Back in South Carolina, Thursday evening was spelling prep night. The teachers would give us a list of ten words on Wednesday that we would be tested on Friday. Thursday evening, my mother would run me through the words; if I missed some I was sent off to memorize them. When I came back, I sat at the table on my nail keg (which was my sitting at the table chair) and across from me would be by mother and to my left at the end of the table would be my father.
My mother would say the word; if I spelled it incorrectly my father would whack me across the palm with a yardstick. Most of the time I never got whacked because I spelled the words correctly. But sometimes I missed and then I would get whacked. Then my mother would spell the word for me again and I had to repeat it and if I didn’t repeat it correctly I would get whacked again. At times, I don’t know why exactly, I would know the word in my head and say it wrong anyway and then my father would whack me again.
Those whacking spelling sessions could go on for some time. Occasionally, they just gave up. My mother would say something like, “Now you see what I have to put up with all day.” And they would both get up disgusted.
Perhaps because of my spelling experiences, I am today only a satisfactory speller, and when I get really tired or anxious my spelling will go out the window entirely. As a prelude to my nervous breakdown I wrote a paper for a graduate course in literature that had 220 spelling errors in it. The professor brought up the paper in class; he said he had received a paper with 220 spelling errors and that people who wrote such papers did not belong in graduate school.
We had maybe 12 people in that class; and the guy hadn’t bothered to memorize our names. If he had, he might have remembered that I was the guy whose remarks he had praised twice, once even saying to the class as a whole, listen to this guy, he knows what he is talking about. And even if he didn’t know who I was, maybe he could have stopped a bit and thought about what would cause a person to write a paper with 220 spelling errors in it. After all, the winter of 1969 was not a particularly wonderful time; all over the country campuses were filled with tension. People were suffering. He might have stopped me after class if only out of curiosity, to see what kind of person would write a paper with 220 spelling errors in it.
But he didn’t. He was a nationally known scholar in his particular area of literary study and he didn’t give a damn about his students.