Friday, March 9, 2012

The Long and the Short of Otis's Vowels

Imagine my megalomaniacal joy when, seven whole days after I’d drilled him to death, Otis still remembered his vowels.

“A E I O U and sometimes Y!” he said with a triumphant grin. Now imagine that grin disappearing as I told him we weren’t done with them yet, that the vowels he’d learned were the ones they called Long, and that every Long Vowel had a short brother.

“The short ones are just as good,” I added, since I happen to know Otis has a big brother who probably exceeds him two feet in height. “It’s just that the short ones have minds of their own.”

I didn’t say that the short ones had to have minds of their own for the simple reason that they weren’t, like their longer brothers, first-born, nor did I say that the first-borns didn’t need minds at all because they would inherit everything anyway while the second-borns had to enter the clergy.  And I certainly didn't point out that this explained why the short ones broke rules--that they weren’t merely short, but  poor and resentful. All of which I know he’ll find out for himself as soon as he starts reading Jane Austen, which, let’s face it, is why I show up.

“Let me put it this way,” I said. ”If the U in Seuss was short and not long, Dr. Seuss would be Dr. Suss.”

“Suss?” said Otis, looking repulsed as he took this in.

“Yes,” I said. “Suss.  And that, as you know, would be so very wrong.”

That's when I started in on the drilling again, this time with the Made and the Mad, the Neat and the Net, the Bite and the Bit, the Hope and the Hop, the stroll one sometimes took By the Gym, and,  just to refresh, the Seuss and the Suss, indeed---

The very same Suss 
Who gets on a bus 
To visit Huge Gus
Who makes such a fuss
Over wearing size Plus

at which point Otis balked.

“He didn’t really write that,” he said.

“Well, he could have,” I sniffed, because I am twelve.

I then asked Otis what horrors he thought might occur if the vowels in our names switched their identities, if the longs went short and the shorts went long.  It took a while but he finally suggested that he’d be known around the world as Ah-Tise (tise like precise, not like circumcise), which would be very horrid indeed, not that being known as Ms. Go-Nike (nike like a bike, not a shoe) would be any better.

The only rough spot came when Otis studied the cover of his Dr. Seuss book and finally noticed the odious E. “What does the E do?” he just had to ask.

Here's the truth: I have no more idea what the E does in Seuss than I do what the A does in my first name.  Not that I can ever admit this to Otis. I need him to think I understand English grammar which, very frankly, I never have. I’ve always absorbed it by reading good books. Which is what I want him to be able to do, to swallow the syntax he sees on the page until correct grammar becomes second nature. Which is why I want him to read Pride and Prejudice before he moves on to, say, Naked Lunch.

I was about to tell him that the E in Seuss was there for no reason except to be quiet when a crazy thing happened: the recess bell rang and, for the first time in history, Otis ignored it and stayed in his chair. He was so busy getting that the first E in recess was just as long as the second was short, and delighting in the glory of getting it—I mean visibly delighting in that he glowed like a bright giddy lamp--that he did not want to stop.

I would have let him go on forever, but my supervisor, who has, you know, sense, pushed him out the the Reading Room door into the vicious, Darwinian playground.

Did I feel, for that moment, like Annie Sullivan?

Reader, I’ll say it: I totally did.


  1. Isn't it the best feeling!?!?

    And better yet, unlike poor Annie, it was not preceded by the child shrieking, biting, hitting, kicking and screaming - just attempting to wriggle out of doing work like everyone does...

  2. Great, for both of you!

  3. I love it! Just recently began teaching ESL, so am approaching language in a completely new way.

  4. And may I oh so humbly refer you to this little post on my own recent kindergarten tutoring exploits? BTW, before I got the love of kindergarteners, I was afraid I'd have to get a cat, with all that litter box thing...whew!