Tuesday, August 5, 2008

$2 Words

I was sitting at a cafeteria table with a few of my friends from the school gymnastics team. It was the year after Mary Lou Retton vaulted to stardom in the 1984 Olympics, so gymnastics was the glory sport at our rundown school in the projects. Government money subsidized after school programs in our little slice of urban blight. Outdoor education classes happened in the corner of the school yard underneath a curve in the overpass, ballet was in the lunchroom once the tables were pushed aside, and we could study calligraphy at the desks in the guidance counselor's office, if we wanted to. We could choose from soccer and aerobics, too.

But gymnastics...that was IT. Gymnasts from the nearby university team came and taught the after school course. The truly talented girls got intense one-on-one attention for an extra hour after that. One girl at my lunch table, Natalie Antoine, really shone. She was a grade behind me but already on the elite team. Somehow the coaches always managed to scrape together enough money to send a handful of our best girls, Team A, to the meets and Natalie was the star every time.

I wanted to be one of them. I envied Natalie's short, brown, compact body. The way she could explode off the vault or navigate the beam like it was four feet wide instead of four inches. I was tall and gangly, and my pasty white legs covered in mosquito bites waved all over the place when I tried to master the basics of a back walkover. I should have been in ballet; whenever I had that rotation with Miss Cora, I shone. But you didn't get gold medals for ballet.

My efforts to master lightning quick tumbling that bewildered me, to conquer the vault that terrified me, and the beam that I approached with fear and awe, demonstrated to anyone with half an eye that gymnastics would never be my personal glory sport. But I kept plugging away at it. It was just one of many incidents in a string of attempts to fit in with the cool kids.

It makes me a little sad to think about it. I didn't see then what I do now, of course. Who does at age ten? I didn't see my own strengths , as I pored over gymnastics books from the library, like I could learn it by osmosis. I didn't see that the quieter grace of dance would suit my long lines better, or that people who are afraid to do flip flops should find a sport that doesn't involve them.

So I sat there that day, totally ignorant that my true passion would be revealed to me in an innocuous conversation over the salty ham in our free federal lunch. My friends were talking about their upcoming meet again. I mostly listened but trying to be empathetic, I asked, "Are you nervous?"

A fifth grader, Sonia, shrugged. "Nah. Ain't no scoring at this one. Everybody gets a trophy for going. It's just for show."

"Oh, so an exhibition." I knew what that was because my dad had taken me to one a few months before when the US gymnastics team had come through on tour.

"A what?" one of the girls asked me.

"An exhibition. A show, no points," I said.

"Girl, you know some big words."

I was confused. Everbody knew what an exhibition was. Right?

"Yeah, you talk like a reporter," another one said.

I was embarrassed so I just shut my mouth again and let the conversation wander away.

I think about that now because it's the moment where I realized that big words are a part of me. I've been teased in years since for using $2 words. I don't care. Boys have earned kisses in long gone days for knowing and using $2 words. $2 words were rewarded at our dinner table and encouraged in our family discussions.

My husband quickly learned the magic of $2 words for me early in our relationship and wields his knowledge to great effect. Smart man, my husband.

Maybe my thing is verbal gymnastics. I don't know. I didn't think it was a big deal then that I always won the spelling bee or reading competitions. It's not like I tried. And I got used to friends teasing me about my vocabulary, in time. It took until high school before I quit editing myself when I spoke, trying to weed all the $2 words out so no one would look at me strangely. By then, it's not like they couldn't figure out that I was smart when I would segregate myself at lunch to finish a book I found more interesting than the conversation. They tolerated it because I knew how to put my books aside and play, too. Even among that group of classic overacheivers, though, I was a word nerd in a totally different league.

That's okay, though. It's not like I understood chemistry or calculus, my personal kryptonite.

In our house, big words earn you kisses when used in a sentence and random pop cultural references get a high five. We traverse the silly to sublime on a daily basis, often in the same conversation.

Words, man. The best ones drip with the honey of lexical perfection.



Annette Lyon said...

Apparently we were separated at birth. My family is very much the same, and I've had friends confess (years after the fact) that they didn't want to play with me when we were little because they didn't understand the words I used.

Word nerds unite!

Kimberly said...

This post hit very, very close to home.

I just used the words voracious and trepidatious in the same sentence.

p.s. Have you seen the site youwriteon.com? I am loving it!

Brillig said...

Oh yeah. I hear ya. My dad is an English lit prof and my mom is a writer. Words were a very big deal in the home I grew up in. Whenever we kids would fight, my mom would make us spell hard words. It worked. We would stop fighting in order to spell! haha. Still, I was a master at spelling and understanding the hard words, but I'm not sure I ever used them regularly. Maybe that part of my brain is missing...

Great post!

Brillig said...

Oh, and speaking of great posts, I loved your post over at Bloggers Annex. Congrats on that, by the way!

Alison Wonderland said...

Love the big words, adore them! Some times I like to pull a few out just because I can and sometimes I do it without thinking but I just can't help it, I love the taste of them.

charrette said...

Great post. LOVE the verbal gymnastics idea. Great sport for a writer. And I'm oh-so-infatuated with your last sentence.

Words were highly prized in our house too. (Though I never got any cash. I should ask for retroactive pay.) Best word reward ever: Washington D.C. for the National Spelling Bee. Best word curse ever: Intimidating all those boys.

Now I'm married to a writer/director. Words galore!

Anonymous said...

My brother once accused my sister of reading the dictionary so she could sound smart! I thought "what a good idea" and started doing just that. Drives people crazy, doesn't it?