In his Spanish class, eighth-grader Greg Putman is learning more about his native language, too.
"They thought 'conjugate' was a Spanish word," said Spanish teacher Sharon Schuster. "They weren't aware they'd been conjugating verbs all their lives. They don't pick apart their native language like they do a foreign one."
Greg, whom The Sun has followed every year since kindergarten as a representative of Carroll County's class of 2000, is taking three high-school level courses this year at Westminster West Middle School.
He takes English instead of eighth-grade language arts, algebra instead of general math and first-year Spanish instead of reading, although he is reading books in his English class. This month, it's "Tom Sawyer."
In his English class, Greg also is learning to pick apart his native language like never before in his schooling. At back-to-school night last month, Pamela Putman and the rest of the mothers and fathers discovered that their children would be learning more of the mechanics of English, such as how to diagram a sentence.
"We almost applauded," Mrs. Putman said. "Parents in this class are delighted. They are finally teaching basic grammar -- nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, interjections."
"We had learned it before," Greg said, "but we never went over it."
Until now, students had been encouraged to write and to express themselves, and Greg just wrote the way he spoke. There wasn't a lot of attention to grammar, he said, and students weren't tested on it until this year. Spelling counted for words they should have known, he said, but teachers were forgiving if students misspelled more ambitious words.
"All the ways they teach and self-expression are fine, but eventually you need to learn how to put the words on paper correctly," Mrs. Putman said.
As he is learning to dissect the language he has spoken for all of his 13 years, Greg is also making a fresh start with immersion Spanish for one hour a day.
On the first day of classes Aug. 28, the 10:25 a.m. period began with the teacher speaking Spanish.
"The only thing she said in English was when she dismissed us for lunch," Greg said. "I thought I was in the wrong class. I thought maybe it was Spanish II."
Even though Ms. Schuster spoke no English, she used hand gestures and words that were common to Spanish and English.
In class, Greg and the other students still speak hesitantly, in low voices, keenly aware that a mistake or looking too eager can elicit giggles from the rest of the class.
They are learning a foreign language at just the time when they are self-conscious about their changing voices and bodies.
But Mrs. Putman believes it is still better to start a language in eighth grade than in ninth, and she would like it to be much earlier.
"The United States is so far behind, to start a language in high school," she said. "Kindergartners would have a wonderful time if they taught them Spanish. They could almost grow up bilingual."
Friday, during drills, Ms. Schuster asked the students, one by one, "Que te gusta?" ("What do you like?")
"Me gusta el futbal Americano," Greg answered. Earlier, to a reporter, he had pointed out that in Spanish, "futbal" by itself means soccer. You have to add "Americano" if you mean "football."
Greg lives in the High Ridge development in Gamber with his parents and 15-year-old brother, Grant. His enthusiasm for school, he said, is not so much to prepare for a career but to be able to have one to fall back on.
When he grows up, he hopes to be a professional lacrosse goalie.