“Say bitch”, two girls asked my brother in a cruel attempt to flirt with him when we both attended the same school in Miami. We were still learning English and were hindered by our accents. He was fourteen and I was twelve and this was the first time I became aware of the sound that words make when they fall. I knew what was coming and held my breath as he valiantly pronounced the word in that telltale hispanic accent that makes it sound closer to “beech”.
When the girls laughed, I laughed along with them. That was a mistake. When their heads turned to look at me, the movie of my life rolled in slo-mo. They cocked their weapon and I could see the bullet of mockery aimed at me. They fired, “You say it now!”. The bullet bent time and space as it hurled towards me. Quick, I thought, where’s the fault in that pronunciation? And as my body bent backwards and my arms flung wildly at my sides like in the movie The Matrix, I say “b-b-ITCH!” The bullet missed me, but only just. The girls were satisfied with the pronunciation, even if altogether unconcerned by my relish in pronouncing it.
The second time I relished the sound of a word, it came also in the form of mockery, albeit more anodyne. “Juan, you DIP!”, called out my English teacher. I was being a clown or air-headed (as was usual) and the teacher said it in friendly jest, although he kept apologising profusely afterward. But I was hanging on to the way that word sounded: the dental “D” and the plosive “P” with a single vowel in the middle, which my Texan teacher made it sound like two, “Diyup”. He was the first teacher that made language playful. He taught us the shortest poem:
Later, in high school, it was Mrs Floyd who would urged us to pay attention to words. Most importantly, every time one of us asked her (and we asked often) “what does that word mean”, she’d reply automatically, “look it up in the dictionary”. By the end of the school year every student consulted the dictionary without interrupting her, for the whole class would have called in unison “look it up in the dictionary” if he had asked.
Mrs Floyd was also responsible for teaching me to hear words, not only the sounds they made but the rhythm they created. When one of us read “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe out loud, we were still left at a loss to understand the lesson in onomatopoeia. Then she read it again, emphasising the alliteration but also with long pauses and a monotone voice in the penultimate line, “From the bells, […] bells, […] bells, […] bells, […] bells, […] bells, […] bells, […] — ” We got it then, and I’ve never lost the ear for jingling and the tinkling of words.
For example, how can I not reread Nabokov’s first line in Lolita, over and over again?:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Do you hear the happy tiptoeing of small girlish feet the words make?
Years later I would re-read “The Great Gatsby” and the shock I felt came not from the plot, but from my helplessness at being carried by the line:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I was a crap student. My head was always in the clouds and I was lazy. When Mr Hammond asked us to memorize a poem and present it to the whole class, I made sure to use, if not the second shortest, then one very close to it. He did not penalise me for my laziness and even corrected my mispronunciation of a word in it. As it happens, I don’t remember that poem but I remember his encouragement, kindness and patience.
I didn’t read many of the books Mrs Floyd assigned us in her class. Instead I used Cliffs Notes whenever I could get away with it. But I read some, and if it hadn’t been for her intelligent selection of books which included “Things Fall Apart” (Chinua Achebe) and “Cry the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton) I would have been the kind of reader that never ventured beyond the Western Cannon. So while I may have almost failed to pass her class, I took away a much more valuable gift. I became a reader later in life.