John Ficarra was the editor of Mad magazine from 1985 to 2018.

The English language has something to confuse or annoy just about anyone — the mysteries of who and whom usage, the e.g. vs. i.e. standoff, the polarizing Oxford comma. I have a long-standing, personal problem with heteronyms — words that are spelled the same but don’t sound alike. Allow me to explain with a little story.

In order to graduate from the graduate program at my university, every student was required to take part in a group discussion of heteronyms. My group asked me to take the lead which, alas, went over like a lead balloon.

I now know that when trying to perfect one’s thinking for the perfect presentation on heteronyms, you must project confidence in your project and be content with the content. I was not.

Shy by nature, I do not live to give live presentations. Nor am I very articulate, so it’s always been difficult for me to articulate my points.

The teacher, as if able to intimate my most intimate fears, knew this. Like a food fighter at a buffet, he immediately began to buffet me with criticisms. He raised minute points every minute. I made a futile attempt to object to being made the object of his ridicule. I told the teacher his conduct was unacceptable and this was no way to conduct a class. He told me my arguments were invalid and I was being an emotional invalid.

As he continued to tear into me, I shed a tear.

I’m normally reluctant to attribute a negative attribute to anyone, but as I wicked away the moisture on my cheek with a tissue, I decided my teacher was a wicked man. There is no good excuse to excuse cruelty.

Meanwhile, the class took sides, and a row broke out in the back row.

Sensing I was sailing against the wind, I tried to wind up my presentation as quickly as possible.

Afterward, some classmates and I made a deliberate plan to meet so we could deliberate on what went wrong. They agreed that my big mistake was to just stand in front of the class and read what I had read. Technically, it isn’t plagiarism, but it also isn’t appropriate to appropriate others’ work.

They also agreed that my opening was poor, arguing I should have used my entrance to entrance my audience.

As this record indicates, and as history will record, my interest in heteronyms continues. But thanks to that cruel teacher, I wound up with a wound that remains to this day.

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