As I’ve mentioned in an earlier column, the classroom is a different place today though it is still peopled by pupils and overseen by teachers. What’s changed is how a school day may be conducted. Back then we (my peers and I) got called a lot of names by our teachers. Animal names, mostly the derogatory types. In retrospect, I think our behaviour warranted it. Plus, the parental power of suing (teachers) hadn’t as yet come into being. In fact, parents of the sixties (mine at least and those of my near classmates) appeared to be in alignment with a teacher’s sentiments.
They formed a powerful nexus. There was no way I could contemplate cajoling my parents into thinking that my humanness had been slighted every time I was likened to something from a lower order or species. You are what you are, my father used to say, with all the vagueness he could muster, masquerading as tact. My dad was the First Diplomat in the family. With statements like that I often didn’t know whose side he was really on. My mother used to say, ‘Teachers have the power of words. You should listen to them. That’s why we are paying to send you to school.’
Now, there were several little white lies in mum’s statements but dare I, as a child, try to poke holes in them? No way. I knew, for instance, they were paying no school fees at all. As children of a railway employee — my dad was a locomotive driver — we studied at the Railway School free of charge.
Dilema? Dillemma? Dilemma?
Anyhow, what sent me briefly back down Memory Lane, was a word that I heard recently. An animal word, and one whose spelling constantly confused me: gorilla. Even setting aside the fact that I am mildly dyslexic — which is one reason why I cannot speed read a novel but must read each sentence carefully, as would a proofreader, an irony that turned into part of my career — even setting that aside, I could never ever remember whether the word ‘gorilla’ contained two ‘r’s’ and one ‘l’ or two ‘r’s’ and two ‘l’s’. In this way, I rarely got the one ‘r’ and two ‘l’s’!
Back in my schooldays, a war was raging — in Vietnam. As kids we were aware of this, thanks to radio. I once heard a news bulletin say that ‘gorillas, because of their stealth, are being increasingly employed in the war, to great effect.’ I told a friend, he told others and the word spread.
One of us even proudly drew the animal-name-calling teacher’s attention to it. ‘Gorillas are fighting in the war,’ my classmate announced, only to be corrected. ‘Guerrilla’, she replied, in the customary tones of a trained elocutionist, picking up a piece of chalk and writing the word on the board. Beside it she wrote, ‘Gorilla’. The entire class had to repeat the two words several times after her, to detect the slight variance in pronunciation.
For me, however, it only served to make things a lot messier vis-a-vis spelling. It exacerbated my earlier problem with the ‘double r’ and ‘double l’. To this day, I am conflicted. Every time I use either word, I double check for spelling. These days, thankfully, the computer underlines incorrectly spelled words, and it’s already done that twice in this column before I rectified the error. It’s one of those mental things, I think.
I’m sure other people have issues with different words. I know someone who gets ‘occasion’, niece’ and ‘seize’ right 50 per cent of the time. How to remember which one is correct? That’s always been my — dilema? Dillemma? Dilemma? Anyhow, this whole dissemination on spelling came about when I met someone who said he was a ‘guerrilla gardener’.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.