My mom saved all my elementary and high school report cards and gave them to me recently in a box of memorabilia. I got mostly A’s, with the occasional B. It wasn’t that school was a breeze for me. I worked hard, and did a lot of homework.
I don’t have many specific memories from elementary school. But one that sticks in my head involves identifying accented or stressed syllables in multi-syllabic words. I usually aced writing and reading assignments, so you would think I’d have easily grasped this concept. I didn’t.
I remember sitting at my desk in third-grade at St. Benedict’s, wearing my uniform green plaid jumper and white blouse, surrounded by my 30 or so classmates. The teacher handed out a worksheet—a list of words—and explained our task: we were to indicate which syllables were accented in each word. I had no idea how to do this.
I could read the words, pronounce them, and properly divide them into syllables. But I didn’t understand stressed vs unstressed. The other kids got busy placing little accent marks on their worksheets. I sat bewildered and embarrassed, not wanting to admit to the teacher I needed help.
I can’t recall what happened in the end. I think I randomly marked the words on my sheet and turned it in, hoping at least some of them were right.
Many years later, I told my mother-in-law about this incident. She was the kind of music lover who burst into song if circumstances brought a particular one to mind. Hearing my story, she came up with “Gary, Indiana” from The Music Man, sung by Professor Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston), reprised by seven-year-old Ron Howard as the lisping Winthrop:
My mother-in-law was confident that if my teacher had used “Gary, Indiana” to illustrate accented syllables to my third-grade class, I would have zipped through that worksheet, no problem. She was probably right. Instead, I fumbled along by myself until the light gradually dawned, sometime after third grade.
Now I look back fondly on a time when the only thing I didn’t understand was which syllable had the accent. Those were the days.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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