Thursday, November 02, 2006

First Thing You May Not Know About Me

(Just a note before I get started: I’m talking about true spelling errors, here, not typos, which are something completely different.)

Once a year, or so, the editorial department at my educational publishing company gets together for an extended (2-or-3-day) meeting. Most of us are telecommuters, so it’s a chance for us all to see each other and to do some brainstorming together, as well as just to have some fun. I don’t want to turn this into a piece in which I do nothing but rhapsodize about my co-workers (although I easily could), but I do want to point out that these are some of the smartest and most-talented people I’ve met in my life, people who care passionately about what goes on in the classroom and how and what kids are/are not learning, as well as how we can make the classroom a better place for them. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this extraordinary group.

Now, what I want you to take away from that paragraph as you continue reading this post are these key words: "editorial" (we’re all editors, not actuaries or engineers), "educational publishing" (materials for educators, people who teach things like writing and spelling), "smartest" (as in "most-intelligent" not "best-dressed"). I want you to remember these words, because now I’m going to talk about spelling, specifically the fact I purposefully failed a written spelling test in seventh grade, because I didn’t want to participate in the state spelling bee. I will eventually get to talking about spelling and my colleagues, and I want those words fresh in your mind when I do.

Back in those test-failing days of mine, getting up in front of an audience just to take a bow was a fate I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy (same year, I also turned down a nomination to run for student government for the same reason: having to give a campaign speech). Getting up and spelling words I couldn’t even pronounce? Well, let’s just say I would rather have spent the night sleeping on Elm Street than do that. I successfully failed that first test and then began to worry I might be singled out again, though, if I weren’t careful. Thus began a campaign to keep this from happening. I spent about a year purposely mispelling "difficult" words, mimicking my classmates and the ways they spelled. I’ve got to hand it to the brain. It’s a very effective learning tool. After a year of this, it had completely learned how to be a bad speller. And then, of course, we went and lived in England for a while, where everything is spelled differently, and, well, let’s just say "hopeless" is another good word to remember when it comes to spelling and me.

The trouble is, no matter how hard I’ve tried to train it back, my brain has never reverted to its previous "good-speller" state. By the time I was in college, I was more horrified by the fact I was such a poor speller compared to my classmates (I went to one of those highly-competitive schools where these sorts of petty things were really important to people) than I ever would have been by the thought of delivering a presentation to an audience, but it was too late. I’d messed around with it enough, and my brain was thinking, "Yeah, right. Turn me into a good speller again, and then in a couple of years, you’ll want me to go back to spelling recommend with two "c’s." Forget it. You had your chance back before the Broca’s Area was fully developed, and you blew it. I’m getting old. I’m too tired for all that work, especially since you’ve been systematically killing off so many of my cells while here."

Then, of course, I began working in publishing. I mean, "bad speller" isn’t exactly what springs to mind when someone thinks "editor." Does an author want an editor who can’t spell? Does an editor really want an author correcting her spelling? And, really, there is absolutely nothing more smug and annoying than a fellow editor (or worse, someone who’s not in the editorial department) editing your emails, which, believe it or not, some take great glee in doing. Thank God for spell check, but we all know (as one of my colleagues can attest, because she was once trying to tell us all there were pastries in the kitchen and to help ourselves, but she made one very unfortunate letter omission in the word "pastries"), it isn’t 100% reliable. Still, it’s helped me tremendously over the past ten years.

Flashback to last week (and pull out those key words now): we’re eating pizza and drinking wine the night before the first day of our meeting, and one of my colleagues announces that the ability to spell is just one of those gifts people are either born with or not, and it has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. After all these years of being made to feel stupid, because I struggle with "i before e, or e before i," here was someone ("most-intelligent" not "best-dressed") announcing that the two had nothing to do with each other. Forward ahead to the next night, sitting around another dinner table with even more of my colleagues gathered, and the conversation turned to what a bad speller everyone is; this group (editors, not actuaries or engineers) all (materials for educators, people who teach things like writing and spelling) agreed that spelling isn’t so important. And you’ve never heard such a roaring endorsement for spell check (although not quite as highly from the colleague who made that unfortunate missing letter mistake).

Can you imagine? I managed to grow so much smarter in just two nights. Is it any wonder I’m so fond of my colleagues?


Anonymous said...

Oh, this post made me really miss being at the editorial summit, I always loved coming to those. Sounds like it was fun and productive and included a lot of great meals, as always. I admit I did figure you for a perfect speller but I agree with the theory that it is not related to a person's intelligence.

litlove said...

What nice colleagues you have! My husband is (apart from my son) the worst speller I know, and he works for a very cosmopolitan company. He said that it's most humiliating to be holding a meeting with French, Italian, Spanish people, etc, who are all correcting your spelling on the paper's you've given them.
And I think you need to post more on your time spent in England!

Emily Barton said...

And, Danny, I so-o-o missed you!Must be spell check giving me the illusion of being a great speller.

Litlove, I could write a whole book on the experience of living in England (poor parents drag three surly teenagers, all extremely jealous of their eldest sister who's in college and gets to stay behind, off to what they think is going to be a certain-death experience, and nearly a year later, have to drag them back to the States, kicking and screaming).

Anonymous said...

Well, THAT was a productive couple of days! I wish my colleagues could remove the taint of my secret flaws; you're lucky to work with such lovely people.

Rebecca H. said...

I was in a workshop with English teachers who were complaining about their poor spelling abilities recently -- your story made perfect sense to me!

Emily Barton said...

All of you are right. I'm very lucky to have the colleagues I do. I've been pretty fortunate as far as my colleagues go most of my life. Must be the nature of the professions I've chosen (libraries and publishing companies). Few people who don't love books choose such professions.