- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

This is the time of year when linguistically nimble youngsters vie for the crown of spelling champion of the world. A friend who knows I easily could win the title of misspelling champion of the world sent me a copy of a story on the National Spelling Bee.

She had filled in my name as one of the survivors of the bee's first rounds, in much the way people purchase mock covers of Sports Illustrated with photos of their flabby friends' imaginary athletic triumphs.

I'm far more likely to survive a cross-Atlantic race in a rowboat than I am a spelling competition against grade schoolers. I don't lose sleep these days over my struggles to recall that pesky i-before-e-except-when-it's-not rule, but when I was young, spelling haunted me.

I used to dread Fridays, when the class would be lined up in the front of the room and we would be called up one by one to face down a spelling challenge. I inevitably was the first one felled. I would go to my desk the only person seated in the big classroom and silently pray that a classmate would trip up soon and end my unwilling isolation.

Both my teacher and my mother who was an elementary school teacher herself repeatedly encouraged me to use the dictionary to correct my misspellings. The dictionary was useless to me, though, because my guesses were so far off that I would peruse the entire thousand-page tome without finding the word I was seeking.

I was nothing if not creative in my spelling attempts. To this day, my mother keeps a letter I sent her from camp in which I spelled "counselor" five ways and not once did I spell it correctly.

One time I brought home a spelling test on which I had earned an unprecedented minus 10 points. I not only had spelled every word wrong, but also had misspelled my name. The 10-point, let's-just-rub-this-in penalty for my misspelled name was not really fair because the error technically was a cursive mistake. This was in third grade, when cursive was still new, and for most of the year, I would put in an extra loop or two whenever I wrote "Paula." Once I got going on those loops, it was hard to stop.

My mother was visibly appalled with that nadir of all test grades, but my father was much more nonchalant.

"Spelling is not a sign of intelligence," he reassured my mother, "and it is not a prerequisite for success. When she's grown, she'll just have to hire a secretary who can spell."

Fortunately, that's what I did, and when I changed careers to one in which I had to function without secretarial assistance, the universe provided spell check one of the most significant technological advances of the 20th century.

Though spell check has evened the spelling field for me when I write, I still am in the dark when words are spelled out orally. Early on, my parents learned they could have secret conversations in front of me as long as they spelled out significant words.

"Lets see a M-O-V-I-E when the kids are A-S-L-E-E-P," they would say with a wink.

I tried desperately to decipher their obvious code, but it was far from obvious to me. Unless I had a pencil and paper handy, the letters soon were gone from the air, and I was helpless to retrieve them into the words that would unlock my parents' shared secret.

I was the oldest of four children, and it dismayed me terribly when my younger siblings soon gained the ability to break my parents' code. My parents soon found other ways to communicate without tipping off the children speaking in Yiddish, for example. But every now and then, I would be the only one in the room, and they would spell out their thoughts as I desperately tried to put the letters back into discernible words.

"It's Paula's B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y next week," my mother would say. "Let's get her an A-L-B-U-M."

"You're talking about me," I'd complain. "It's no fair you can't spell."

"No, dear," my mother would say. "It's you who can't spell."

Paula Gray Hunker, who works from home, is the mother of four children, the bemused wife of her amazing (but true) husband and a staff writer for the Family Times. She welcomes comments, suggestions and stories from her readers. She can be reached by mail at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; by phone at 202/636-4897; by fax at 610/351-1791; or by e-mail (hunkerc@erols.com).

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