How it began

The Shoemaker's Daughter. A memoir of days, both past and present, by Rhonda Mason.
My love for words began as an exercise in discipline.

When I was in primary school, my year 5 teacher informed my parents that I would always be five thousand words behind the others in my vocabulary. There was no judgment, no instruction. He merely stated it as a matter of fact.

In a child-like attempt to counter my teacher’s claim, I began to memorise words from my dictionary.

It was the Oxford Dictionary, with a blue, green, and red hard cover. The colours were not primary – rather muted, or faded, perhaps, from exposure to sunlight. It was three inches thick and displayed rampant signs of wear and tear. The corners of the cover were ragged, and the spine had long separated from the book itself – it literally hung on by a few loose threads. The pages themselves were far from pristine. Most were crinkled, but beautifully so.

I do not remember how I came to be in possession of this dictionary. Most likely, my parents gave it to me. Most likely, my dad gave it to me. Most likely, it had been his own.

(Perhaps he used it himself when he studied at college. In fact, didn’t he go to Oxford University for a year or so? My knowledge of such details are vague at best, and I know, with the strongest convinction of heart, that this is something I must rectify.)

And so, with the words of my teacher ringing in my ears, I began with the letter A and started memorising.

I highlighted each word as I committed it to memory, storing each one away for future use like nuts for the winter. It seemed mundane at first. But gradually, I gained momentum. The more words I learnt, the easier it became.

Each word was labelled a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. Each word was placed into a sentence with both clarity and precision. Sample sentences, I used to call them.

Over time, it became clear to me that I needed to read books rather than simply memorise a dictionary. Henceforth, a new system emerged. Every time I came upon a word I didn’t understand, I wrote it down. Once my list of new-to-me words grew long enough, I looked up their meanings and copied them en masse onto loose A4 pages. I included their derivatives as well as the sample sentences. I stored all these pages in a plain white binder, and I referred to them often. It was like my own private version of the Oxford Dictionary, selectively pruned for my usage and purposes.

Despite my strict and clinical approach to learning new words, the habit set me in good stead. My vocabulary flourished, yes, but more importantly, my love for words both widened and deepened.

The binder itself no longer exists. I suspect it was discarded somewhere between our second and third moves. I wish now that I’d kept it: documented proof of my love affair with memorising new words.

As for that red, green, and blue dictionary with the dangling spine, I long to hold it in my hands once more.

I hope against hope that my dad has it still, that he held onto it when I moved out, perhaps casually flung into one of the deep cavities of his office cupboards. An unassuming keepsake, waiting to be unearthed and cherished once more.

  • Ffion said:

    This is just the loveliest story. You write so beautifully and your blog has become a fast favourite x

  • Heike said:

    Dear Ronnie,
    So honestly written. I try to get my emotions and my English in a brief comment. During my vacation, I am reading ’50 Angels for the Year’ from Anselm Grün, a German Benedictine padre and author of various books focusing on spirituality. The today’s text was about the ‘angel of perseverance’. We all have struggles and difficulties in life but your post and this text just show the same. If we face the problem and do not give up, if we persist we are able to overcome our struggles and difficulties and we are able to surmount the hard periods in life. With persistence we can turn them even into our strength.
    We have a dictionary at home, blue with golden letters, it is about 8 cm thick and worn out. The corners of the cover were ragged, and the spine is separated from the book itself, a couple of pages are torn. I explain to my son the importance of books and reading, the importance to know words and their meaning. I told him to take a copybook and to note down all the words he does not understand and to look them up in the dictionary and to write down their meaning. I told him about your today’s post and the importance of persistence. I need persistence in encouraging him, I need to practice perseverance and patience during this period of teenage years and in many other fields, too. Thank you for this beautiful life lesson and the lucidity of your thoughts.
    Tomorrow is my birthday. Reading your words is always a special gift to me.

  • what a lovely beginning to a life long love of reading!!

  • Jess said:

    While I'm saddened but such an ignorant comment, especially from an educator, I appreciate that it spurred you into becoming the gifted writer of emotion & motherhood & life that you are. I've so enjoyed reading your work over the years, both here and your previous blog. Imagine all the lives around the world that your love of words has many that you most likely may never become aware of.

  • Denise said:

    I remember trying to memorize the dictionary as well when I was around six years old. Yet after a few words on the A index, I gave up; realized that there were a lot of words to be stored that my mind couldn't take up that time, but I sure did not forget aardvark.

    Thank you for sharing this! I always thought that my writing was rigid or too technical because I rely too much on the form and arrangement of words. It's nice too know that writing can develop from anywhere or anything.

  • Tori said:

    How moving this is, dear, sweet Ronnie -my heart goes out to the 6 year old you. Her ferocious determination is something we can all learn from, however, and I'm with my darling friend Megan - how great it is that a negative turned into a positive, and sparked in you a love for words. It's always so interesting to hear about how that happened for others, so I'm entirely grateful you shared this here.

    • Tori said:

      Oh golly, my apologies, Ronnie - I'm not sure where I got that number 6 from! But, my thoughts stay the same :)

  • alexa said:

    Oh my, what determination and steadfastness! Full of admiration for your younger self here ... How wonderful that such a narrow and negative mindset from your teacher has led to such a wide, deep and flowering intelligence in you :).

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