Friday, September 28, 2001

Jonathan asks if spelling is important these days. Yes, to those who can spell. No, to those who can't.

I'm afraid I've never understood people who can't spell in their own language. If you don't know how to spell a word, why - you simply look it up. What's so difficult? Jonathan says, "I certainly can't be bothered to check it manually." Why on earth not, Jonce? Poor spelling makes one wary of the reliability of the content.

While my spelling may be near-perfect, my typing certainly isn't. I tend to type my blog entries directly into Blogger, which - on a Mac - doesn't have a spell-checking facility. Generally speaking, if there are errors in my blog - and there certainly are - they're typos rather than spelling errors, and they've slipped past my check and double-check.

I've always been a good speller. I have a vivid memory of being able to spell 'Mediterranean' before I was eight. But I shouldn't be too proud of my spelling - it once got me into a lot of trouble and scarred me permanently:

When I was about ten, and living on a farm in South Africa, my English teacher was one Mrs Townsend. She was madly competitive - in fact I may have picked up my competitive nature from her. The class was streamed - every week. She would give us a test each week, and the seating plan would be changed according to the results. For those of us who were good at English, it was exciting, and we worked extra hard to try to occupy the front row. I should imagine that it was hell for those who weren't, though.

One Monday morning Mrs Townsend announced a special spelling competition...

The contest was not compulsory; it was only for those who wanted to enter. But once you agreed to enter, you were committed. We would be given a list of ten words; if we spelled all ten words correctly, we would win a Lunch Bar. If we got even one wrong, we would have to buy her one. Now, I'd never had a Lunch Bar - never had much chocolate at all really. We didn't receive pocket money as kids - my parents had some strange ideas about child-rearing. Either that or they were tight - I'm beginning to suspect the latter.

I usually got ten out ten on Mrs Townsend's spelling quizzes, but what if she decided to include some really hard words to ensure she'd get loads of chocolate? I decided to gamble - that Lunch Bar with its caramel and nougat and nuts smothered in chocolate was just too tempting.

As I feared, she'd lured us into her trap - the test included words like 'accommodation' and 'liaise'. I didn't get one word wrong - I got three wrong. Mrs Townsend grinned wickedly and told us we'd have to give her a Lunch Bar before the end of the week. She wrote the names of her debtors on the board. As the week progressed she erased each name as they brought in her booty.

I had a problem - I didn't have any money. The end of the week came and went. On Friday, she pointed me out to the rest of the class, announcing that David now owed her two Lunch Bars.

What was I to do? I lay awake at nights, worrying about how I was going to buy the chocolate. Looking back now, I wonder why I didn't tell my parents about it. I mean, I wasn't scared of them; I got on really well with them, but I didn't dare tell them what I had managed - through my own greed - to get myself into. The end of that week came and went, too, and mine was the lone name on the board; the amount owing increased to three.

Again, I now wonder why I didn't simply tell Mrs Townsend that I didn't get pocket money, that I had no means of paying my debt. But I feared that she would say, "but you shouldn't have entered the contest then," and increase my debt still further. More sleepless nights ensued, more mental torture - far more mental torture than a kid of ten should have to go through.

My name stayed on the board till the end of term, my debt clocking up. On the last day, Mrs Townsend addressed the class, handing out prizes for the best pupil, the most improved, neatest handwriting, etc. She ordered me to stand up and called me an ungrateful, selfish boy. I cried.

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