A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Under the spell of English

“There can’t be a silent ‘gh’!”  Lizzy looked up from her literary selection, Clifford Goes to the Doctor.  She glared at me accusingly, as if I had personally invented the English language and imbued it with all its peculiar inconsistencies just to confound her.  “That doesn’t make any sense!”
“I know,” I sighed.  She was right.  ‘Light’ should be spelled ‘lite,’ just as it is on the rows of pink-dyed aspartame-sweetened yogurt at Fred Meyers.  I couldn’t uphold the existence of that ‘gh,’ and I wasn’t even trying.  If I was the court-appointed lawyer for my mother-tongue, I was doing a terrible job.  But given the unassailable claims being brought forth by the plaintiff, was a defense even warranted?
Helping two five-year-olds wallow through Puppy Mudge Finds a Friend and painstakingly hand-write their entries for the University Park Elementary School Annual Poetry Contest has reminded me just how agonizing English spelling is – but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Last week, Molly asked me why the Three Little Kittens cried when they found their mittens. I had to explain that “cry” means not only “burst into tears” but also “call out in excitement.”  A few days later, one of the twins’ friends looked at Lizzy suspiciously when she claimed to have “several” toy horses, and demanded to know what “several” meant – and, having been given a definition, how it compared to “a few” and “some.”  Our language is so full of superfluous synonyms, irregular verbs, double-meanings, multiple definitions, context-dependent connotations, impenetrable idioms, and maddening silent k’s that I can’t really blame my kids for their peevishness.  Back when I was discovering that ‘weird’ is spelled weirdly and that ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ mean the same thing, I too was pretty sure English had been invented by sadists or lunatics.
I can recall debating with my second grade teacher, Mrs. Monteiro, about whether it was possible to hear the difference between the ‘wh’ sound and plain old ‘w.”  She suggested that it was; I hotly denied -- in my enormous experience as a seven-year-old -- ever having heard anyone speak that way.  She listened to my argument with her usual gravity, and agreed that perhaps the distinction was too subtle to be of much use in ordinary diction.  Mrs. Monteiro took me seriously, and in return, I adulated her.  She was an elegant, sharp-eyed, wry-humored woman who challenged me daily.  She taught me about planets, dinosaurs, and – when I asked what the word “boycott” meant on her lapel pin – labor unions, workers’ rights, and injustice.  On the first day of school, she told the class that her first name was Joan.  “You can call me that when you’re twenty-one,” she deadpanned.  I’m not sure the other kids understood the humor, but I felt teacher-awe wash over me. 
It’s a powerful force.  These days, I see Lizzy’s eyes light up when she tells me that Mrs. Claar showed her a caterpillar, or that Coach Davis is teaching sign language in gym.  I see Molly swell with pride as she holds up her paper maché globe and repeats what Ms Lewis told her about continents.  “Isn’t Eurasia a funny word?” she muses.  Yes, I think – and just wait until you try to spell it.  Both kids are thrilled to report that not only do their teachers and the school librarian read stories to the kindergarteners, but so does Mr. Bob the custodian.
Molly and Lizzy have always been huge fans of stories – as was I.  It might seem odd that I was frustrated with English as a child, given that I wasn’t a victim of academic despair.  On the contrary, I was an inveterate little bookworm. However, I was also fond of logic, and incensed by the lack of it.  I was good at remembering how to write incorrigible words like ‘neighbor’ and ‘necessary,’ but that didn’t mean I liked how they were spelled.  My parents still refer to Grand Union supermarkets as Grand Onions, because that’s what I insisted the sign said when I was four.   I can remember being personally affronted by the fact that ‘doctor’ does not end in ‘er.’ 
Mrs. Monteiro had a fine appreciation for language.  She glanced at the picture books I was selecting from the school library, and scoffed.  I could read much harder stuff, she told me. She was right; at home I worked my way through a lot of Sarah’s books, so I knew I could handle the selections of a precocious ten-year-old.  Still, I was miffed.  I shot back, “What, like War and Peace?”
She granted me the barest flicker of a smile. “Oh, are you watching that on PBS?”  She was too.  Over the following weeks we discussed all 751 minutes of the series, then moved on to the next production: I, Claudius.
As a result of all that PBS, all those books, and parents who peppered the dinner table conversation with words like obfuscate, penultimate, and kerfuffle, I had a vocabulary large enough to earn me blank stares on the playground. Using too many words was a social impediment.  Kids who want to know whether something is ‘cool’ or ‘gross’ or ‘ok’ are suspicious of ‘exceptional,’ ‘repugnant,’ and ‘mediocre.’  Big words were not only impenetrable, they were also snotty.  I learned not to use them at recess. 
I don’t think Molly and Lizzy have yet reached the age of disillusionment, when they will realize that other children may not like them for entering poetry contests, or for saying, as Lizzy did earlier this week, “Look, a mosquito inserted its proboscis into my arm!”  Sometimes I worry that they’ll hate me for telling them that the talking bears in Goldilocks are ‘anthropomorphic.’
On the other hand, I never resented or discarded my vocabulary, even when I hid it.  Although all those words didn’t completely assuage my annoyance over the illogic, flaws, redundancies, and omissions of English, they were gradually seducing me.  There were patterns hidden in their depths – amble, ambulance, perambulator, ambulatory – and poetry in their syllables – mellifluous, susurration, onomatopoeia.  Grown-up words were also a free ticket into the world of adults – or, at least, the adults I most wanted to communicate with.  I played Scrabble with my dad.  I gave my mother whole notebooks full of pencil-scratched stories, and blithely asked her to copy-type them. I was allowed to join my parents and their friends in a game that involved inventing fictional definitions for words so obscure that only the dictionary knew which was correct.  And I chatted with my teachers, not just as authoritarian dictators of spelling quizzes, but as people. 
Mrs. Monteiro talked to me as if I were a grownup, but she also had a knack for connecting with me as a kid.  She noticed that my handwriting was nothing but a hasty scrawl.  She could have forced me to practice writing letters and words by rote.  Instead, she loaned me a book of poems, and gave me a special lined notebook.  I could read whatever poems I liked, she said.  I should copy my favorites into the notebook.  But it was a special notebook, so only the very best handwriting would do.  I glowed with pride.  I was a big kid!  I had a special poetry journal!  I was also a little kid.  I copied Jabberwocky, and a lengthy work by AA Milne: A bear, however hard he tries/ Grows tubby without exercise...
This week, Lizzy’s appreciation for language was bolstered by winning third prize in the school poetry contest – with a masterpiece about wearing underpants on her head.  She came home with a plastic kite and a smile that appeared to be larger than her face.  For a shining moment, when her class applauded, she was a poet, a wordsmith, a writer.  By bedtime, though, she’d remembered that she really doesn’t appreciate that ‘who’ and ‘eight’ are spelled as if someone pulled letters randomly from a hat.
For now, it seems fair enough to commiserate with her that ‘gh’ doesn’t make sense, that ‘knee’ has at least one letter too many, and that ‘knight’ is afflicted with a double dose of insanity.  Falling in love with words takes time and patience. Maybe it wasn’t until second grade, in Mrs. Monteiro’s class, that I first started to view our language in the full light of all its wondrous possibilities.  Maybe it was then that I began to realize that I was angry at English not because I hated it, but because I loved it so much. 
The internet wasn’t at our fingertips in 1979.  But today, thanks to a memorably-offered first name, it yielded the street address of an 81-year-old who donated money to a Political Action Committee called Voice of Teachers for Education.  I could be wrong, of course, but I’m guessing that’s the same sharp-eyed woman who taught me about labor unions and corruption within the Roman Empire while whipping my handwriting into shape with Winnie the Pooh. 
I’m a lot older than twenty-one now.  Maybe – with my fingers crossed, in hopes that I’m not too late -- it’s time I dropped Joan a thank-you note.


  1. Hi Nancy, this is Joan Monteiro's son Ed. I thought you should know that you're not too late, and you did find the correct Joan Monteiro. Your letter reached us the day before Mother's Day, and was an incredible gift.
    A few years ago, my mother suffered a couple of small strokes that affected her short term memory. Thankfully she was not affected physically and her long term memory is good. She lived with my wife and I for a couple of years, but unfortunately she needed more care than we could provide. She now resides in a wonderful little assisted living facility and is doing fine.
    We brought her the letter on Mother's Day, and she was surprised and very pleased to read your praise of her. She claims to possibly remember you as a very bright student. I can't imagine a nicer gift for her, and I thank you very much for reaching out to her.
    My mother was a great teacher, and it's nice to know she so inspired you. Feel free to correct my grammar or spelling, my mother always did.

  2. What a wonderful response to a terrific testament to your second grade teacher, Nancy. (And, oh, Ed... that would be "with my wife and me," did you do that on purpose so Nancy would have something to correct?!

  3. Ed--
    Thank you so much for your kind response. I'm very glad to know that my note found its way to the right hands, and that you didn't think I was strange or presumptuous for dredging up memories of your mother from more than thirty years ago and including them in this post. Excellent teachers should never be undervalued by our society -- or any society, for that matter.
    You'll have to pardon Amy -- she's a journalist! In fact, so is my father (retired now). My mother worked in a library for more than 30 years. Despite this, I still make plenty of grammatical errors.
    Best wishes to Joan and the rest of your family.

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