Saturday, January 31, 2009

Flashback Friday: Vindicated

I’m late with this again, I know. Maybe Saturdays are the new Fridays? I was just so busy yesterday, what with all the church-going, napping, and firesiding that I did I was plum wiped out by the time Rachel went to bed at 11:30 PM.

Sometimes she doesn’t want to go to bed. And she’s a very busy baby, so my spare time is very limited, indeed. That’s why it took me like 3 weeks, or something, to read Wuthering Heights.

The only reason I can write this right now is because:

A) Rachel really wants to “GO!” so she’s currently sitting in her stroller and singing a song about babies and “book-a-bonks” and “glu-glu-ma-ma-mas” interspersed with an inspiring chorus of “Go! Go! Go!” and “No! No! No!” Those last two are her favorite words lately.

and B) I’m using Windows Live Writer which lets me blog completely offline. Andrew’s trying to rewire our phone. We’ll see how that goes. When (and if) the internet starts working again I’ll post this.

Anyway, I finished Wuthering Heights while we were somewhere in Morocco and because I was bored and we were sitting on a train and Andrew was coloring so nicely with Rachel, I kept on reading through the “Reader’s Supplement.”

I earned myself a few more minutes of freedom from Rachel’s craziness as well as a bit of vindication.

When I was in grade 5 I always did my spelling tests with my friend Kaley. We often played together after school and her mom would make us study our spelling words before we were allowed to play. Our spelling tests were a little ridiculous, I thought.

Instead of getting a standard list of words our teacher would go through our work and pick out misspelled words. It wasn’t even just our polished work where we’d used the dictionary, either. It was from “free writing” time in our journals where we were assigned a specific amount of time to just write away, without getting out of our seats—for anything, even to look at the dictionary. That’s the kind of writing she took our words from, the hurried, sloppy writing from our journals.

We each had our own individual list of words that we couldn’t spell.

In theory this was a good system, but in reality it backfired. Kids started purposely misspelling easy words and/or only using words that they knew how to spell. Their spelling tests were easy as pie.

I was a little bit of an overachiever and/or incredibly slow at catching on and kept using big words that I wasn’t really sure how to spell. I remember having words like curious, nervous, florescent, vanilla, and subsequent on my list. That might not sound bad until you saw my peers’ lists: shirt, ask, hand, foot. Come on!

My teacher, Mrs. Bienert, aka “The Homework Queen,” was a little clueless, herself. I had more homework than my sister and brother combined—they were in high school and junior high. I was in grade five and working on homework until 10 PM, or later. Every night. Hours after my older siblings had closed their books I was still plugging away.

When my mom brought this to Mrs. Bienert’s attention, she said, “I never expected anyone to actually complete all the homework I assign. Most of these kids don’t have a life after school and would just watch television if they didn’t have homework.”

“Well, my daughter has a life,” my mom said.

I had gymnastics on Fridays, Achievement Days one night a week, FHE on Mondays and swimming in the spring. I also participated in the school musical and an afterschool jazzercise program (did I really just admit that? It was the nineties, okay). And I helped babysit my younger siblings until our parents got home from work. Oh, and I did homework. Plenty of that. There was almost no TV watching in our house.

So the homework thing was a little ridiculous, especially for a perfectionist like me who had to complete everything, and get full marks, or it was the end of the world.

Just because I’m a perfectionist, though, doesn’t mean I’m good at everything. For example, I can’t spell very well. In any language. I love spell checker. It’s probably the best invention ever because I know way more words than I can actually spell.

I’m forever forgetting “i before e” rules and things like that. Spelling is like math. It’s just tricky. I can’t remember any formulas about triangles or anything like that, and I can’t remember any decimal in pi further than 3.14. And I can’t spell. So I’m not a genius, just a perfectionist, or as my cousin Elizabeth likes to say, a precisionist.

In order to help prepare us for our tests, Kaley and I would make up stories about our words, a method sanctioned by both of our mothers as a valid way of learning how to spell.

For example, in grade three I had the word “together” and my mom helped me make up the story “We went together to get her.” I knew how to spell to, get, and her. Putting them together in that order made “together” and presto! I never spelled together wrong ever again.

Beautiful is another tricky word. There are simply too many vowels in it. Kaley and I would say, “You look B-E-A-U-tiful today!” But since spelling out half the word would have been cheating we made up the sentence “Be an understanding beauty” or something like that so that we could remember the order of the vowels.

Vanilla was pretty simple, too. See, Mr. Illa drove a van and sold vanilla ice cream. You can sing that to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. We had a whole song for vanilla.

And that’s how we’d memorize our spelling words every week.

Since every pupil had a different list, Mrs. Bienert couldn’t give a “test” to every student, so instead we partnered up and tested each other. Kaley and I were always partners and we would always use the sentences that we’d made up, or similar sentences.

One day Mrs. Bienert called us into an unused classroom to talk to us in private. Someone in the class had told Mrs. Bienert that we were cheating. She wanted to ask us about it.

I believe it was the week Kaley had the word “sword” on her list and we made up a sentence something like, “Don’t use the s-word or I’ll use my sword on you.”

So we told Mrs. Bienert about how we learned our words and used sentences to help us remember how to spell them.

Mrs. Bienert told us that was unfair because other students weren’t doing that. She tore up our spelling tests from that week and banned us from being spelling partners while expressing her disappointment.

I never told my parents. I don’t know if Mrs. Bienert ever did.

Part of me was too ashamed to because I was a “cheater” and part of me was mad because my mom had taught me to “cheat.” Part of me was livid because other children were cheating by purposely spelling easy words wrong and got away with it simply because Mrs. Bienert thought they were white trash.

I finished off the year taking every spelling test by myself. I memorized the words on the list and how to spell them and sat by myself and wrote everything down from memory. Still, I made up stories to do this, and felt a little guilty all year because I was “cheating.” But I couldn’t think of any other way to learn my words.

I’ve spent more than half of my life feeling guilty about this. When I had to memorize all the states and their capitols in one week after moving to the states, my mom helped me. We made up crazy stories about pigs with wings, flying through the sky carrying grapes in their mouths to remember that he capitol of New Hampshire was Concord; or my cousin Lance swimming across Lake Michigan while singing to remember that the capitol of Michigan was Lansing.

I got 100% on that test. And I felt like a cheater. Because I had made up those stories. And no one else had. Which gave me an advantage.

I make up stories to learn vocabulary words in foreign languages. I wrote a whole paper for my Historical/Comparative Linguistics class about creating “folk etymologies” as a learning strategy.

I learned in my TESOL classes that creating analogies and things like that is a perfectly valid tool for learning.

All this time I still felt like a cheater, because I had been accused of cheating in grade 5 for doing the exact same thing.

So it’s a good thing I read the “Reader’s Supplement” at the end of Wuthering Heights because, after reading that, I don’t feel guilty anymore. In the “Spelling Exercises” on page 30, it says,

Write the word so that the difficult part for you (the part you misspelled) stands out…Now compose a bond, some association or clue that reminds you of the difficult part, or use a spelling rule (if a good one exists) as your bond. All this helps you THINK THE WORD! The sillier the bond is, the better.

Even a ROSE makes him moROSE.

Granted, it then suggests practicing the word enough that spelling it becomes habitual, which I’ve done by now. My spelling has improved immensely since grade 5, even with the crutch of the blessed spell checker. Do you really think I spell “together” or “vanilla” wrong anymore? Spelling vanilla with two els is pretty habitual for me by this point in my life.

Realy. It is.


  1. I've always used mnemonics to memorize thiings in school- if that's cheating than I am horribly guilty. I can't believe that teacher would have made you feel bad about it. That's just silly.

  2. Oh, I wish you had told me that happened, Nancy, and I would have given Mrs. Bienert a piece of my mind! Honestly, using mnemonics is NOT cheating!!!

  3. What a stupid woman!
    It seems everyone has at least one absolutely unfair and clueless teacher. Nick's 5th grade teacher had never heard the word "din", so marked him down for using it, and my 2nd grade teacher thought literally thought I had brain damage because I didn't pay attention in math class!

  4. Mme. Muir once told us that "wind" in French sounded like an "air vent" and we could remember it that way...but that she shouldn't tell us that. Maybe Spitzee just had a policy against mnemonics.

    And my friend was once put in speech therapy for her New York accent. Same town, different school.

  5. I'm really mad at Mrs. Bienert right now. I can't believe she did that.