Monday, May 19, 2008

More Important Things to Talk About

When I was nearly 13, my parents gave me a pad of light blue paper with delicate yellow and peach flowers in the upper left corner, their stems stretching down the left margin. I delighted in the pad of stationery and the matching box of envelopes they gave me as a reward for watching for my younger sisters and brother while they did their grocery shopping.

I stared at the paper a few times everyday. Occasionally I ran my hand across the smooth surface. It felt like a perfect silk, almost too precious to even write upon. After about a week, I broke down and decided it was time to write a letter. I found the best pen in the house and carefully wrote a message to my grandparents, describing our recent trips to the public library, the Dolley Madison biographies I had been reading, and our trips to Wrightsville and Fort Fisher beaches.

When I finished writing, I sealed the letter in the envelope and carefully added my grandparents’ address. After adding a stamp, I carried the letter outside, placed it in the mailbox, and raised the red flag that would tell the letter carrier to start my letter on its journey from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Anyone watching this series of events would have thought I was participating in a formal religious rite. I paid no attention to my youngest sister and brother as they wove their tricycles around me. I had serious business to do. I was sending my words forth on that beautiful paper.

A week or so later, I found a small white envelope in the mailbox with my name on it, the looping letters telling me immediately that my grandmother had addressed this letter. I carried it inside the house and sliced the envelope open with my mother’s letter opener. Inside, I found a letter written by my grandfather. He told me how tall the corn was and about the latest Louis L’Amour novel he’d been reading.

I sat up taller at the kitchen table and crossed my ankles under my chair, like the ladies I’d seen on my mother’s soap operas. My brother and sister were across the room, playing with a Fisher-Price bus and a circus train. Such babies compared to me. I had sent out a letter and received a message in reply. Me. My perfect light blue stationery was powerful. It transformed me from clumsy pre-teen to young adult. I mused on how I would continue this exchange, sending letters back and forth just like Dolley Madison, writing letters to family and friends, and saving my letters for future historians to revisit so they could learn about my life. In short, I was euphoric, absolutely smitten with the power of writing.

I turned over the page to read the paragraph on the back:

You spelled their and a lot wrong. You need to spell right to do well in school.
Love,
Grandpa

I couldn’t look at anyone in the room. They’d all see what a faker I had been. I slid off the chair as silently as possible and went down the hall to my room. I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, which I tossed on my desk amid piles of books and old notebooks. I never read it again. I probably threw it away, but I have no memory of where it went. I put the beautiful blue paper at the bottom of a dresser drawer, where it stayed for months.

My spelling had betrayed me. I wasn’t really a letter writer. No historian would care about my letters in the centuries to come. It would be months before I wrote my grandparents another letter. A thank you note for a Christmas present, it included only the basic information. I neither expected nor received a reply. My mother said to write, and I did. I assume she mailed it with similar letters written by my sisters and brother. I didn’t save the details.

Whenever I begin to circle a spelling error on a student paper, I try to remember this story. Spelling matters, of course. But there are times when what matters most isn’t that spelling conforms to standard written English. The story. Sentence structure. Supporting details. The writer’s engagement and enthusiasm. Sorry, Grandpa, but sometimes thier and alot just don’t matter. There are more important things to talk about.

14 comments:

Ms C said...

What an absolutely powerful story! Circling every minute spelling mistake in a student assignment is a compulsion that many English teachers suffer from, including myself. And to what purpose? At what point is this practice beneficial and at what point is it just plain discouraging? Thank you for reminding us that there are indeed "more important things to talk about."

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the sentiments expressed here. But so many teachers occupy the high moral ground when it comes to circling every error. 'I'm not doing my job if I don't!' And far too many parents EXPECT teachers to pick up and highlight every error. It really is time that we talked more about what is important and what isn't - and educated both the parents to understand.

Anonymous said...

This is why I teach children to write multiple drafts. I've found over the years that they truly want to spell correctly but don't want the embarrassment of asking out loud. I offer them two ways to handle this. If they want help, I hand them a highlighter and ask them to highlight the words they think they may need help with and I check only those words on that particular draft. If they want more, then I offer them the opportunity to come to writer's conference time and we go over their spelling. I have found that often I can teach a quick spelling lessons as I notice their common errors that actually help the kids learn spelling. This helps them write more confidently in the future without "bleeding" the red pen all over their paper and discouraging them.

Anonymous said...

Your grandfather didn't read the most important parts of your letter. He didn't read your face when you smiled with eagerness and pride as you sealed the envelope. He didn't read your mind as you imagined him opening it. He didn't read your heart that innocently believed that grandfathers cherish their grandchildren's words...correctly spelled or not.
Thank you for reminding me to read beneath my students' words.

Anonymous said...

If the note on the back had constituted the entirety of your grandfather's reply to your letter, I might agree. But he replied to the content of your letter in kind, and his(gentle) comment about spelling were a postscript, thoughtfully inscribed on the back of the letter, in effect not part of the letter at all. Of course there are more important things than spelling, but your grandfather was, it seems to me, exercising an important responsibility. As for your parents, where were they when all this was going on? Children get upset about things, and we need to help them learn to deal with that inevitability, rather than try to protect them from it. I notice that both your post and all the comments appended thereto have been rendered with perfect spelling; it would appear that while we might say we value powerful content over surface correctness, we nonetheless understand (and value) the importance of adherence to convention when engaging in formal discourse. For what purpose do we postpone introducing kids to this value?

Renee G said...

Traci, what a powerful story. This should be printed out and posted on the wall in school staff rooms everywhere. :-)

bonnie lenore kyburz said...

your story illustrates your point so powerfully, T :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Traci for your poignant story. I'd love to use it in a book I am writing about the importance of overlooking spelling errors in young childrens' early attempts at writing. You are a gifted writer with a clear voice.

Anonymous said...

That is a beautifully told story! I came close to crying at the end! And I am so glad your grandfather took the time and attention to respond and to guide. I teach in a two year college where may of my students have come after realizing that their writing and communication skills are not good enough. Many of them quit high school early, and no one at home evr took the time to actually read their writing, much less offer suggestions. So, they have reached this point not seeing any value in spelling. You are so fortunate to have had someone show you, maybe in way that you didn't appreciate, that people do pay attention to spelling, and correctness does count. And look at how many people have been touched by your narrative! Thanks for the compelling read!

slivercat said...

Regarding "More Important Things to Talk About", I say, "rite aun!"

Slivercat

Anonymous said...

I do think it is our responsibility as English teachers to point out that students still don't know how to spell a word, especially a commonly used word. For example, if a student always uses defiantly when he or she means definitely, I need to point that out so that when the student, at some later date, is writing a more important piece of writing, say a thank you letter after a job interview, he or she knows the difference. “Thank you, sir, I defiantly enjoyed our meeting” can make one look pretty stupid. You can grade on many different levels and give credit for different parts of a paper. The content and organization can be one aspect and the grammar, spelling, etc. can be another. If we ignore it as though it doesn't exist, we aren't helping our students. So many people don't care about how they write, so the skills are going down the toilet. As English teachers, we're the ones who are supposed to keep the standards up. So I say praise the aspects of the writing that are good but don't pretend like the deficiencies aren't there. If you do that, in my opinion, you aren't doing your job.

Anonymous said...

good story, but I would say the errors pointed out were very minor. These days, there are much more serious errors which are NOT being pointed out, and some kids have begun to use virtual talk (ie. abbreviations) as their version of how things ought to be written/spoken. I would say keep the language as pure as possible as often as possible.

Anonymous said...

I had a somewhat similar experience with my grandmother, who actually giggled a bit at my early spelling attempts; my reaction, however, was much different. I saw her correction as what is was meant to be, helpful criticism that I then and still value. Working not only with students in the classroom but also with adults in the workplace, I see many instances where spelling makes a great difference. Not every error needs to be pointed out all the time, but students need to be aware that spelling is important.

Anonymous said...

I'm on both sides of this discussion. As a retired journalist--copy editor--I am a stickler about spelling, grammar, etc., from my college students, but I also look for content, organization, etc., and comment on all aspects of the piece. If you've got great ideas but can't communicate them clearly, you won't be a successful writer. However, a grandfather correcting his granddaughter's letter? I know he meant it lovingly, but still. If I have a granddaughter who writes me, I'd be so pleased just to get the letter. A friend from college told me that when she was younger her aunt (school teacher) returned her letters marked up with red pen, pointing out all the mistakes. She didn't write many.