the study of Latin and Greek gave me the same serene pleasure as math. I would have transferred to another major otherwise. I’d dance singing my paradigms, and as I did it, the endings would emerge in color and shape.
In retrospect, it was not the mastery of Latin and Greek that drove me, but the profound sense of calm and happiness that came with those studies of mine. Every time I’d focus on the mastery, the calm vanished and my mental muscles cramped. (I did focus on mastery at one point, and I came to hate Classics and academic life; I am hedonist.)
I don’t hate Classics now – what I hate is the focus on mastery. It weakens me and takes fun out of whatever I do. And as a result I can’t really learn. Ditto about skiing, which I eventually learned by way of hedonism.