We learn from our mistakes, or so we’re told. I must have made plenty of mistakes at primary school, writing letters the wrong way round, or mis-spelling words like “special”, but I don’t remember any of that, and any evidence of these things is long gone. There are two things that I recall getting wrong before the age of eight and they stick in my mind mainly because of the responses of other people.
The things we learnt before the age of eight came fairly easily to me: reading, writing, times tables, basic maths. This was the era when the ITA (the “Initial Teaching Alphabet”) was in favour, a phonetic reading method that used special characters for the “ng” sound and for an “ee” sound. The latter looked like two “e’s” joined together. (You can see examples of these special characters on this page, from The Wee Web.) We had a book called “Three little funny ones”. The last three words of the title were spelt as follows: “litel funy wunz”. Many children struggled to make the switch from phonetic spelling to regular (or irregular) spelling but it didn’t bother me. Nor did the switch from pre-decimal coinage to the decimal system, which also set many children back in their understanding of money and numbers. In the early years of my primary education I was top of the class. If the focus had been on art, needlework and clay modelling rather than reading, writing and arithmetic I would have struggled, as some of my classmates did.
On one occasion we were asked to copy the following sequence of numbers:
I looked at it and copied out the following:
You see what I did there. I put in the number 5, which wasn’t in the original sequence. They’d missed out a number. I wasn’t looking out for that. The boy next to me had written it out correctly, missing out the 5, and he looked at my answer.
“You got it wrong,” he said, with disbelief in his voice. “You got it wrong!” It might have been the first time that I had got an answer wrong that he had got right.
“Oh yeah,” I said, and wrote it out again, without the 5.
“But you got it wrong. You’re not allowed to do it again. It’s cheating.”
Was it? Was it cheating to write out the correct answer as well as my incorrect answer? I didn’t see it that way. I had learnt from my mistake and since then I have always double-checked numerical sequences like this. People often try to catch you out. As you probably know our brains generalize, adjust and correct what we see. If I write the words “stupdi mistaek” you’ll know that I mean “stupid mistake”. (Unsurprisingly, this word processor corrected both misspellings as I typed them and I had to go back and misspell them manually.)
The other mistake was spelling the word “desert”, as in large sandy expanse of land. I had written “The Sahara Dessert”, which made it sound like a pudding. In this case the teacher gave me a hard time, making a joke of it in front of the rest of the class. Fair enough, though I probably wasn’t the only one to misspell the word. It’s the only time I can recall my spelling being mocked. I have never spelt either “desert” or “dessert” incorrectly since then but always have to think about it. There’s a difficulty with this pair of words: it’s unique. There is no other pair of words that end in “esert” and “essert”. We can’t make a generalization about these letter patterns. Also most words that feature “ssert” have an “ss” sound rather than a “z” sound (assert, assertive, dissertation), so the “z” sound in the middle of “dessert” is irregular. Of course I didn’t realize all of this when I was seven, but I’ve worked it out since then.