Numbers & Letters

The first time I went to school, I learned that I loved letters and hated numbers. Numbers were (still are) confusing, frustrating, and downright exasperating. Letters, on the other hand, became words and they clicked, fascinated, and stockpiled in my brain automatically. Vocabulary lists were my favorite thing. After I learned to read, I never stopped. I never stopped making vocabulary lists either.

But, during the first month as a college student, I learned that neither those early vocabulary lists nor the lists stockpiled throughout the previous forty years were going to cut it in a university classroom.

The day I discovered this, Michelle, the ballerina-turned-English-015-instructor, was doing her usual dance inside the U-shape of desks, chairs, and faces of her audience. It had taken her about three class periods to learn all of our names. It didn’t take us that long to learn that we would not be hiding in that class. She used both our names and her eyes as she twirled through the seventy-five-minute class period. That day she was in full-explanation mode as she described what she was looking for in our first essay assignment.

“I want you to write a reputation,” she said.

Because she had her back to me at that particular moment, I assumed the confusion in my brain was due to my hearing. I strained to listen even as my brain let loose a string of questions. Wait, did she say reputation? How did one write a reputation? Weren’t reputations lived instead of written? Was there another definition of the word?

Then she turned and said it again, “In your reputations, I want three things. I want . . .” Weird, it still sounded like reputation.

As she listed the three things, though, clarity dawned. She was talking about the same three elements of an argument I’d read in the textbook the night before. I decided it was time to put a dent in my pride.

I waited until she asked for questions then said, “When you say what sounds like reputation, that’s not quite right, is it? You’re not actually saying reputation, are you?”

“No,” she responded, “I’m saying refutation, with an F instead of a P. It’s similar to an argument.”

Oh, you mean like when you refute something?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s it. Refutation is the noun form of the verb refute.”

And with that, my brain relaxed and things clicked into place. I grew up refuting freely, spouting letters, words, and refutations all over the place, I just didn’t know it. I thought I was arguing.

Until that day I had felt competent and even smug. I knew I had an extensive vocabulary. That had been confirmed a few months earlier when a psychologist administered a neuropsychological evaluation and awarded me “Superior” status in reading, vocabulary, and comprehension. The evaluation report had further stated that all three of those capabilities were indicative of someone who had a post-high school education or college degree. And all of that was despite the fact that the only high school diploma I had was a General Education Diploma from the state earned by someone else in another lifetime.

That same evaluation had shown that I would have problems keeping up with college students in math. I knew I would need the help of my daughter (who loves numbers) and a friend who once taught math, to get me enough math credits. I had not expected to be challenged by one measly word in the first month.

I immediately started a vocabulary list in each of my individual course notebooks. A dictionary was much too big to fit into my already-full backpack so I added “check vocab words” to my list of assignments. It would take another two years for me to learn the words e-books, e-readers, dictionary apps, and experience the ease of simply tapping and holding my finger on an unfamiliar word to have its definition pop into view.


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