Friday, October 6, 2023

Andy Young: The perils of reading aloud

By Andy Young

When I was around 7 years old it was easy to gain the admiration of my age-alike peers. I could do that simply by making faces, or imitating certain sounds the human body makes. But at that age what I really craved was approval from adults, or “Big People,” as we called them back then. And once I found a way to obtain appreciation from my elders, I milked it for all it was worth.

As a second grader I excelled at three things: kickball, adding small numbers, and reading out loud. All three of those talents dependably earned me praise from some Big People. Unfortunately, the first of those assets was seasonal. Once the temperature dipped below the freezing mark, kickball games vanished. However, math and reading were year-round parts of the school curriculum. That’s why any time Miss Goldman needed a volunteer to read a challenging passage aloud, I was on it.

Then one day I was confidently zipping along, fluently enunciating every syllable of Dick and Jane’s adventure, when my eyes spied a lengthier-than-normal word I didn’t recognize. However, convinced of my reading infallibility I plowed on, announcing audibly to one and all, “Jane put her money in the mack hine.”

My classmates began by tittering. Then they started chuckling, and before long the situation had escalated out of control. Every boy and girl in that classroom was laughing out loud, and at me! It turned out the unfamiliar seven-letter word I had butchered should have been pronounced muh-SHEEN.

I don’t think I was permanently damaged by that little mis-step, although given that I still remember the incident more than five decades later, some might disagree. But I’m certainly not the only person who’s mispronounced a word publicly; after all, it wasn’t that long ago the nominal leader of the free world couldn’t deduce that n-u-c-l-e-a-r spells NEW-clee-ur, not NEW-cue-lur.

Besides, English is a language that often doesn’t make sense. How does anyone get SEG-way out of segue, KER-nil out of colonel, SAM-inn out of salmon, or KEY out of quay?

Years after my memorable mispronunciation I again found myself in a class where oral reading was occasionally called for. I had returned to night school with the goal of securing a teaching license, and one evening the professor had different members of the class reading passages from a lengthy text which she considered significant.

There were 12 adult students around the table, and each of us had a paragraph to read aloud. My turn was coming up when the woman reading directly before me clearly mispronounced an eight-letter word. I smiled, but not wanting to embarrass a peer, I bit my lip to keep from laughing out loud. However, to my surprise the class continued on as if nothing unusual had happened.

I was incredibly impressed by the kindness of those people, each of whom had, apparently independently of one another, shown the self-control necessary to keep from making a classmate feel bad about her humiliating error.

That was until I got home and discovered that p-a-r-a-d-i-g-m is indeed pronounced PAIR-uh-dime. If that passage had been mine, I’d have read the unfamiliar word as PAIR-uh-DIJ-um, and all those mature adults would probably still be laughing about it today.

What a narrow escape that was! Still, it could have been worse. Reading a sentence aloud that concerned how banal (buh-NAHL) some of history’s annals (ANN-ulls) are might have gotten me thrown out of school.

But I’ve gotten smarter since then. These days when I want to impress someone, I just take them to watch me play kickball. <

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