Today's post is supposed to honor The National Spelling Bee, which began preliminary rounds yesterday in Washington D.C. 300 of this country's best spellers are participating, including the youngest contestant ever, an intrepid six-year-old from Virginia. Go you mighty spellers, go!
I envy their skill. I am a wretched speller. You know how adults spell out whatever it is they don't want their children to know about? You know how that doesn't work any more after, say, first grade? My parents were still spelling in front of me in high school! There is some little glitchy thing in my brain that can't put separate letters together to form a word. At book signings, I have learned to ask people to print the dedication name on a sticky note. For me, their is nothing worse than a trying to write "Best wishes to Rebecca (or Rebekah or Rebeca or "Becki-with-an-I")with an excited nine-year-old rattling off her name. No wait. There is something worse. A book returned by a furious mother because I spelled her child's unique name wrong. ("It's Courtney with a K!)
Aside from these national/regional events, do schools still have spelling bees? It seems to me that we had one nearly every week in elementary school, as a "warm-up" for the weekly spelling test. I always prayed not to be the first one "spelled down". One kid in my third grade class was so undone by the whole process, he barfed when he missed his word and to sit down. (We always made him stand at the end of the line, so we would be out of his "line-of-fire."
I usually staggered through the first couple of rounds, until we hit words with "ie" combinations like "chief" or double consonants like "acceptable." Words ending in "ence" or "ance" were my special torture. Independence? Endurance? I knew all the little "rules." ( "I before E except after C.") I just couldn't remember them when I needed them.
I entered school just as the United States was coming unglued over Sputnik. How dare those Russians send a satellite into space ahead of us! Everyone knew Americans were better educated than anyone else, right? (Were we ever so naive?) Hence, my classmates and I were soon bombarded with what I thought of as "The Theory of the Year." There was New Math (as if Old Math weren't confusing enough) and second graders memorizing the Periodic Chart (although we had no idea why). Phonics got the old heave-ho. How did I learn to read? I memorized how words looked.
What happened if I came across a new word? If I was without my trusty dictionary or a teacher, I would ask the nearest adult, usually a parent. I was completely confused by their instructions to "sound out the letters." What did that mean, sound out the letters? I would store the word in my word notebook until I had a chance to look it up. As a result, I still mispronounce words, because I have never heard them in conversation. By the time I moved to a new school district in fifth grade, and was introduced to phonics, it was too late. Phonics made as much sense to me as New Math (none).
This didn't seem to slow me down as a reader. Look up the word and keep on reading (I aced all those College Board tests that were heavy on vocabulary.) As a writer...well....My first stories were written in much erased pencil, after my teachers (my first editors) would circle in red pencil everything I misspelled.
I remember telling my Third Grade teacher "I hear President Kennedy isn't a very good speller either." To which my teacher responded, "President Kennedy has a secretary."
In high school, I discovered that not was I a poor speller, but an even worse typist. I stumbled onward, typing over blobs of correction fluid so often, the page looked like a relief map of the Rockies.
Which brings me to my first PC. Correcting typos was much easier and faster, but I still couldn't tell if something was spelled correctly. Back to the dictionary for every third word.
My second PC contained some magical program called Spell Checker. It thoughtfully underlined every misspelled word. Along with this Wonder of Modern Times came the Grammar Checker that frequently reminded me of absent commas and colons. (It also reminded me that I often write incomplete sentences and use incorrect grammar, but I do that for effect sometimes.)
What I really wanted to say was "Thank you Person Who Invented Spell Check." But a whole lot of Googling gave me the names of whole faculties and research groups who over many many years developed the program that has saved the bacon of writers like me, who never learned phonics. In fact, maybe one of those names belongs to one of my fellow phonics-less spelling bee wipe-outs.
So thank you, Nameless Thousands who now allow me to spell and write. And as for the Mighty 300 competing today, good luck and keep spelling.
P.S. In case you have been wondering, the highlighted words were the ones that Spell Check corrected for me.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
P.S. from Carmela: There's still time to enter our giveaway for a chance to win an autographed copy of Natalie Ziarnik's debut picture book, Madeline's Light (Boyd's Mills Press). See Esther's Student Success Story Interview with Natalie for details.