Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spell Check

From time to time, you are struck by the sudden, unanticipated replay of a memory from the past that was not so much negative or fearful as overwhelming.  One such memory, from your best attempt at accurate reckoning, comes from you in the third grade, where spelling and its attendant implications seemed to have been uppermost in your school time routine.

Third grade meant you still recessed and played in the south-facing yard, impatient with the advent of your destiny into the play yard of the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade.  School meant Hancock Park Elementary School, on the east side of Fairfax Avenue, a scant quarter mile south of Third Street.

The recurrent memory was an in-class spelling bee, which you, still morphing into irreverence, took with some degree of seriousness to the point of considering yourself ahead of the curve when it came to spelling.  You were on a four-person team, pitted against another four-person team.  Each of the teams had a boy-girl-boy-girl lineup.  You were on a team with a boy named Ivan, who, while not a friend, was someone you thought highly of because of his ability to swear in Yiddish.

With you and Ivan on a team, you felt a certain invincibility because of  your belief at the time that all girls were de facto better spellers than boys.  In the years to come, you also had the belief that girls were better at math and science than boys; that girls in general tended to get better grades than boys because they were less given to mischief than boys.

In your recollection, the spelling bee was moving along well enough, having you eager to get your word.  But someone on the opposing team, a girl named Elizabeth, drew the word elephant.  You'd heard that word before, more than likely had read it any number of times, without the awareness that it would ever come up in a spelling bee.
You gulped, as though the word had been given you to deconstruct.  

You reasoned that the word had been sneaked into the spelling bee to see if the contestants would seize up on the ph sound, mistaking it for an f.  Nevertheless, as Elizabeth began, "Elephant.  E-l-e--"  You froze. You were of a sudden unable to visualize the word.  "p-h--"  Elizabeth said.  And for you, prideful of vocabulary and spelling, the sense of not knowing where to go from there.  "a-n-t.  Elephant,"  Elizabeth said.

Not only was she right, no one but you seemed to think her accomplishment any sort of real feat.  "Yes,"  the teacher said.  And now it was your turn.  Whatever the word was, your memory will not let you see it.  You were correct in spelling whatever the word was, and the teacher said "Yes," again, but in that moment, you'd crossed some kind of divide between child and emerging scholar in which you understood two things, the going was about to be rough, and you were no speller.

Because of that day, so far back in time, you know how to spell elephant.  For a time, you managed to slip the word "elephant" into the occasional paragraph or sentence.  You did not recognize the defensive strategy you were employing, but you were in effect showing off your ability to spell elephant as a distraction from the words you surely did not know how to spell correctly.

As the years progressed and you found yourself looking more and more to Samuel L. Clemens as a role model, you could be heard to say that you'd come to mistrust a person who knew only one way of spelling a word.

By that time, you'd begun to develop greater degrees of mischief than any grasp on spelling.  In fact, some of your spelling was borderline mischief.  This obvious weakness caused you to spend considerable time with dictionaries, which only seduced you into learning more words to misspell.  

Your arrival at junior high school introduced you to the phenomenon of study hall, which you'd heard of from your sister, but had no tangible way of reckoning.  A kindly study hall teacher offered her charges the possibilities of learning Spanish, as she was choosing to do, or use the study hall time to attack their homework.  You'd had enough Spanish to know this was the primary language outside of English you wished to pursue, and thus in no time at all, you learned how to misspell words in Spanish as well as in English.

During this time, among the positive things you were identifying and putting into practice, you were demonstrating the great negative of what in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island were called penmanship skills.  If prizes were to be awarded for poor penmanship, you would still have trophies.  You did earn recognition, which is, in its way, something.

Another of these memory traumas came to you early into your transfer to undergraduate status as an English major at UCLA.  You'd had considerable experience with libraries before, as tourist and borrower, in Los Angeles, New York, Providence, and Boston.  Soon, there awaited you a job at the Beverly Hills Public Library, shelving returned books and returning books that had been left on the reading tables.

Yet, there was this moment, when, one morning, you found your way into the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, once again overwhelmed with the vast number of books, but this time experiencing the ache of knowledge that however much you might try, you could not possibly read them all.  

With a combination of mischievous charm and two neatly rolled marijuana cigarettes, you induced a library worker to stamp your university registration card with the designation "Admit to Stacks," which meant you no longer had to wait for your books to be delivered, you could descend into the great bowels of the library to browse through these many, many things you would never have time to read.

While at UCLA, you'd somehow become friends with a teacher in the journalism department, Robert Kirsch, who moonlighted nights at the copy desk of the Los Angeles Times, ultimately becoming its most notable editor of the then stand-alone Book Review, as well as a daily column.

Hanging out with him, playing poker, drinking endless cups of coffee, you came to think how great it would have been to have such a job, where you were paid to read books, write reviews of them, all the while preparing a weekly book section.

You have recurrent dreams of this, as well, and of seeing him, in later years, on his way to the beach with an armload of books.

But there you were, a poor speller, with remarkable, or perhaps unremarkable penmanship, and a sense of wonder at how much there was to be had from reading all those many books.  

Other writers you know and knew had lousy childhoods or magical ones to influence their work.  You had in your toolkit a not-so-hot ability to spell, idiosyncratic penmanship, and a hunger for books, qualities, with which you strode out of the university and into the streets, seeking answers which, if you got any of them at all, led you right here to this.

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