On Spelling Bees And Book-Learning Basics

The same radio that brings me the morning temperature "right now" also told me at the same time that the basics will be returned to the California public school system. I got the idea they plan to do this right now, but I think we should be patient enough to bide until somebody in California recalls what the basics are. I expect a lot of people will be astonished to learn that a person aware of any basic would not say "right now."

I happen to have a notion, founded solely on my interpretation of the basics, that the immediacy of now was settled early in the incubation days of the language. In my youth, I noticed that every time I put glue on my kite paper and had to press down with my fingers until it dried, my mother would appear at the open kitchen window to tell me I should attend to this or that.

Before I was fully informed in the way this world is laid out, I used to look up and say, "Whillikers, Mom - now?"

Had I been better prepared, I would have said "right now?" But for my mom, who got barely the basics from the Hermitage one-room school, the gradations of now were strangers, and she would have readily answered me, "Or sooner!"

Abraham Lincoln might have said, "We have come...." but he didn't. Being well informed in the basics by his fire shovel, he said, "We are come," indicating that he understood that action continued in the present, without walking 25 miles to the library.

When I began tangling with the basics, I had a classmate named Anctil who stayed with me faithfully through eight grades. Miss Edgecomb, our teacher, then passed Anctil and me into high school, and I believe Anctil is still there. Anctil was a bright boy, alert and attentive, and he had talents. But he was not book bright.

This failing had not been recognized by the teachers' colleges of our time, so the teachers just marked him zero when he didn't know the answer. At the same time, however, Anctil would keep his eyes open and notice what went on, packing away nuggets of knowledge the rest of us neglected to notice.

We had spelling bees then, and Anctil would always go down on the first word they gave him, which was always an easy word because everybody knew Anctil lacked the basics. This time, however, Anctil left one of his "t's" out of it and remained standing into the second round.

Miss Edgecomb was amazed and felt with pride that her long years of teaching school had not been wasted. She started the second round with the word mortgage. One by one our best spellers faltered, and one by one they left that important "t" out of mortgage, and one by one they went to their seats. It was Anctil's turn.

"Anctil," said Miss Edgecomb, "Do you want to try mortgage?"

Anctil straightened up, cleared his throat, and tried. He said, "Mortgage, m-o-r-t-g-a-g-e, mortgage."

Miss Edgecomb had to reach and grasp the edge of her desk to keep her balance. How could Anctil be standing alone, the rest of the class eliminated and seated, and a "t" in mortgage? How? Miss Edgecomb stood entranced, and Anctil smiled at her.

It was basics. Anctil couldn't spell, but he was basically sound. He came to Miss Edgecomb and said, "That word you gave me was on the blackboard." (In those basic days, green blackboards were always black.) And so it was!

A previous class, doubling up to save architect money, had used the blackboard for exercises in finance and banking, and there in front of all the spellers the word mortgage appeared about 20 times, unerased and prominent. Anctil couldn't spell, but he could see.

My mother's total education in the one-room Hermitage school on Prince Edward Island included the complete poetic works of Robert Burns and the minor poets. Mother struggled and made do to send her four wee ones to college, and she kept both eyes on us lest we stumble. In my freshman year I went home for Sunday dinner, and at table Mother was asking us this and that. I told her we were looking at Wordsworth and just had an hour on "The Ode."

The Hermitage School on Hermitage Road was close to Finnegan's Brook, and to reach it my mother and three sisters walked a half-mile "up the lane." And down the lane lived the Ross family, a helter-skelter clan from toddlers to mustaches, and they all got their basics with Mother at Hermitage School.

In the morning they would come along in a group, singing "Red River Valley," and Hilda, Min, Maggie, and Nell would fall in and go along. Mrs. Ross came one time to invite my mother and her ilk to the big christening on Sunday at the kirk, when all the Ross youngsters would have a single service. Mrs. Ross said, "If we can kitch them!" My mother's schoolmates.

So at dinner that Sunday, my first year of college, my mother said, "Wordsworth's 'Ode,' eh? A beautiful thing. I mind it well! 'There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream....' "

And our Sunday-dinner family, with aunts and uncles and all, sat there silent, forks at rest, while my mother, gesturing with a chicken wing, ran off, without an error, the 204 verses of Wordsworth's "Ode."

So why not? She got the basics at the Hermitage School. My mother told me that Wordsworth was important, but that I'd never know how important until I heard the Ross children repeating "The Ode" in unison at last day exercises. For that, I'll go to California willingly.

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