Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spelling Trouble

Winsome, adj., "Attractive or appealing in appearance or character."

Maybe I was that in fifth grade, maybe not, but one thing's for sure: I was a top-notch speller, and I was often left on my own during Language Arts to compile five words for my extra-special-top-notch-end-of-the-alphabet spelling test, while most of the other students toiled with words like toil and test and trouble.

I'm on W,
I might have taunted. Have fun back at T.

Tasked thusly, I took to the classroom Webster's--which we kept next to the giant black-and-white throw rug we used as a chessboard, next to the Ukraine-less globe, next to our Starter-jacket-stuffed cubbies--to find my words.

Winsome would work. Hard enough to satisfy the teacher, Mrs. Kimball (who sometimes referred to herself as The Dragon Lady for difficult-to-discern reasons), and easy enough that it wouldn't give me any sort of real trouble. Winsome. An attractive word, mnemonically simple. I winsome, I losesome. I get my golden star.

Whydah, n. "Mostly black African weaverbird."

We were studying African-American history--including the Revolutionary era black poet Phyllis Wheatley (W-H-E-A-T-L-E-Y), whose struggles, for difficult-to-discern reasons, caused me to giggle uncontrollably--and I had already started to develop my love of really sketchy tangential connections, so maybe I figured Whydah would work as an addition to our curriculum.

Whydah would also allow me some cursing opportunities, as in Whydahhell not? (I loved to curse innocently and I added "damn" onto the end of any popular song lyrics I could remember--"Say Live and Let Die, Damn, Damn, Damn"--which incited more giggles among my fellow W-word chums).

We were weird.

Wholesomeness, adj., "conducive to or suggestive of good health."

(If I don't know what wholesomeness means I promise I won't know what conducive means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

Meanwhile, I was pretty wholesome at the time, as you can probably tell by the fact that I found "damn" to be a most scandalous curseword. I remember tattling to my teacher about a paraprofessional who muttered the word under her breath. (Nothing was done and she was left unimprisoned).

Damn aside, it was in fifth grade that my cynicism started to bud like a useless--totally useless--simile. Take my treatment of former slave Phyllis Wheatley. How could I giggle about her travails: her impoverished circumstances, the fact that her grocer husband, John Peters, was sent to debtors' prison?

I remember that his arrest seemed like a grand hoot of misfortune after my gleeful recess. And I guess I can understand laughing at the most inappropriate thing in class, or at the troublemaker's struggle, or even sneering at what seemed to be the exaggerated opulence of Mrs. Wheatley's pain.

But it seems like all of those reactions require a weird kind of maturity--a recognition of standards--that also should have kept me from being so cruel. Somehow, though, I was old enough to notice the dark humor of desperation, but not old enough to wipe that smile off my damn face, or recognize an actual person's actual damn humanity.

In other (spelling) words, I was edging out of Wholesomeness but hadn't come close to Wisdom.

Wistful, adj. having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing.

What was I then, anyway? Shortpantsed spelling champion, or rebellious curser? Wholesome or wise? And where would I be headed in sixth grade? With the kids who already wore deodorant and undershirts, or with the kids who'd always smell forever and ever?

And why couldn't I be wholesome and damn-trumpeting at the same time? For that matter, what was to stop me from saying "shit" on my birthday and still kiss my mother with that mouth?

All of these questions. All W's. Who. Where. Why. What.

I wasn't sure of the answers, but I knew I wasn't what I'd been in third grade, nimrodishly studying long division while somehow still captaining the schoolyard soccer team; powerful enough to institute rules that only benefited my team of jocks while brainstrong enough to semi-master all things quotient.

How had the Davids diverged?

Wistful. It seemed easy to spell.

Whore, n., the same as prostitute.

(If I don't know what whore means I promise I won't know what prostitute means, Webster. You don't understand my problems.)

I don't remember picking this word as a prank, but is it possible I was unaware what a prostitute was? Yes, I think so. Pretty Woman had come out and its ads are among my first pop culture referents, but the meaning of the movie definitely evaded me.

And I think it's possible I thought that the new spelling word was an archaic question--whither, wherefore, whence, whatsoever, wherewith, howsoever, whore. And I wouldn't have been able to conceive that something so naughty could actually appear in a school dictionary anyway.

Mrs. Kimball dealt with all of this very well when I presented my list to her. She said I should find a replacement for this particular W. I wondered why.

"Is it a swear?"

"Not really. It's just not a polite word," she said.


She probably thought she was being duped, the target of a nasty 11-year-old's nasty joke. Either that or she felt sorry for me. I was, after all, about to be fed to the middle school wolves and, as I've painfully catalogued elsewhere, I had a limited vocabulary when it came to crudeness. How would I survive? Would I have to ask what a prick was and be thereafter labeled prick-ignorant?

I replaced whore with whatever.

After I passed my test, the group of us got demoted back to T, task and toil, and I remember having some unexpected trouble spelling trouble.

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