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Spelling Lessons

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My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, is writing a list of words on the blackboard. Every Tuesday morning we have a spelling test of twenty words, and every Tuesday afternoon Mrs. Williams lists the next week’s spelling words for us on the blackboard, along with any words that we’re having trouble with. Some of the words sound the same, but are spelled differently. This week I mixed up two pairs of words like this—“which” and “witch,” and “their” and “there.”

The list is almost complete when the strange man comes to the door. He catches Mrs. Williams’ attention and she goes to him, listens to him as he speaks softly, and nods. “Go with Mr. Barton,” she says to me, and although I don’t know why I should, I do.

Mr. Barton wears a dark suit and tie, just like the dark suit and tie I see my dad in when he comes home from work every night. Mr. Barton leads me from the classroom into the hall, where the pocked concrete floor is painted a dull red, skinny blue lockers lining the walls. As we walk, I wonder about where we might be going and what will happen when we get there. Maybe Mr. Barton is like Mr. Amosson, the tall elderly man who visited my house just before Christmas. There had been a contest, a contest to see which child could read the most books. I had read more than 90 books, nearly 100, and I had won the contest. Mr. Amosson came to my house one night and he and my parents and I sat at the kitchen table. Mr. Amosson wore a dark suit and tie. He told me how proud he was of me for reading all the books, and he gave me a prize, a little trophy of a golden man wearing a suit and tie, frozen mid-stride, with what might have been a short stack of books, or maybe a briefcase, under his right arm. Maybe Mr. Barton is going to give me another prize.

We go to the south end of the hall and descend a stairwell to the school’s basement. Instead of turning to the left and entering the cafeteria as I usually do when I reach the bottom of the stairs, I follow Mr. Barton to the right, underneath the stairs and, impossibly, through the forbidden door, the one marked with the circle-headed stick figure wearing a dress. Thankfully for my racing heart, we don’t proceed into the hallowed toilet stalls of the girls’ room, but as we hang a sharp left my eyes dart right and I steal a glance, glimpse the mystery. Mr. Barton swings open a heavy door onto a small, nearly completely subterranean room. Mid-morning sunlight cuts rectangular shafts through the dust drifting in from the playground. A long table sits in the center of the room with a chair on either side of it. There is a barrel of inflated red rubber dodge-balls in the corner, and some jump-ropes hang from hooks on the wall.

Mr. Barton gestures to me to sit in the chair opposite the window. I comply, and he takes a seat across from me. He reaches down beside his chair and hefts a briefcase onto the table. Flipping the latches, Mr. Barton reaches in and extracts a sheaf of papers. “We’re just going to look at some pictures and talk about them,” he says. And for the next half-hour that’s what we do. Mr. Barton tells me about a group of friends who want to divide a bunch of marbles between them, making sure the sharing is as fair as possible. I give Mr. Barton my opinion on the matter. Mr. Barton shows me an isometric drawing of boxes stacked up haphazardly, like in Q-Bert. He asks me to count the boxes in the picture. “Even the ones I can’t see?” “Yes,” he replies. “Count them all.”

The room is cold and I’m wearing shorts, so I sit with my palms on the seat of the middle chair, the tops of my hands on the underside of my thighs, my legs exposed to the cool air. I don’t know why I’m here, away from my friends and from Mrs. Williams. I assume it’s because I need a special teacher. Maybe I’m going to be put in the “speech class” with some of the other kids from school. Everyone in first grade knows that speech class is just one step away from Special Education, the class with the drooling, loping, manically smiling children who unnerve the rest of us. Why are they like that? What is it about and how do they get away with not growing up enough to be in first grade all the time like the rest of us and oh my god am I going to be put in speech class? Or worse, am I retarded and going to have to wear one of those awful blue sweat-suits I see the Special kids in? I can’t ask Mr. Barton as much, for fear of giving him ideas.

Soon it is just all too much, and I can’t stop the insistent little tug that happens in my chest, just behind my breastbone, can’t stop my chin from quivering, can’t stop the awful tears. Mr. Barton has quit with the questions about marbles and boxes and now is asking me what’s wrong. I can’t tell him, won’t tell him my fear. He closes all the papers into his briefcase and, with a compassionate look on his face, leads me upstairs to the principal’s office. The secretary calls my mother. I talk with her and calm down enough to go back to Mrs. Williams’ class and finish the school day.

After school, I ride the bus home to Mom and my brother, my sneakers flapping on the asphalt as I race down the sloping driveway to the mossy-shingled house where we live. There are no forest adventures today, as Mom wants to take us to the library.

The Ottumwa Public Library is downtown, a ten-minutes’ drive from our house, and Kirk and I tease and poke at each other in the backseat of the Impala as we sway along winding country roads, rumble across the train tracks, and cruise down a stretch of highway and over the bridge spanning the Des Moines River, at last descending into the streets of our tiny downtown. The library is a Carnegie edifice set at the end of a small expanse of green called Central Park. From across the street, the copper-plated statue of Chief Wapello, after whom our county was named, glares down at us from his perch atop the courthouse. Just a few blocks away is the First United Methodist Church where we go on Sundays.

Mom parks the car in the little lot behind the library, and Kirk and I clamber out. He chases me across the grass and under the stone steps to the ground-level entrance leading to the children’s floor. On certain days I am allowed time on the library’s computer; when I am I play the exhilarating and baffling “Hunt the Wumpus” game. But more often the computer is off-limits, and I enter the main room of the children’s floor, with its long, low tables and little indoor story-time gazebo and murals on the wall and rows and rows of bookshelves. After peeking at the Boy Scout and children’s science magazines, I move to the sections on mythology and medieval history, either checking out the same books as the time or two before, or finding recent additions to the collection. When I have a new interest—I have become fascinated with UFOs lately—I go to the card catalog along the north wall of the room, climbing up onto the tall stools when I need to look for author, subject, or title cards in the topmost drawers. Short, freshly sharpened pencils rest in a little cup next to scraps of cut paper, such that I can jot down the arcane series of letters and numbers corresponding to the books I want. Finding each one is a treasure hunt among the stacks, as I note which particular row and range of numbers might hold the book I’m looking for. Once I’m at the right shelf, the hunt begins again, as there are many books with similar codes taped to their spines, but only one book that I seek.

Kirk and I pile back into the car, bringing armloads of books with us. On the way home, I leaf through my finds, adventure stories about knights, oversized David Macaulay picture books, some Mercer Mayer volumes. The books will be my boon companions for two weeks, at which point I will return them to the library for new titles.

Wildwood Elementary has a library, too, and the next day my class visits just after lunch. The librarian is a stout, cheerful woman older than my mom but younger than my grandmothers. For twenty minutes we have run of the collection in the converted classroom, some kids socializing, some sitting and reading, their backs to the radiator. I go to my usual section halfway down the middle aisle. This is where I can find the books I like. Our first-grade reading workbooks teach us using paraphrased stories of the gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and I always try to find books in the library that can tell me more about Zeus, Hercules, and Mars. I’ve also recently discovered the section of the library that has books about monsters—Nessie, werewolves, and ghosts—as well as stories of alien visitors to earth and purported schematics of the flying saucers they pilot.

As I pull a few of my favorites from the shelf another, newer book slides out. A red and green face leers at me from the center of the black cover of the book. The face reminds me of the monsters in the scary books at home. This book is called Curses, Hexes, and Spells. I flip through the pages and see pictures of ships lost at sea, airplanes flying over the Bermuda Triangle, a goat-man monster sitting on a hill, and a woman in a white robe, her eyes closed and her open palms on either side of a ring of salt. Mrs. Williams calls out that we will be leaving in five minutes, so I slap Curses, Hexes, and Spells onto my stack and line up with my friends at the check-out desk.

Over the next several days, I read what I can in the book. It’s more difficult than the books I’ve been reading recently, and has fewer pictures, but it’s much easier than the strange books on the shelf in the living room, and covers many of the same topics, such as monsters, magicians, and the Devil. There’s even a picture of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. I skip over most of the first chapter, which is concerned with family curses and American presidents who have died in office. Soon I come to pages with old drawings of twisting dragons and smiling baboons. I see giant cats and goats with faces of men carrying witches and wizards to their secret meetings. Then there is the picture of the goat-man monster. He is identified as the Devil himself, and the wizards and witches are going to worship him on the hilltop where he sits, a black moon rising in the distance. What I know about the Devil, or Satan, has come from fairy tales and children’s stories, as well as from vague references to Satan in church on Sundays. The Devil is the enemy of God, always waiting for people to make a mistake and lose their souls to him. He carries his victims (sometimes children, even) off to Hell, the place of torture and suffering I saw in the picture in the book from the living room shelf, the picture of the three-headed man-eating monster.

Most of the pictures in Curses, Hexes, and Spells are from long ago, but because I’ve heard of the at church, I know the Devil is alive and well in the world today, even though he doesn’t usually take the form of a monster the way he does in books. What I hadn’t understood, and what my library book makes clear, is that the Devil continues to have agents on earth who do his bidding, making people sick and laying waste to livestock and farmlands. These are the warlocks and witches. I had no idea they still existed, but near the back of my library book, just before the closing chapter on talismans and magic seals, are photographs of real-life witches. The woman in the white robe is arranging salt, nails, a candle, and a scrap of paper with drawings on it on the table before her. She is casting a spell. The chapter seems to make a distinction between black-clad witches who do harm and their benevolent counterparts in white, like this woman. But this is cold comfort to me, because just a few pages later is a description of a bizarre and complex curse ritual, and another photograph, a photograph of a man wearing a goat’s head over his own. He looks like the picture of the Devil from earlier in the book, and I can’t imagine how someone who looks like the goat-monster can be thought of as anything but evil.

Tuesday comes again, and I am back at my desk in Mrs. Williams’ class. We finished this week’s spelling test this morning, writing out the list of new words as they were spoken to us and any words we didn’t get right last week. Mrs. Williams weaves between the desks, matching papers to children. When my test returns to me, I see that I’ve spelled all the new words correctly, and that from last week’s mistakes I still need to learn the difference between “their” and “there.”

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