WENESDAY – Fourth Grade – St. Mary’s School – 1958-59 – Sister Thomas Maria
There were some things in school that came incredibly easily to me. I admit that. Diagramming sentences, for example. I could see the looks on other kids’ faces, looks of distress and of confusion. And while they were struggling, something very peculiar and out of my control was happening in my brain; the sentence was being diagrammed. When I had it I’d stand up, brace myself on my desk with my left hand and allow my right hand to go wild. “Stir! Stir. Stiiiir, I got it, I got it.”
Sister would call on me and I’d go up to the board and diagram the sentence perfectly, kind of like building a sentence made of sticks. Then I’d return to my desk feeling great. I’d sit down and stare at my work, work that looked as if someone else had done it. I was not exactly sure how I arrived at the diagram, but Sister Thomas explained to the class everything I had done, and why. It was very strange and really exhilarating.
It was the same with spelling. I could just do it, sort of automatically. And penmanship. Same thing. I didn’t even have to think about those things. It was like I was born being able to do them, but without knowing why.
Now math on the other hand — and by “math” I mean anything more complicated than subtraction — was impossible, foreign, incomprehensible, and profoundly frustrating for me. It made absolutely no sense to me, and the fact that it infuriated me didn’t help. I could read the problem with no trouble at all. Hell, I could have diagrammed it for you if you wanted me to. But tell you what the answer was? Solve it? Impossible. Utterly impossible. And the building frustration in my belly was palpable to Sister Thomas. Sister’s face would get redder and redder, like it was going to detonate right there at the desk. She began to stutter, she quickly cultivated a terrible trembling, and then the tears would begin…mine.
Jimmy, the kid who sat next to me, and the kid I picked on relentlessly, said, “I can help Johnnie, Sister.”
“You can? You really think you can? she said.
“Yes, Sister,” Jimmy responded piously.
Then she trained her unwavering gaze at me. “And you, Mr. Stanizzi, you had better apply yourself. James is giving up his own study time to work on your math. I certainly hope you appreciate it. And you HAD BETTER apply yourself!”
I swear, if one more person told me to “apply myself” I was going to lose it. Everyone kept telling me to “apply myself.” “…apply myself…” “…apply myself…!!!” Well, I was “applying” myself, damn-it, but no matter how hard I “applied,” I just couldn’t make it happen.
I realize it probably wasn’t this way with everyone, but it was with me. There were just some things I couldn’t do. Of course, I think the fact that I always had someone looking over my shoulder, their hot, stinky breath on my neck, telling me how easy it “should be,” didn’t help. I would get that feeling in my stomach that signaled my brain to shut down. When that happened it was the end of the road. All the “applying” in the world wasn’t going to get me to understand something like, Mrs. Rodger got a weekly raise of $145. If she gets paid every other week, write an integer describing how the raise will affect her paycheck. Who the hell cares? Even now a language like that gives me instant agita.
But spelling. I could spell. Automatically. Without thinking about it. In fact, one of the only things about school that I liked were the spelling bees. I could do them. And I could actually taste a little bit of what success was like. I was even the “spelling bee champ” a few times. That felt really amazing. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the spelling bees I lost. Those sucked big time, and they were, in a weird way, my own fault.
The first happened on an unforgettable day, a day I learned a very important lesson about the English language. I learned that the English language can screw you up so bad that you end up not being sure how to spell or say anything. I remember so clearly losing this spelling bee, and being absolutely incredulous about the loss. I was convinced that Sister was making a mistake. Of course, if I had studied the night before instead of spelling by the seat of my pants, I would have known that Sister was right and that I had, indeed, lost.
Here’s how it happened. We got down to two kids. Me and Mary. Everyone else in the class had missed a word and was out.
It was my turn. I stood stiffly. Arms to my sides. Playing by the rules. Speaking loudly. Confidently. I spoke up. “Wednesday. W-E-N-E-S-D-A-Y. Wednesday.”
Sister said, “That’s incorrect, John. Mary?’ And I’m thinking “incorrect!? How the hell can it possibly be incorrect?!
Mary spoke. “Wednesday, W-E-D-N-E-S-D-A-Y. Wednesday.’
WHAT!? How could that be right? It didn’t make any sense.
“But, but Sister….”
“Please sit, John. Congratulations, Mary! You are our spelling champion!”
Sister seemed glad that I had lost. And then all the dopey kids started to clap for Mary. And I was incredulous. I could not believe it.I could not believe it. And, of course, I never forgot it. It made no sense to me. It was like the language was out to sabotage me. A “D” in the middle of Wenesday? Why? Why? What purpose did it serve beyond screwing me up at one of the only things I was good at in school. WED-nesday?! Gimme me a break!
And that wasn’t my only spelling bee loss. I lost another one in an even stranger way. And the second loss was connected to the first loss in that the first loss showed me very clearly how untrustworthy and quirky the language could be. “Wednesday” taught me to not trust my intuitions about language, and that if there could be a “D” in the middle of a word pronounced “Wenesday” why couldn’t other words be just as messed up? The answer is, there could. And there were.
Here’s how I lost the other Spelling Bee. On the road that took us onto the highway to Hartford, and to Sosie’s house, there was a sign that read “Merging Traffic.” I used to see it all the time. “Merging Traffic.” It was the sign on the roadside just as we got onto the highway. With thoughts of the “Wednesday ” fiasco in my mind, I looked at that sign every time we went to Sosie’s house, and it confused the hell out of me. What a strange way to spell “margin,” I thought. Margin. M.E.R.G.I.N.G??
See, I had it all figured out. I knew what the word meant. Or at least I thought I did. So with the Wednesday catastrophe still fresh in my mind, I just figured this was another one of those words whose spelling was all messed up and senseless.
Here’s how I figured it. Merging in my mind was pronounced margin. The sign right at the beginning of the highway where cars are entering from different lanes must be a sign warning drivers that, because the cars are getting onto the highway and going really fast, they must keep a safe distance between themselves and the cars in front of them and behind them. The drivers should “Merging” themselves (pronounced “margin.”) Don’t get too close to the bumper of the car in front of you. It’s not safe. Merging yourself. There it was! The sign that practically told you what the word meant! If WeDnesday could have a “D” right in the middle, for no reason at all, then it would make perfect sense that the word “margin” could be spelled “m-e-r-g-i-n-g.” Here’s how I figured it. The “e” sounds like an “a.” And the “g” at the end is “silent.” “Margin. M.E.R.G.I.N.G. Margin.”
“That’s incorrect, John. Please sit down.”
Losing that first spelling bee had really screwed me up. For as long as I has been able to read, I had read that sign – “Merging Traffic” as “Margin Traffic,” meaning keep a safe space between you and the car in front of you. When I lost that bee I remember thinking to myself, I knew it! I knew it! I knew it didn’t say “margin.” But that first spelling bee loss, the “wenesday” loss, really confused me bad, and worse than being confused, it had caused me to lose trust in the language.
Sometimes language felt like math. What I mean is that there were things in there that seemed to be put there for the sole purpose of making it difficult and confusing and nothing else. And that belief did terrible things to my willingness to want to “apply myself,” to want to care about how I did in school. My feeling became merging, margin, Wenesday, Wednesday. Whatever. Who the hell cares? Not me.
John L. Stanizzi is author of the collections Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide, Four Bits, Chants, Sundowning, and POND. Besides Ovunque Siamo, John’s poems have been widely published and have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, American Life in Poetry, Praxis, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, The Laurel Review, The Caribbean Writer, Blue Mountain Review, Rust + Moth, Tar River, Poetlore, Rattle, Hawk & Handsaw, and many others. His work has been translated into Italian and appears widely in Italy, including in El Ghibli, The Journal of Italian Translations Bonafini, Poetarium, and others. His nonfiction has been published in Stone Coast Review, Ovunque Siamo, Adelaide, Scarlet Leaf, Literature and Belief, Evening Street, Praxis, and others. John is the Flash Fiction Editor of Abstract Magazine TV, and he has read at venues all over New England, including the Mystic Arts Café, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hartford Stage, and many others. For many years, John coordinated the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition for Young Poets at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Connecticut. He was also a “teaching artist” for the national poetry recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud; he spent a decade with Poetry Out Loud. A former Wesleyan University Etherington Scholar, and New England Poet of the Year, John has just been awarded an Artist Fellowship in Creative Non-Fiction — 2021 from the Connecticut Office of the Arts for work on his new memoir. He teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry, CT.
You can find John on his website.