It belonged to my mother and its blue cover was already fading by the time I first made its acquaintance — the September I started at Junior High School 143 in the Bronx.
My mother did not give me the dictionary. She was very clear about that. “This is my dictionary,” she said, enunciating each word, the way she did when she wanted to be sure I got-her-point. “I’m letting you borrow it. Treat it with care.”
Before that time I had no need of a dictionary. Spelling was a significant part of the elementary school curriculum but looking words up was not. We were taught to sound things out and to memorize.
“I before E except after C or when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh.”
“The principal of this school is your pal: P-r-i-n-c-i-P-A-L.”
Using a dictionary would have been, almost, like cheating.
Speaking of cheating, I feel I have to tell you this:
There was a spelling bee in my fourth grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. Mooney, lined us all up, girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. If you messed up on your word you sat down and the next person, on the other team, tried their luck. By some incredible fluke, in the end, I was left standing on the girls’ side and Neil Feinstein was left on the boys’.
The word I got was Christmas. I knew that this was not right. I was Jewish. Mrs. Mooney should not have expected me to even know that such a word existed. In my family, if we had to spell it at all, which we didn’t, but we would have, hypothetically, spelled it X-m-a-s. I suspected that wasn’t what Mrs. Mooney was looking for. I really wanted to get this right, not only for myself but for all the girls in my class. I just couldn’t let them down. But Christmas?
I cast my eyes heavenward — and lo and behold, up there on the wall, hanging just above the enormous blackboard, was a rectangle of beige oak tag. And printed in large black magic marker letters, where anyone could see it if they only knew to look up, was the word Christmas.
Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, New Year’s Day, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Passover and Easter. A litany of holidays that Mrs. Mooney, not really the artsy-craftsy type, had chosen as decorations for our otherwise austere classroom walls.
It was directly in my line of vision, and not being a girl who would pass up a genuine miracle when it was handed to her on a silver platter, I sang out, loud and true: c-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
“Wrong!” exclaimed Mrs. Mooney. Wrong? How could it be wrong? I read the word — every single letter — off the poster she had scotch-taped onto the wall. I couldn’t be wrong. But also, I couldn’t protest. I was left standing there, the lone girl on the right-hand side of the room, with my mouth hanging wide open.
Mrs. Mooney turned to Neil Feinstein, who until that very moment I’d considered a friend, but now I saw him for what he was — my arch enemy — and he proclaimed capital C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
“That’s correct!” Mrs. Mooney crowed. “The boys win.”
I returned to my seat, ashamed and defeated, knowing myself to be a big, fat, cheater.
Okay, I just had to get that off my chest. Now I will return to the story of the dictionary.
J. H. S. 143 turned out to be an exciting place. The principal (still our pal and spelled with an A, but this time a man, not a woman), wore a bow tie and talked to us, each morning, over an intercom system. We no longer spent the entire day in the same classroom, but ran through the halls every forty minutes, in a frantic dash from social studies to language arts, from French to math to band practice. We knew, through the secret grapevine, that our science teacher’s first name was Georgia, and that she was “good friends” (which meant something dirty but I wasn’t sure what) with the math teacher, Mr. Lyman. We knew that Madame Strauss, our French teacher, always looked like she’d been crying, but we didn’t know why, and we weren’t sure we wanted to know. We didn’t go to recess, we went to P. E.
My favorite teacher was Miss Gatney, and my favorite subject was Language Arts. In Language Arts you got extra credit just for reading a book that wasn't on the required reading list. And if you illustrated your book report with colored pencils, you got even more extra credit.
I wanted nothing more in life than to please Miss Gatney and to make her proud of me. But her standards were high. She wanted our class to learn how to write perfect essays. Spelling counted. And she wanted to see evidence of our expanding vocabularies. It was no longer good enough to have an idea about what a word meant. You had to go deeper; you had to really get it.
Up until this time, simply by sitting quietly and eavesdropping on adult conversations, I’d been able to cobble together quite an impressive bilingual vocabulary. “Meshugina,” when mentioned often enough in reference to a particular free-spirit of a relative, easily translated into “nut case.” Words like “divorcée,” “paranoid,” “schmuck,” “nudnick,” “chutzpah,” were equally accessible. You just needed to get the context.
But in Miss Gatney’s class, context was no longer the end; it was merely the beginning. And sounding-out skills, which had worked so well in the past, were not going to cut it.
Take the word “tongue,” for example. Sounding out isn’t going to help you. The same goes for “antique.” Sure, you could substitute the words “mouth” and “old,” but that would be falling short of Miss Gatney’s expectations that you “stretch your mind the way you would your muscles.”
I wasn’t interested in stretching anything. I asked my mother, “Ma, how do you spell ‘pleasure’?” Unfortunately her favorite refrain had become “Look it up in the dictionary.” Okay, with “pleasure” you at least know to start in the P’s. But what about Wretched? Psychology? Phenomenal? Europe?
“Maaaa,” I’d whine from my bedroom, “it’s not in the dictionary.”
“Don’t make me come all the way over there and find it for you.”
My mother was getting impossible to handle. And Miss Gatney was getting more and more demanding. “What is the etymology of this word?” “List a synonym and an antonym.” “How do you spell synonym?” “How do you spell thesaurus?”
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I developed quite a strong feeling for dictionaries. And I don’t mean adoration (“to regard with deep, often rapturous love”). I mean antipathy (“aversion, dislike”).
As for that particular big blue one that sat, reproachfully, on my desk — I became somewhat abusive towards it. When there were pages I found myself returning to over and over again (the one with the word “occasionally” for example), I would fold down the top corner for easy reference.
Sometimes I would put a check mark next to a word, red ink showing up so well in the margin, so I could find it even faster the next time I had to look it up. And when I came to a definition that annoyed me, as I did more and more often, I would reach for that red pen again and just cross it out.
I knew that this was wrong. But I didn’t care. I had had it with all the new responsibilities of being a Junior High School student. Outlines with Roman numerals; bibliographies neatly printed on color-coded 3x5 index cards.
I was very angry with my mother. I was even more angry with Miss Gatney. Of course, I didn’t show it. Instead, I learned how to write the perfect essay. My teachers, starting with Miss Gatney and continuing into my move to High School, singled me out as an expert topic sentence writer. Yet all the while, year after year, alone in my room, I was busy defiling and defacing that poor blue dictionary.
And then, before I knew it, it was August, 1968. The Democratic National Convention was being televised from Chicago while I got ready to leave for college. My mother ironed name tags into my underwear, as if I were going off to summer camp, while I rummaged through my closets, pulling out peasant blouses, leotards, and dungarees.
On the bottom of the closet floor, jutting out from behind the Chinese checkers set, and the pair of ice-skates I had worn once and then abandoned, was the dictionary, exactly where I’d stashed it back in June, on the last day of High School. I had vowed to never open it again. But suddenly, in a burst of pre-collegiate zeal, I tossed it into my suitcase, along with my Joan Baez albums and my beloved copy of Siddhartha.
My mother, shaken by what she’d just witnessed on television, kids being tear-gassed and clobbered, came into my room, asking for the umpteenth time why exactly it was I thought I had to go to a school five hours’ drive from home. Her eyes caught the dull blue cover of the book, and before I could stop her, she reached into my suitcase and pulled out the dictionary, innocently leafing through it, wistfully reunited with an old friend.
And then she froze. There was the evidence of my delinquency: the dog-eared pages; the red-ink check marks; the angry cross-outs and comments like: “Anyone who uses this word is a phony.”
She clutched the book to her chest. “O-kay,” she said, slowly and deliberately, “you can go to that God-forsaken college, we never should have let you apply in the first place, just stay out of trouble and avoid the police. But there is no way in hell I’m letting you take my dictionary up there with you.”
She knew she could only rescue one of us. I think she made the right decision.
The dictionary remains, to this day, safe and sound on the bookcase in my mother’s living room, next to her copy of The Joy of Cooking, which she never consults anymore, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of her favorite novels. I see it, every time I go home to visit, but I never open it. In general, I find it’s best to keep a healthy distance between myself and dictionaries.