In the first grade, I cheated on a spelling test.
I was recently reminded of this ethical lapse when one of my own grade schoolers asked, “Mommy, how do you spell ‘little?’” Ah, my old nemesis — little — the word I didn’t know how to spell on that fateful spelling test.
I remember the event so clearly. It’s like I’m back in my six-year-old shoes and skirt. I remember struggling to decipher the word my teacher called out. I sounded it out and came up with “l-i-d-d-l-e,” for understandable reasons. That sounded right, but I wasn’t positive.
On the way to the teacher’s desk to turn in my test, I glanced at someone else’s paper just to check. Oh, no! I was wrong. Not “l-i-d-d-l-e,” but “l-i-t-t-l-e.” I quickly made a u-turn back to my seat and corrected my answer. To quiet the whisper of my conscience, I told myself that I’d meant to write “l-i-t-t-l-e,” but I just got confused for a minute. Of course, I knew how to spell that word.
Then, I walked my “corrected” paper back to the teacher’s desk, but conviction wouldn’t let me hand it in. For the second time that morning, I turned around, went back to my seat, and changed my answer again. Erasing “l-i-t-t-l-e” and writing “l-i-d-d-l-e.” By then, not cheating felt like lying in my six-year-old mind, because now I knew the right way to spell the word. Chagrined, I finally turned in my test with the purposely misspelled word.
I wonder if my teacher ever knew the moral battle that raged behind my pencil and eraser marks. Could she decipher the code of conscience being etched by a first-grader’s d’s and l’s? Even if she never understood, I did. In the 35 years since that school day, I’ve never knowingly cheated again. But, I also never became a very good speller, except for one word.
So, on a recent morning I spelled “little” for my first grader, or it might have been my third grader, and then told all my kids the story of when I cheated once, a long time ago.
I hope they learned more than how to spell a little word.
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