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Why, according to my baby-book, was I able to say doggy at the age of six months and yet unable to spell cat in the second grade, according to my teacher’s note to my mom? People are different and it is not uncommon for an individual to be quite gifted in one endeavor and dunced in another. However, in this case, it wasn’t because I was deficient in visual awareness. A proof of that is my winning what was functionally a national professional photo contest at age 17, with a $2 camera. I will tell that story one day soon.

In the note the teacher was recommending I be held back a grade to be in my appropriate age level. I had started school a year early, actually four years early, as my first school was a rural schoolhouse with three grades in one classroom. The year head start was because my mom was so smart she was skipped ahead two grades before graduating from the same school, and I guess my granddad, whom I was living with at the time, thought I could handle it.

So, here I was (next year) in the second grade at Lincoln school in Spokane, a proper city school, an ersatz fourth grader in a first-grade aged body. The teacher had the entire classroom arranged in a circle, and we were going to have a spelling bee. She would say a word, and after an appropriate pause the next person in the circle would spell it out loud for all to appreciate. Now, I must confess, spelling is not my forte and I still rely heavily on a spell checker and substantial sophisticated human help to scale the heights of English spelling. Even with that peculiar spelling disability I have managed to acquire a reasonably large polysyllabic vocabulary, even if I can’t spell those words very consistently. These background apologies are building up to my moment of despair and a lifelong complex.

In this formal spelling bee, the teacher had finally come to me and my turn, which as it turned out was the last one for the game, and for the school day, as the school bell rang shortly after I was finished. As this spelling game had progressed, the other kids were asked to spell some longish polysyllabic words with local relevance. Spokane – WashingtonLincoln and similar things, which I suppose the kids did reasonably well parsing out, and everyone was smug and pleased with themselves when they got things right. I sat there with growing anguish, and then it happened.

The teacher, knowing something of my spelling problem, asked me to spell cat. Which she then repeated: caaatt. I was shocked and taken aback, and then my friends, classmates and competitors all started snickering. It was a personal insult perpetrated by this possibly well-meaning second-grade teacher; at least I took it as an insult. Perhaps I flushed red; I was a fair-skinned kid at that age and my cheeks would go cherry red at the slightest provocation. I felt an inner anger and a wish to make the teacher blush too. She could have asked me a difficult word, like Mississippi or Chicago which I might have screwed up, but to ask me to spell an infantile word like cat – it deserved a riposte and a nasty one too.

Sooo, with a smirky smile, “Something like — k – a – a – t – t?” She didn’t get the joke, and I don’t think any of the other kids did either, but she got angry, all the kids laughed, and the bell rang. It couldn’t have been better.

Just because you make a joke doesn’t mean people get it.

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