Angie Huston

        I wish I could spell better.  To me, it seems as though an English and Writing major should have a firmer mastery of her language’s spelling.  I learned spelling rules in grade school, like i before e except after c or when sounding like a as in neighbor or weigh, but it seems like there are so many more weird exceptions to those rules than words that actually follow them.  I often felt like giving up. 

Last year, Karen, who lived in the dorm room beside mine, even mentioned that same thought when I misspelled a word on my door’s message board.  “And you’re the English major,” she accused.

“Oh, well, Spellcheck is my friend, and the dictionary is always there too.”  I tried to say lightly.  I don’t obsess about my difficulty, but I still don’t appreciate being told I don’t spell very well.

My friend Sarah chimed in, “It’s her weakness.”

How kind, I thought.

“I think a lot of people have a hard time with spelling,” she continued, unwittingly redeeming herself.

My weakness in spelling has hurt not only my pride but also me.  One summer day, my cousin Matt and I were at Maw-maw and Paw-paw’s house in Sycamore.  His family had come up from Virginia Beach to spend a week in Ohio, and I had come with Dad, since he and Paw-

paw did carpentry work together, to spend time with them.  

Matt and I wanted to know how to spell something, but Maw-maw, Uncle Mark, and Aunt Cindy were too preoccupied to humor our pleas.  Lucky for us, we knew where Dad and Paw-paw were working; we could see them from the house.  With paper and crayon, we took off across the yard to the neighbor’s home.  They were up on ladders, but we pestered them anyway.  I can’t remember if they answered; they probably did. 

Racing back toward the house, I tripped in a hole in the yard and landed on top of my arm.  Dad carried me crying into the house.  Maw-maw propped my arm up on pillows and positioned a bag of ice around it.  A few hours later, I went home with a cast wrapped around my left arm and the word long forgotten.  Who knew spelling could literally be painful?

Spelling was not my shining talent, especially during my elementary years.  My participation in spelling bees was always short-lived.  I remember lining up in the second grade classroom, my back to the chalkboard.  The line inched closer to the teacher’s desk as students dropped out, their heads bowed, as they trekked back to their desks.  The word was Wednesday, and the children before me couldn’t spell it, but I knew it.  The secret was the d!  When the word reached me, I whipped out the appropriate letters in the right places and kept my place in the line.  What a thrill!  That was my glorious spelling bee moment.  On the next round, I missed the word and had to slink back to my seat as the defeated momentary champion. 

In my defense, I could spell better on paper than in the air.  With paper, I could line the little letters up in a row.  When they hung in the air, however, they were impossible to see.  How could anyone be expected to successfully spell with invisible letters? 

Even though writing words helped me spell, I still dreaded spelling tests.  There was

absolutely no way around spelling quizzes—or the huge review tests that I loved to hate.  Forget

spelling out loud, how was it fair that a person should be held responsible for the spellings of over forty words at a time?  I found no justice in the practice.  Then one day, I discovered that not only did I have to spell correctly for spelling quizzes but when writing sentences as well. 

Spelling hid in everything!

Writing some sentences for class, I was flopped out on my belly on the living room floor, and I wanted to know how to spell a particular word.  I looked at the man sitting in the golden brown recliner, where he normally sat when he came over.  He always wore flannel shirts, dark jeans, and boots too.  To this day the scent of Old Spice reminds me of him.  Mom and Dad had him come babysit my sister and me from time to time.  We called him Luke,[1] and he was like an adopted grandpa to us.  He was one of those older gentlemen who dote on you, and whom you can easily persuade to dote further. 

For instance, once I convinced him to help me climb the maple tree in the backyard.  Its trunk forked up too high above the ground for me to scale it myself, but his boost was just what I needed.  I had a grand time perched in the tree with the locust shells and a fabulous view.  The world looked different from a higher perch.  I was finally taller than most things!  Luke’s head came to my toes.  Looking down, I realized jumping from the tree would have been a terrible tumble.  I felt free but dependent at the same time because he was the only—well, the safest—way for me to get down.

Back in the living room that day, I gave up and asked for his help.  “Luke, how do you spell blue?”

He got his silly grin and said that I could figure it out.  Of course, I persisted, knowing that all grown-ups knew how to spell.  They had never failed in the past; they just were not always helpful, and I was annoyed that he was not being very helpful.  I heaved a frustrated sigh and asked again.  But he would not help me, and just as I could not spell, I did not understand everything at the time.

“I don’t know, but you can figure it out,” he told me.  And I did.

As the years slipped by, I learned to spell, but Luke never had.  His parents had pulled

him out of school when he was in the third grade.  Since he couldn’t read, he couldn’t progress, and his help could be used elsewhere, at home on the farm or working for someone else.  Life operated that way back in the 1930s.  Why he never learned to read has remained a mystery.  Did he have a learning disorder, like dyslexia?  He was intelligent and full of common sense.  Give him a problem, say with the combine, and he would get it figured out.  He was constantly building things out of scrap metal or lumber, making spiffy trailers, or completing a gorgeous paint job on my sister’s and my little red wagon.      

When I was older and Mom told me that Luke could not read, I finally understood why he never helped me with my spelling.  I felt as though I had an epiphany moment—everything made sense.  Then I realized that he couldn’t spell, but he hadn’t been able to read either.  How could a person survive that way?  I’d been an avid bookworm since I could read, robbing the library shelves of their books.  

If I glance at anything written in English, I can instantly understand what it says.  What must it be like to see writing yet unable to see its meaning for an entire lifetime?  The closest comparison than I can think of would be visiting a country with a foreign language.  The writing there would be gibberish.  Later I realized that immigrants must face the same thing when they come to a new country.  Full of intelligence, like Luke, if they can’t read the language, they will struggle.  

Suddenly conscious of illiteracy from knowing Luke’s, I began noticing everything written that I came across in daily life.  Reading forms the basic foundation for other subjects.  Science, history, even math can only progress so far before the words become important for study.  Street signs would be an impossibility to read.  Would that mean travel only by landmarks?  If so, was Luke’s sphere of travel severely limited to just the area that he knew?  Restaurant menus depend on the written word.  How could Luke or an immigrant have possibly chosen what to order if he could not understand what the restaurant offered?  The Bible and hymnals made it onto my list as well and explained the reason why Luke was hesitant to go to church.  Christmas cards and birthday cards could contain cryptic codes.  How could Luke have known they said, “Have a merry Christmas” or “Wishing you the best on your birthday” until someone had deciphered the message?  Even the labels on food packages might remain questionable.  The pictures, at least, might provide some clues. 

For the first time, I realized how much our society relies on the ability to read.  And how dependent on others Luke must have been to help him navigate through it, even with something as simple as choosing a type of Campbell’s soup.  Although my spelling never took me anywhere close to a national spelling competition, my ability to read has led me through high school, to college, through shopping aisles, and a maze of streets. 

As I grew older, I stopped asking Luke how to spell words, partly because I was learning how to spell more of them myself and partly because I knew his secret.  I never let him know that I knew, however.  Sometimes I wonder if a few spelling errors really matter compared to illiteracy.

[1] Name has been changed.

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