Two Sundays ago, I blogged about my auditory learning disability and how that affected my ability to spell. As long as I had a speller with a list of words in it to memorize each week in grade school, I could fairly well ace the spelling test each Friday. That changed in high school. For the first three years there was no spelling. Then, in my senior year, I signed up for English Literature.
Studying the English poets, essayists, dramatists, and novelists from the Anglo-Saxon period up to the early twentieth century enthralled me. I’d always been passionate about reading. So studying English lit seemed like daily entering “seventh heaven.”
Well, that’s not quite the truth. The literature transported me to celestial realms, but Sister Mary Rosaria’s insistence on spelling didn’t. Each day she’d assign us a reading from the lit book. The next day she’d begin the classroom period with a quiz of ten words she’d chosen from the text we’d read.
We never knew what those words would be and sometimes the text was so erudite that I simply couldn’t memorize all the words that might appear on her list. I couldn’t divide unfamiliar words into syllables and sound them out, much less pronounce them. I simply saw a word that I didn’t know and mostly figured out its meaning in context. So when she said a word, it was coded. That is, I often had no idea as to what letter started the word, much less what letters followed.
Sister Mary Rosaria strode up and down the aisles, declaiming each of the ten words. I scribbled a group of letters on the paper. I didn’t even know then what a syllable was or that each syllable in the English language used a vowel.
She completed her list, then continued striding as she spelled the words correctly for us. We determined our score and gave it to her to record in her grading book. She strode as she recording our grades.
Sometimes, all the words eluded me: 0 out of 10. Sometimes, I conquered as many as 3. That was cause for celebration on my part.
But not so for Sister Rosaria. Each day, she doggedly called my name: “Dolores. What today?” I gave her my score. Immediately, she rounded the aisle and strode to where I sat. Muttering all the while, she rolled her sheaf of papers into a cylinder and bopped me on the head with it.
Sometimes exasperation overtook her, and she continued to bop my shoulders and upper arms. I ducked, but her aim was good and it was only paper, so nothing but my pride was injured.
To appreciate just how poor a speller I was, you need to know that in our class of twenty-six, I ended up being the valedictorian. So it’s not surprising that Sister Mary Rosaria suspected I was being contrary each day by doing so poorly on the spelling quiz.
“Stop fooling around, Dolores! What was your real grade?”
“I got one right.”
“You’re mocking me! Tomorrow I expect 100 percent from you.”
I did try, but to no avail. I had a good reading vocabulary and if I didn’t know what a word in the text meant by considering its context, I’d look it up. But I still didn’t understand how to say the word because I couldn’t interpret the pronunciation squiggles in the dictionary.
I didn’t have a good speaking vocabulary because I had no idea how to attack new words and say them correctly. Whenever an adult said I word I didn’t know, I’d ask her or him to spell it. Then I’d memorize the letters in order and know that when I saw those letters they were pronounced the way that person had pronounced them.
Of course, if the original person pronounced the word incorrectly, then I still do so today, even if someone has corrected my pronunciation. Once a word is rutted in my mind, I can’t seem to change it.
To this day, I’ll hear a word and realize from its context that I’m hearing how to pronounce a word I know from my reading but have never known how it sounded when said aloud. And so I frequently ask people to spell a word for me that they’ve said and I memorize it so I can use it in writing. And in speech as well.
And yet. And yet. I have been an editor for forty-five years. And a successful one at that. Who can explain the vagaries of life?