Two Facts That are Too Important for Trump to Ignore

As I sat at the kitchen table ostensibly doing my homework, I could tell that my mother’s conversation with my fourth grade teacher was not going well for me. I sighed when she told my teacher thank you and hung up. I knew what was coming next.

“She says it’s not about spelling words correctly,” my mother began. “It’s about learning to use the dictionary and the words properly.”

I nodded and proceeded to do the homework I had hoped to get out of. Every week my teacher gave me a spelling list. I had to write a definition, use the word in a sentence, and then write the word ten times. I hated it. Besides being boring, I didn’t need it. I could memorize any spelling list in minutes. All of the rest was a waste of time as far as I was concerned. To this day, I can look at any commonly used word and tell if it’s spelled incorrectly. I don’t know why, but misspelled words jump off of the page for me.

As a teacher of English, I am supposed to consider misspelled words an abomination. And while these mistakes bother the heck out of me, they have become so ubiquitous that my blood pressure would be through the roof if I reacted to each one that I encounter. And, of course, it is all the fault of schools and teachers. Exhibit A is my oldest son’s education. When he was in first and second grade, the principal of his school forced his staff to embrace “whole language” education. I won’t bore you with the details, except that my fourth grade teacher was in fact using whole language instruction. But one modern misinterpretation of this old idea is “invented spelling.” This meant that any spelling of a “werd” was not only accepted but encouraged. My son didn’t get a spelling test at school until he was in fourth grade. Worse still is that none of his spelling mistakes were corrected until he was in sixth grade and had transferred to the middle school where invented spelling was the equivalent of today’s “alternative facts” and were marked down accordingly. Fortunately for him, Kim and I practiced spelling with him at home daily.

As a writer and someone with a masters in reading education, I know exactly what ”whole language” instruction is supposed to look like. When it comes to spelling, for example, words are supposed to be taught in context (or using whole language) and not just lists of words to be memorized. Home school advocates love to point out the success of home-schoolers in spelling bees as if being able to spell “vivisepulture“ is an adequate way to assess one’s educational achievement. Of course, now that public school students of South Asian descent are taking home the trophies regularly, I don’t hear that boast as often as I used to. I know several very intelligent and successful people, working writers among them, who are terrible spellers. I have also met people who are dumb as rocks who can spell as well as Microsoft Office.

Since English is such a bastard language, spelling words correctly is always going to be more of a talent, like drawing or music, than an easily transferred skill. A school I used to work for proudly proclaimed their goal of “Strong Student Acheivement” on their web-site. I don’t know how long they persisted in believing that the “i before e” meme applied to the word achievement. I refused to correct them because of my dislike of the administrator responsible. I do know it stayed up for a few months at least. And that gave me a guilty satisfaction. Irony is such a great weapon to use against pompous asses and misspelled words are rich territory for bringing about their comeuppance.

All of which brings us to the Donald. Like it or not, Americans have a bias toward proper spelling. Most people equate being a good speller with intelligence and good writing. By this measure, Trump and his sycophants are failing miserably. When your “tremendously smart person” in charge of the nation’s schools tweets out an announcement full of spelling errors, and then compounds the problem by sending out a correction with the word “apologies” misspelled, people notice. You can fool a lot of people with alternative facts. But alternative spellings fray the veil of pretense that Trump and his hand-picked staff are “really smart people.”

It is not fair to the Donald. Spelling really isn’t a sign of intelligence. In fact most people can relate to spelling difficulties. But Americans, for whatever reason, value proper spelling and are embarrassed by its absence. Even words like catsup/ketchup that have legitimate alternative spellings bother people. They tend to choose one and reject the other as incorrect. I predict that Trump’s spelling errors, as well as those of his surrogates, will erode his support much faster than any other scandals including the whole Russian mess. It may not show up on the score card, but shredding Trump’s narrative is what will provide the foundation for the demise of his administration.

Trump has shown repeatedly that he isn’t interested in the details of actual governance. But in the real world that most of us live in, details matter. History is filled with stories of how little things tipped the scale of major historical events in one direction or another. Hitler’s sleeping pills that prevented him from stopping the Normandy invasion comes to mind. Napoleon’s hemorrhoids and their effect on the outcome of the battle of Waterloo is another. What more proof do we need that God has a sense of humor than having a narcissistic demagogue fail due to his inability or unwillingness to use spellcheck?