washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Washington Post Magazine

Why Stevie Can't Spell

After more than three decades of mangling words, a mortified writer sets out to get some answers

By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page W26

On a chilly December morning, I joined the ranks of little kids filing into Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. They waddled under oversize backpacks and tugged Dora the Explorer rollaboard book bags through the double doors. I carried a black briefcase. We were all a few minutes late, and we all stopped like statues in the hallway for the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, first in English, then in Spanish. Then the kids melted into their classrooms, and I went into an office near the second-floor water fountains for my first spelling test since Donald Rumsfeld was the secretary of defense . . . under Gerald Ford.

I didn't do very well. Melissa Salvesen, Rolling Terrace's reading specialist, quizzed me on a list of 27 words I chronically misspell. I had e-mailed the list to her myself. Even knowing what to expect, I botched 13 of them on a test featuring such grade-school softballs as elephant, piece, refrigerator, forest, towel, jewelry and trailer.

The author poses with third-graders, from left, Amalia Perez, Isabel Hendrix-Jenkins and Dillon Sebastian. (D.A. Peterson)

"Okay," she said, nodding her head slowly as she scanned the wreckage on my notebook paper. "You really can't spell."

That I knew. What I wanted to find out was why.

I AM THE WORLD'S WORST SPELLER. I have been all my life. My homework -- from Miss Pedrow's third-grade language arts class to Dr. Gurevitch's doctoral seminar in persuasion and attitude change -- all came back with the measles, solid red marks from top to bottom. "Good writing, atrocious spelling" was the verdict of just about every essay contest I ever entered (even those I won).

I don't misspell just hard words (diaphanous, anyone? soliloquy?); I misspell words like "maybe" and "because" and "famous." I misspell my own mother's name, Elfreida. My misspelling is epic. It's rich and vibrant and ever changing. It can even be fun.

"I think of them as little puzzles," my Post editor K.C. Summers once said of the find-the-funny-word challenge inherent in proofing my raw efforts.

But mostly it's just hugely embarrassing to be a professional writer who is routinely laughed out of Scrabble games. Not to mention perilous. I was put on probation at an Atlanta newspaper for causing excessive spelling trauma on deadline (a kindly copy editor began covering for me). And I've watched every editor I've ever worked for go through a sort of five-step process of realization (disbelief, anger, anger, resignation, anger) before finally assigning some beleaguered proofreader to shadow my every keystroke.

At this paper, when one of my howlers (partician when I meant partition) made it into print and drew a rebuke from the ombudsman, I reminded K.C. -- ha-ha! -- of her "little puzzle" comment from happier days.

"I really think of them more like little land mines," she said this time.

Let's take one example: itinerary.

Iteneriary is one of the dozens of words that bring me to a complete standstill. I can be typing along at a brisk pace when my brain feeds a word like itenirary down to my flying fingers, and they freeze over the keyboard like mummified buzzard claws.

Itinerary. I-T . . . E? . . . I? Pretty sure it's I. N is easy. Another E? or is it A? . . . R . . . Two Rs? A? A-R-Y. Itinerrary.

I once spell-checked a 2,000-word article I had written for the Post's Travel section and found I had spelled itinerary four ways, none of them correctly. It was a pitiful tally, made worse by the fact that it blinked at me in the middle of a newsroom filled with some of the best writers -- and spellers -- in the country. I could hear them all around me, blithely tapping out the 100,000-plus words that go into the paper every morning, most spelled correctly on the first go. People who write for big-city newspapers are supposed to be able to spell. The island of misfit toys, this is not.

Being humiliated by spell-check is pretty much a daily occurrence for me, but something about seeing four errant itineraries spurred me to action. I sat and repeated the word over and over and over, out loud, the way you memorize a phone number: I-T-I-N-E-R-A-R-Y. I was going to screw that simple nine-letter pattern into my brain if I had to repeat it 10,000 times. Hey, I can do it with an ATM number. Surely I could do it with the language I use every day to make my living.

The chance to test myself came up within a day or two, as I worked on a story about backpacking through Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "But as the weather soured again, the evening meal became more than an item on the . . ."

And I nailed it. Itinerary. I believe it was the first time -- in either my 14-year professional life as a writer or my 39-year personal life as, um, a person -- that I ever spelled itinerary correctly without any kind of assist from a dictionary, computer, copy editor or wife.

The next week, I got it wrong again. Itenerry. The other day, I spelled it itenirary.

CONTINUED    1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company