No video or music this week. Trawling through my laptop today looking for a lost spreadsheet, I found this piece I wrote in 2004 and I thought I would share it with you.
“Jeffrey, spell dinosaur.” said Sister Hewitt, her chill staccato voice echoing around the brown tiled walls of Sacred Heart Primary school.
Often, when I had to spell a word I would try and see it in my head but if it wasn’t there, I would have to guess. The first part, was easy D.I.N.O and but the last syllable was the more difficult part.
“D.I.N.O.S.A.W Sister” I stammered
“What’s the matter boy? Are you stupid? It’s simple, just spell dinosaur”
“No, no, no, no. Victoria stand up and tell this stupid boy how to spell ‘dinosaur’.”
Did she think I was misspelling the word just to annoy her or because I was lazy? I was as anxious as she was to spell it correctly but I couldn’t. This inability to spell cast a long shadow across my life. I had barely started my education and I was being branded a simpleton. The other kids would laugh at me and the Victoria’s of this world would learn to feel smug and superior to those who were regarded as “thickies”.
The reports of my stupidity got back to my parents. My Father, in his own pragmatic way, had a solution. He gave me a large Chambers dictionary and opened it at page one and told me to learn a page every day. Every night before bed he would test me on the words I had studied.
It must have been a frustrating experience for him. I could learn some words easily because the phonetics made sense but others would slip through my hands like greasy toast.
I never wanted to upset my Father, never mind get a beating, so I would try and learn the words as if I was learning a nursery rhyme, repeating it in my head over and over again.
“Good” my Father would say and I would bathe in rare waters of his approval but by the next day the spelling would have evaporated like a morning mist.
“Jeffrey spell dinosaur.”
“D.I.N.O.S.O.R.E.” would be followed by a frustrated slap from my Father.
“You spelt it correctly last night, now do it again.” He would say with disappointment in his voice.
I would remember that there was a “U” in there somewhere so I would have a guess.
This only seemed to increase my Father’s frustration.
From the age of six or seven I would sit with the dictionary looking at the words. I could read well enough to understand what the words meant it was the spelling that eluded me. My brain retained the meanings of words but the spelling alluded me.
After reading the dictionary I could not spell the words any better than before but it introduced me to a lot of new words. I was fascinated by the fact that a word could have many meanings, sometimes literal but also a more metaphorical interpretation could be applied.
‘Haemorrhage: a discharge of blood from the blood vessels; a steady and persistent draining away.’
Those words stayed in my head not as letters but as sounds and images. Sometimes they were feelings. Cold and hot, light and dark all jostled around inside me trying to make sense of my world. I didn’t think I was stupid but it was difficult to ignore the objective evidence.
Despite everything, I enjoyed tucking in to my nightly supper of verbs and adverbs, nouns and adjectives. I savoured the words and I listened to the sounds of the syllables and I discovered that words were linked
Haemorrhoid: dilation of a vein around the anus: piles:
and could have common roots that came from old languages like Greek and Latin.
Haemophilia: a hereditary disease causing excessive bleeding when any blood vessel is even slightly injured. From the Greek ‘haima’ meaning blood and ‘phileein’ meaning to like.
Some words seemed to be jokes.
‘Palindrome: a word, verse or sentence that spells the same forwards or backwards.’
Why is the word palindrome not a palindrome?
Out of this bizarre contradiction something strange happened. The boy who couldn’t spell fell in love with words and became fascinated by their flexibility and their ability to transmogrify.
Transmogrify: To transform or transmute.
My Father insisted that we go to the public library and once a fortnight on a Wednesday the whole family would make our pilgrimage. I could borrow up to four books and my Father insisted that at least two were novels. I read Dickens and Richmal Crompton even Enid Blyton. Later, I would consume books on philosophy by Hegel and Engels, fiction from Conan Doyle and George Orwell alongside books on dinosaurs and flying saucers. Every time I sat down to read I always had my dictionary by my side.
Literate: able to read and write, a person who is literate; an educated person without a university degree.
Although I passed my 11 plus my education would never be able to compensate for the fact that the world perceived all those who could not spell as stupid. Despite the fact that my grasp of sciences and mathematics was good, I was caught between my love of language and my inability to spell.
My teachers were irritated with me and I was frustrated with them and as I drifted towards my O’levels I became more and more disillusioned and from the age of fifteen I attended school rarely and only managed to notch up one exam pass in Mathematics.
I left school at sixteen and drifted through a variety of jobs as a salesman. I could use words to separate someone from their money even if I could not spell ‘separate’.
In the 1984 I got my first job in the computer industry as a salesman in the Newcastle office of a software company. I was given a computer with a software package called WordPerfect. I would type a letter or a report and press a key and the software then did a miraculous thing, it checked my spelling and offered me the correct word for the one I had misspelled. This was not always a perfect system because if you do not know how to spell a word then if the spellchecker offers you three alternatives it is often difficult to pick the correct answer but it was a huge improvement and gave me more confidence to write.
I bought a PC and a small printer and started to write at home. The words were slow to come. I had been used to writing in my head. There the spelling was always perfect and the stories and poetry flowed like sweat down a nightclub wall. I wrote poetry and prose. I wrote stories about my children and about my life. I wrote poetry about the world I lived in and about my aspirations and disappointments.
Computers taught me something else. For example: no matter how many times I spelt the word ‘point’ I was never certain if it was ‘point’ or ‘piont’ as both looked right (write) on the page. I discovered that there was a pattern to the words on the keyboard. The first three letters of ‘point’ ran from right to left on the keyboard and once I had memorised the pattern I never made a mistake with the spelling again. The more I typed the more I became used to the word patterns on the keyboard, the better my spelling became.
My lack of a formal education did not seem to have any great effect on my career in computing and the world learned to live with my shortcomings. It was only when my oldest daughter went to school and I discovered that she had a similar problem I began to think that there was more to the problem than an inability to spell.
Dyslexia: word blindness, great difficulty in learning to read or spell, unrelated to intellectual competence and of unknown cause.
I talked to the teachers and I talked to education psychologists in an attempt to find out what the problem was and more importantly how to overcome it. I was told that my daughter was Dyslexic and that her reading and writing was in the bottom 30% but her IQ was in the top 5%.
Like me she had developed coping strategies and importantly because of my own experience I had introduced her to computers at a very early age and she was confident in her abilities. I discussed her symptoms of Dyslexia and she said she thought it was a positive thing. She said that she knew that she saw words differently to other people and she liked that. I asked her what she meant and she told how she saw words in her head not as letters or symbols but as pictures and images.
This was a revelation to me. I had always assumed that everyone saw words the way that I did. It was just my stupidity that stopped me from being able to spell. It never occurred to me that other people did not see words in the same way. It also occurred to me that my love of words, my stories and my poetry had come about not despite my spelling problems but because of them. Like my daughter, I should embrace them rather than treat it like an old alcoholic uncle that the family doesn’t want to talk about.
The computer screen gave me images of words that I could recognise, the keyboard gave me patterns and my brain gave me tangential connections between words and phrases.
Tangential: relating to or in the direction of a tangent.
Although my laptop replaced pen and paper many years ago, I still enjoy sitting down in the evening with the Guardian crossword and with my familiar Chambers by my side.
- All definitions abridged from The Chambers Dictionary.
© Jeff Price September 2004