Picture a small boy. A pleasant lad, standing in sixth grade against a classroom wall. His classmates are lined shoulder to shoulder, faces forward, anticipation and determination gracing their eager faces. A list of words is proffered down the line, one to each child who, in turn, must spell back the word in clearly enunciated English. The words are easy at first. In the first pass none are expected to be asked to sit down. The first group of words are part of the ‘confidence building’ round. But as the first-round word reaches our young man, he stammers a bit, trying hard, but it is to no avail. He can’t spell it. He is asked to sit. He sits alone for four more passes through every child in the line before the next person joins him at the lonely desks. It is a spelling bee and our little rapscallion is always first down, a reminder that he is lacking some aspect of normalcy—he is endowed with a deep flaw that he does not share with his peers.
Alas, the boy is me. I admit this in hopes that my story will inspire others who lack this basic human skill. A non-speller in a spelling world is a hard thing. Hard indeed. But you need more context. A few more incidents will set the stage for this blight upon my character, but there are some things you must know before I lead you into the depths of my humiliation. First, you must understand that I read voraciously. I always have. By eighth grade I was reading at a college sophomore level. Second, I love poetry and love to write (in all that follows when I imply I am a good writer that is to be interpreted in contrast to my spelling. I’m under no illusions of grandeur here believe me!). These things are common enough, but combined with my story that exposes the depth of my inability to spell, it will seem unbelievable and lead some of you to believe that I must be a prevaricator and teller of tall tales. A crass, BS-er if you will. For many have questioned when confronted with my scribblings whether I have any facility with the written word at all. As an employer said to my father in my senior year of high school, “He is, in fact, functionally illiterate.”
It is more than spelling. My errors appear with abandon. “Their” and ‘there’ seem to be used almost randomly. A ‘not’ will appear where it should not, or be missing from where it should have place. ‘Has’ and ‘as’ are negotiated almost willy-nilly. Plurals form from nowhere and words are duplicated without reason. If there are two forms of a word I will choose the wrong one. It is a twisted and aberrant malady. And I cannot see them. They are as invisible to me as the air.
Let us begin on my mission, even though the story could easily start at any point after the second grade. I’ve just penned a heart warming story of missionaries who meet their goals by exercising the power of faith in true Grant von Harrison fashion. It is a masterful act of storytelling, a moving tale that left both Sister Davidson and Elder Norman in tears. I give it to my mission president and wait for the kudos that I know must follow such a bold excursion into creative genius, but he comes back in with my story covered in red circles and says simply, “This is unacceptable. You will not be able to do this kind of work in college.” Cold and raw correction. Meant to inspire me? It did not I fear. For it allowed a modicum of the doubt and uncertainty (that we all can claim as humans I suppose) to bubble up and destroy a tad more of what self image I was trying construct around my desire to be a writer.
Freshman English. Our first paper is due. I work hard and turn it in. A friend helps me get the spelling right. Shortly thereafter, our papers are turned back. All except mine. Lark, my beautiful and stunningly gorgeous graduate student teacher, says I should see her after class (I was in love with Lark. We were the same age because the Army and my mission had left me an older freshman than usual and I fancied as I listened moon-eyed to her lectures that we must have made certain promises to one another in the pre-existence.) We retreat to her office. Should I ask her out? She holds up my paper, “I think you plagiarized this.” I step back. “Do you know what plagiarism means?” Did she just say that slowly, like you would to a dim child? “No I wrote every word I say.” She smirks sceptically like the Grinch. “I’ve seen your in-class essays. You can’t write like this.” (And it is true, all my class essays were returned with loads of the same red circles my Mission President was so fond of.) I tell her, “Admittedly, I can’t spell. That’s all.” She says, “If that’s true where did you learn to write like this” (The piece was later submitted to a radio writing contest and played on air. I won $50 gift certificate to Provo’s fanciest restaurant and it could have been Lark who shared that meal if things had played out differently. Alas.). I’m reaching for anything to redeem myself, and so I challenge her in desperation, “I’ve read more books than you have.” It was a weak attempt at a stall, but we start a “Have you read this?” contest. It soon becomes apparent that not only am I well read, but I can hold my own in discussing content and ideas. She finally believes I wrote the piece but decides I need help and maternally tells me to enroll in remedial spelling. A ‘99’ level class designed to make up high school deficiencies. I thank her. I don’t ask her out.
I take the class. Under its aegis I go from about a six grade spelling level to an eighth or ninth grade level. It is a triumph. Of sorts. But at the same time as I am plugging away at The most common misspelled words in the English language, Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton are inventing WordPerfect—and the spell checker—a prosthetic device that will change my life. Freed at last from the need of passing everything by indulgent friends I can at make my move. I decide to major in English. A dream come true for the kid from Moab. A win in the Meyhew Short Story contest had emboldened me and I was feeling daring and empowered. With WordPerfect no one need ever know my secret shame.
I enroll in a class on English literature prior to 1600. I decide to bypass all the 200 level classes because I’ve read everything on the lists. The class is amazing and I am in heaven as we read Piers the Plowman, Canterbury Tales, The Song of Roland. I can’t get enough. I am happier than I’ve ever been. In class I am Hermione Grangeresque— my hand waving in the air at every opportunity. Then it happens. Our first test is an in-class examination. Blue books. The request that we bring those little notebooks meant an essay test and this would be closed-book. I show up shaking with fear. I’m about to be exposed as a fraud, a pretentious charlatan. And so it is. The test comes back after about a week. I’ve been rather subdued in class lately, afraid of what the future holds. I open it, hoping for the best, but there are marks everywhere like some sort of post-modern art called red circles and blue lines. I’ve flunked. No comment on the content of my writing—only red circles with little ‘-1’s beside them, each one removing a point from my starting 100. By the end of the exam I am well into negative numbers. I sit silently through the remainder of class with big wet eyes repeating the mantra, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’. I cannot major in English. I drop the class and wander in darkness for a time, ending finally in that gang of ruffians and ner-do-wells who care not a wit about your spelling as long you show some flash with a calculator and know how to handle the probabilities: Statistics. An unsavoury lot, yes, but we take what company we can get.
I discover in biology classes, the subject of ecology and evolution and start to frame an idea of doing quantitative and evolutionary ecology. Clearly my days of literature are over. I could not even hear the word ‘English major’ without cringing. I dated one once (a person not the word), but I felt so unworthy in her presence the relationship could not be sustained—what if she found out about my spelling? If we married would my refrigerator love notes be covered in red circles?
Well, word processors kept me hidden for the most part. I was discovered from time to time, to my harm and embarrassment, as happened once at UNC-Chapel Hill in my biostatistics program when my Wetlands Ecology professor passed out an in-class essay test. You know what’s coming. It was returned; again with the shaming circles of red earmarking and highlighting my damnation. He wrote on my paper, “You can’t spell. See me!” He was horrified. He told me my problem had its roots in that the schools today do not teach Greek and Latin. To him, I became a symbol for all that’s wrong with 20th century education. Once gain I was reduced to the single dimension of my greatest character flaw. In class I quit raising my hand and starting sitting in the back. I quit caring about making an impression and became aloof, cavalier and supercilious. When he asked for a one-page technical write-up on a wetlands excursion to a nearby lake we had taken, I wrote a four page narrative poem in iambic pentameter, rhyming words like “zone one census” and “Impatiens capensis” He wrote on my paper, “Interesting format. This will do nothing for your career.” Sadly, I had asked him prior to the ‘spelling incident’ to be a recommender for my Ph.D. applications to Biology programs at Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley (oh, I dreamed big in my starry youth). Unfortunately, he sent the letters after my exposure as base-minded scrub. I was accepted to nary a single program despite prior phone calls to my proposed dissertation advisors, who had been enthusiastic when they had only my CV to go on. Something about my letters of recommendation had changed their minds. There was no doubt who sank me and why.
But in math who cares about spelling. I was free of misjudgement and math came easily to me. A bunch of rules and recipes. And so, biomathematics became a drug; Functional Analysis, a way to drown the sorrow of failure; proofs, a narcotic for despair. But still, I was bitter, and in secret, late at night, I wrote novels that no one would read and wrote bête noire poems that piled up like scattered Styrofoam containers blown against the cold galvanized steel of a chain link fence surrounding an inner-city McDonalds. At Christmas each year I would join in singing with passion, gusto, and pathos the song “We’re from the Island of Misfit Toys . . .” as I watched Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. At the appropriate point, I would add to the list of islanders—Charlie-in-a-box, train with square wheels, cowboy riding an ostrich—‘writer who can’t spell.’ I can’t listen to that song without tears running down my face. Sigh.
So there you have it. It is only a sketch of my walk in this world as a non-speller. I can only give cursory outline to the major events in what amounts to thousands of such incidences, losses, and costs. It is a cautionary tale of sorts, about the hardness of the world and the snatching of dreams. I don’t know why I can’t spell, but if you’ve followed my blogs you’ll see it often. No doubt it is in this post as well. It seems something deeply embedded in my neurology and its remaining after years of trying to fix is strange and disheartening and speaks of a cold determinism for some things in this world. But there it is. My shame exposed to the world. It does feel good to come out of the closet.