I won my first spelling bee when I was in first grade. The final word was monster. I believe the other contestant spelled it with a “u.” I won most (but not all) of my elementary school spelling bees, and when I was in fourth or fifth grade I got to go to regionals, where I was knocked out very quickly. I am a good speller, but I don’t really know why. It’s some sort of bizarre gift. If I see how a word is spelled, I remember how a word is spelled. It doesn’t take any memorization or effort on my part. The letters just enter my brain through my retinas and remain there, readily accessible at any time*. It is an odd skill to have and regrettably not a very good party trick.
Less you think this is a holier-than-thou diatribe against all the poor spellers of the world, it’s not. I present to you reasons why this particular spelling gift of mine is also a curse. (Poor, poor Jen. She knows how to spell.) I’m always spelling. When you are speaking, I’m spelling. I’m not doing so consciously, but my brain is doing some extra calculations. By the time someone finishes introducing themselves to me, I’ve already spelled their name in my head. If I find out later that the spelling is different than I imagined, this takes a considerable adjustment on my part. I have to go through a process of translation. I have to become on some level reacquainted with this person. And if I don’t understand something in a conversation – a word I’ve never heard, an acronym, new slang – I HAVE to know how it’s spelled or I won’t understand what’s going on. That blank look you see on my face from time to time – I’m probably spelling something.
I also have a fairly good understanding of the rules of grammar, again through no fault of my own. I used to be a stickler for the rules, reasoning that the way the rules are now are the way the rules should stay, so that the English language does not devolve. I’ve relaxed considerably on this position, now siding with the argument that language is a constantly evolving organism. We made it up in the first place, it’s our language, so we’re allowed to change it. (To clarify, just the grammar, not the spelling.) More importantly, however, in addition to my eye for spelling I have an ear for dialogue. Or at least a very good memory of how things are said. There’s a rhythm to speech, there are dynamics and emphases and emotion and some things just sound better than other things. Imagine if, in the opening credits of Star Trek, the voiceover said, “to go boldly where no one has gone before,” all to avoid that pesky split infinitive. Well it just wouldn’t have the same ring, would it? So I decided that for creative purposes, since I am a writer and I want what I write to sound current and authentic, that the rules of grammar must sometimes take a back seat to the pure auditory joy of language.
At some point in my college career I stopped taking notes. I always hated taking notes because I could never make sense of them later so it felt pointless making the effort. Once I realized that I was remembering lectures verbatim – not that I could recite them to you if asked, but an aptly worded test question could spur a memory of the exact words of the professor, in his or her voice with relevant intonations – I stopped taking notes entirely. I figured the process was only distracting me from the more important task of listening. In my final quarter of college in London, I mentioned this theory out loud in the presence of a British professor, who emphatically agreed with me. I was astonished and quite pleased with myself.
I have to confess that the impetus for this now meandering piece was to say that while I try not to judge poor spelling, I often just don’t understand. How can you go through life with all of these visual cues for spelling and still misspell words? It is of course because we all learn in different ways. (There’s also some theories on technology making it too easy to forget things like how to spell.) However, setting the whole freaky spelling thing aside, I think I finally understand, now that I’m almost done with graduate school, that I am mostly an auditory learner. Auditory learners make up a smaller percentage of the population so, like left-handers, we’re a bit neglected in school. I’m insecure to this day because I feel I don’t get as much out of class readings as other students do, but lectures always put things in perspective. I think this also has the effect of making me less participatory in the classroom, but hey, I’ve always been a little backwards. Must be why I always thought that it would make more sense to do the readings after the lecture.
So what about you? Can I find any other auditory-learning, spelling savants out there, or am I on my own?
*Disclaimer: Though I rarely misspell things, I’m not immune to typos. But I type 90 wpm. So there.