First, the type of story a mom would tell about her kid (but I don’t have kids, so I’m going to talk about myself during my kid years): I have two or three spelling bee trophies. There came this point in my young life when we realized that I could spell an awful lot of words*; I’m still unsure why it is that I can hear something that’s phonetically weird and know exactly what letters the American English language would use, but it’s proven to be useful over the years.
You know, to win things like spelling bee trophies.
Husband calls me his Human Spell-check, and that’s basically true (although I was lucky enough to marry a guy who can spell almost everything, as well). I’ve offered my spell-checking abilities to friends and family and coworkers over the years, free of charge, because spelling is a really fun thing. My mom and I used to play this game where we’d hear a word and she’d ask me if I knew how to spell it. (I never really kept track, but I think I had about a 95% success rate.)
But there’s one pesky problem: My vocabulary skills are … how shall I put it? Not good.
Yes. They’re definitely not good.
It’s not simply a matter of misusing words (although I do that a lot, much to either A) Shadra’s chagrin or B) Shadra’s delight over a potential teaching moment). I just don’t know them in general.
Giving credit where credit’s due: I need to take a moment to give a shout out to “The West Wing,” without which I might still be using only one- and two-syllable words. [And as an aside, you should watch “Rocky” sometime and take note of how Stallone’s entire script is basically monosyllabic. No, seriously.]
The thing is, I spent the majority of my life not realizing I actually had a problem. I was a lame word addict — I could have stopped at any time, guys. I don’t think I ever sounded uneducated, but I didn’t realize the array of beautifully wondrous words out there at my disposal.
This became wildly apparent when, as a 20-year old college junior, I decided to leave the world of music for the American Studies program and trusted my
incompetent adviser when she said I could easily step into upper division English classes without any sort of problem (in fact there was one glaring problem, and that was: I’d never taken a college English course in my life.)
So there I was, sitting in Dr. Funda’s ENG 4690 class, ready to discuss The Grapes of Wrath (I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring. And too long.), and suddenly words were just being thrown about. A fellow classmate said altruistic about four times, and I realized, at that precise moment, exactly how deep in over my head I really was.
Well, I stuck to my original assessment of not liking this boring, long novel, and then went home to find out what in THE hell altruistic meant**. But this posed for me an entirely new problem: there were clearly thousands of commonly used words out there I not only didn’t understand but hadn’t even heard of.
It was a lot for me to take.
The thing is, and I blame general laziness and lack of motivation, there was plenty of stuff I could have done to remedy this. I could have signed up for the dictionary.com email list. I could have bought a thesaurus. I could have spent a lot of time memorizing the book a friend gave me as a present, 100 Words to Make You Sound Smart. But … I didn’t.
There’s a part of me that’s very content with the current vocabulary I have. I think that, for the most part, I sound smart without an additional 100 words under my belt (at least I hope).
And there’s a part of me that loves to continually learn. I suppose since I am past the point of returning to school (before you tell me it’s never too late, I assure you, it’s too late. I don’t test well, and if I were to somehow pass the GRE after about 20 attempts, I wouldn’t know what to get a Master’s in) and have no aspirations beyond being a secretary (and I’m okay with that, really I am), I’m a little worried that my opportunities to learn will wax and wane as the years go by. Scratch that — I know for a fact that they wax and wane, and therefore I want to put myself in the position to learn whenever and whatever I can.
But back to the problem at hand
before I start getting maudlin about all the things I missed out on by not furthering my higher education and getting a Masters and then a PhD and becoming a scholar with publications and courses taught listed on my curriculum vitae. I can spell far more than I can define. For years that seemed like an enormous advantage, but something happened between being 11 and 21 where the tables turned, and I was left in the dust by my literate counterparts.
You know how sometimes you’ll read a heartwarming story about an adult who learned how to read later in life? They always seem to have dictionaries by their sides as they read children’s books and then graduate to juvenile fiction and beyond?
Yeah, well, for the record, they’re not the only ones who have to do that. Whatever, guys, it’s cool.
*In fourth grade I participated in a class spelling bee, and the teacher would accept NOTHING LESS than “Capital I-apostrophe-lowercase m” for “I’m,” which naturally wiped out nearly the entire group and killed our small, fragile self-esteems. In fact, it might have been a spelling bee with no winner. I’m quite certain that we all knew, when writing said word, how to do it. I hate trickery.
**altruism (as defined by Merriam-Webster) noun \ˈal-trü-ˌi-zəm\:
1. unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.
2. behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.
— al·tru·is·tic adjective