Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

We often dream of perfection, but we rarely, if ever, achieve it. There was one exceedingly minor business, in one all too brief period,  in which I did attain such heights: my spelling prowess in my early school grades. I do not know if I ever attained the competency levels of those who excel at the national spelling bees that continue to enthrall so many folks every year, but there was no doubt I was a contender. Classroom testing of spelling prowess was carried out by dint of the dreaded ‘dictation test’: our teacher would read out loud, first, a list of words to be spelled out, and then, a short passage. We listened and wrote.

Through, I think, the fifth grade, (after which such ‘dictation tests’ ceased), I maintained a perfect record in my spelling examinations. I did not spell a single word wrong. (I also never suffered a single spelling correction in any of my essay assignments–this record ran through my high school years.) Indeed, I was often puzzled by the fact that my classmates did not score similar grades. What was the problem–did they not know what the word looked in question like? My spelling prowess was not a secret; word of my never-ending stream of perfect scores in these tests was not slow in spreading among my mates–we were a nerdy bunch. Needless to say, I lapped up the ensuing admiration.

Interestingly enough, I only encountered spelling difficulties–of a kind–once I began using word processors. My physical connection with the medium of writing changed, rewiring my linkages to the written word. I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated against the introduction of spelling errors.) Identifying and correcting these added labors to my writing that I was unfamiliar with.

The differences between the two modes of writing were many–perhaps too many to list here. Some were immediately relevant to my spelling difficulties, to the business of orthographic errors. In writing with a word processor, I interacted with a keyboard; my fingers found keys and transferred letters to the screen. In writing with a pen, I traced out the shapes of the letters, my hands pressing directly upon the surface of writing. A word processor always produced a printed draft that I read and corrected before handing in the final version; perhaps I grew careless, trusting myself to remove spelling mistakes from the final version. A fountain pen produced a near-final version in ink that was not easily or cleanly corrected; the tracings of my pen were infected with this awareness. (The introduction of spelling and grammar checkers in word processors might have made things worse for some folks, tempted now to plunge ahead and correct later as the offending words are flagged in rude highlights.)

The valorization of spelling prowess seems, for some reason, a curiously old-fashioned affectation. I’m not sure why. A misspelled word still seems an abomination of sorts.