"Good teachers will find a way to … make things more interesting for their students. It requires a little more work, a little more imagination, and maybe even a little acting ability. The best teachers make learning interesting, exciting and important. The teachers who do that well deserve our support and most of all our gratitude."
Alfred Thompson, educator
Mr. West's determination to make good spellers out of us was legendary. He'd tell us: "Good and poor spelling sends a message."
What such messages were was fuzzy to us back then. We were 12. But a "spelling" grade on our report cards was a clear reality. And even as 12-year-olds we could recognize and admire, and would work our tails off for, any teacher who had an authentic passion for a subject.
So spelling became a mighty big deal to us.
Twenty-four words each week, one practice test and one "for all the marbles," Mr. West would warn us. Pens, not pencils, were mandatory, and no cross-outs were allowed on the all-the-marbles test.
I'm looking at some of my test papers now (my mother saved everything). On one my score and grade were indicated as: "21/24/C." I'd missed "innocent," "majority" and "historical" — the latter because I didn't dot one of the i's.
Mr. West didn't teach spelling rules. "Memorize and use the words on the list like you own them," he'd tell us. We earned an extra point for underlining any of that week's words that we fanatically searched for in the newspaper. If you delivered to him a restaurant menu with a misspelled word, you were hailed a hero, with Mr. West leading the cheers. (Intentional misspellings like "x-tra" irked him the most.)
Above all, each word we incorporated into our assignments earned us more points. But there were risks. I have an English assignment in which we were asked to describe our parents. I used a word from that week's list — "intimate" (which might have made Mr. West chuckle) — but spelled it "intimat." He deducted a point from the following week's test.
Years later I somehow fell two credits short of graduating on time from the University of Minnesota. To help me out, one of my English professors, Martin Steinmann, agreed to an independent study. All I had to do was turn in a paper on a topic of my choosing. Naturally, I chose Shakespeare to impress him.
I barely recall writing it but remember thinking it turned out swell. I'd never know how swell, though, because I'd spelled Shakespeare — "Shakespear" — 36 times. I know this number, because Steinmann returned the paper to me with an angry-looking red "FAIL" written underneath this: "You misspelled Shakespeare 36 times. You might ask yourself why." He had circled each of my offenses.
In graduate school, Richard Welton, professor of anatomy and physiology, was just as demanding about correct spelling as Mr. West and Prof. Steinmann had been. On exams he deducted half a point for each misspelled term. To Prof. Welton it wasn't enough to know the whereabouts and functions of the brachiocephalic vein, cerebellum and arachnoid villi (all of which I misspelled). This drove many students batty. Once he told my study partner, a whining phlebotomist wannabe, that he wouldn't trust anyone with his own blood if he knew that person was a careless speller.
Prof. Welton's merciless reputation for demanding correct spelling of his students — and himself — was well-deserved. One day he delayed his lecture to apologize after a student pointed out in the written instructions for that week's lab — "Graded synaptic resistance, irradiation of reflexes, synaptic fatigue, forms of nerve stimuli" — the only spelling gaffe (legend has it) that Prof. Welton ever made:
"Decapatate a frog as directed by your instructor."
Along with the apology, he awarded every student a bonus half-point on the next exam. This "touché" elicited a lovely, good-natured cheer. He awarded the student who detected the misspelling a full extra point, which compensated neatly for his misspelled (but correct) answers to numbers 5: "tribeculaer [sic] carnae" and 34: "visceral efferant [sic] nerves." That student was my study partner.
Toward the end of the term, Prof. Welton offered us the opportunity to "buy back" points we'd lost for the misspellings if we donated a pint of blood at the local blood drive. Many years after he'd retired from 35 years of teaching anatomy and physiology, I learned that he himself had donated blood 230 times in his lifetime.
And that's how I was taught to be a good speller. Thank you, teachers.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.