It is a minefield of a word for people whose first language is not English. Like a nine-year-old girl in south Georgia in 1964. A girl whose vocabulary, when she started first grade, included words like chimley, but not chimney; winder, but not window. Who didn't yet have the ability to understand that when her grandmother said she was going to "hope" someone she meant she was going to offer assistance, but also -- in a deep spiritual sense -- also meant that she was sharing her own expectation of better things to come.
It is a word that, to this day, conjures up a specific memory of utter humiliation.
We'd been assigned a report, to be presented orally, on aquatic life. Like every other assignment, I approached it with curiosity and zeal. There was nothing in the world I liked better than learning unless it was pleasing the adults in my life.
We did not have a set of encyclopedias in our home and in fourth grade I'd not yet been exposed to library research. I would later learn to love the card catalog and the Reader's Guide To Periodical Literature, but those delights still awaited. The single resource available to me was a large dictionary purchased by my parents from a door-to-door salesman -- Webster's New World Dictionary: The Everyday Encyclopedic Edition.
The volume contained far more than a dictionary, however. There were sections on scientific terms, business correspondence, civics (This was back when people still knew what that was.), principles of grammar, geography (including, before GPS and Google, the distances between principal cities of the United States and of the world), history, home economics, literature (including a section on the world's great books and synopses of all of Shakespeare's plays), mathematics, medicine, music, and space.
And then there were the illustrations, beautiful hand-colored plates that opened the book -- "Rare Birds of Brilliant Plumage," "Plants of Great Commercial Value," "Principal Edible Grains," precious stones, building stones, Yellowstone. Of greatest interest to me at that moment were "Living Corals," "Fish of Unusual Interest," "Game Fish Caught with the Fly," and, what was to be my downfall, "Minute Life in Ponds and Streams."
Several of my classmates were, I knew, going to report on the ocean and saltwater life. I'd never seen the ocean and, even at that young age, understood the writer's adage of "write what you know." I knew ponds. There was one right outside my back door. It was the water into which we threw stale bread to feed the fish. It was the water in which we swam in the summer. It was where Daddy taught me to bait my own hook, where he and I floated trying to catch supper.
I worked so hard on that report. And on the day that I was scheduled to do my oral presentation, I took to school with me Webster's New World Dictionary: The Everyday Encyclopedic Edition. I had practiced holding it open so as to share the beautiful plates at appropriate moments. I was sure that my classmates would be impressed.
And perhaps they were.
But what I remember about that oral presentation, all I remember, is that when I opened the book and held up "Minute Life in Ponds and Streams" I pronounced the first word as though it was the one meaning 60 seconds of time. I had no idea that, in that context, the word was pronounced differently. That it meant something other than time. My assumption during preparation was that calling something "min-it" life simply meant it didn't live very long.
Immediately, before I could close the book and bring it down to my side, my teacher -- standing at the back of the room with her arms crossed over her chest -- shouted: "My-newt. It's pronounced my-newt."
Never had I been so ashamed.
Things that happen to us as children, we all know, linger. Long after the moment. Long after the day. Long, long after they should linger. And that correction, that harsh, public correction in fourth grade is a big part of why for many years I struggled so mightily against being wrong. The burden was so great that often if something I said received a response of "Really?" or "I can't believe it!", I would backtrack.
"Maybe I misunderstood," I'd say. Or, "I could be mistaken." Or, "I think so," even when I was absolutely positive.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about trees and I wrote, "I remember something about a tree growing from its center." A few days later, my friend Missy -- who is a real botanist, one with letters after her name -- called me. She began by telling me how much she had loved the column, how much she appreciated my drawing attention to things like trees. And, then, very gently, she said, "I did want to tell you, though, that trees don't grow from the center. Do you remember learning about xylem and phloem? The area between them is called the cambium and it's in the outer layer of the tree. That's where it grows."
I was tickled to death, first of all, that I did, in fact, remember xylem and phloem and, secondly, that my friend of nearly 60 years loved me enough to both correct me and to do it privately.
Not long after that, I posted on Instagram a photo of some tiny purple blooms I'd found in the yard. I captioned it "First bloom, verbena." To be honest, I hardly looked at it. I was so glad to see some color in the yard I just assumed it was verbena that hadn't quite opened its little faces yet. A day or so later, my friend Annie, who I call "The Wildflower Whisperer," shared on her Facebook page a post from the truly-learned people at Southern Piedmont Natural History a photo identifying my little bloom as henbit. Not unopened verbena. A subtle -- and loving -- correction.
Missy and Annie are generous and kind. And because they are, I am smarter than I was before they corrected me.
I am also stronger than I was in fourth grade. Since that moment of humiliation, I've been wrong so many times and about so many things that being wrong is no longer the indictment of character I used to think it was. I've let go of the compulsion to be right. Being wrong is no longer a reason to blush and hide, but an opportunity to admit to my humanity, to take a load off, to laugh.
I often think of life events as bookends. When something unpleasant, difficult, or hurtful happens, something else will come along -- a week, a year, a lifetime -- later to close it off, to bookend it. Something that will give meaning to the hurt, make a story out of the pain. That may not always be true, but it is helpful to think so in the middle time.
An oral report in fourth grade and the sweet gestures of dear friends 55 years later. Bookends between which have been the volumes of a lifetime.