August 16,2017: My first four-letter word

~by Louis Templeman

The first four-letter word I remember encountering came from my first grade teacher. Mrs. Wells, who could have passed for anyone’s fat, giggly grandmother, sat in front of the huge black board that stretched across the wall behind her desk. Except for the smudges of yesterday’s erased chalk the board was blank. However, the little blackboard on an A-frame next to her chair had a single word: THEY.

I felt betrayed. Just yesterday she had me standing beside her. Her pudgy comforting arm hugging me to her softness as she pointed with her little wooden pointer. I was perfect. No mistakes. Everybody knew A, B, C. But I had been called up for three hard ones: Q, R, S. My knees trembled. My palms were clammy, beads of perspiration dotted my forehead. But with the help of her gentle squeezes and praises I scored big. Each of us first graders had to make the long trek from our desks to her desk where she publicly quizzed us through the complexities of the English language.

Then she dropped the bomb on us. She put different letters side by side. Why? What was she trying to do? Why make school so hard? No wonder everybody hated for summer to end. I had trucks I wanted to push through the dirt. I wanted to see if Mr. Hammond’s cow would lumber over close enough to the fence to sniff a fist full of grass I’d hold for her. I was not tempted by TV, because in my community it didn’t come on until the afternoon. So, from midnight, when it signed off with The Star Spangled Banner and Navy jets flying in formation until 3:00 p.m., all you could get were the station’s identification signal which was a pen and ink drawing of Chief Pontiac and a single continuous electronic note like a falsetto steam whistle—Oooo! It was 1955. I was six.

Yesterday, she had taken letters way out of order from the way she had made us memorize them and placed them oddly side by side. The first one was “A”. Easy enough. Both a letter and a word. Then came “an, at, be, do, ” which she made us write over and over on our double lined writing notebooks.

The sun blazed late summer in Fullerton, Kentucky and I couldn’t help but make sweaty wet spots on the coarse blue lined paper. I pressed my pencil so hard against the paper as I wrote that I would tear through the wet spots.

She would turn on the big floor fan occasionally but it made so much noise she had to talk real loud. And, if we lifted our hand off the paper to scratch our ears the paper would blow off our desks. The large triple-hung windows were wide open but it was, at times, especially after lunch, almost suffocating in her classroom. I was sweating as I stared at the little chalk board.

THEY. There it was. Glaring at us. Taunting us. It was like the last time I crossed over Hammond’s Creek on the way to the baseball field. We knew the creek doubled as a sewer and we were horrified of ever falling in. But, we could live with just getting the soles of our shoes wet. Small price for a good ball game. however, would we slip? Would we drown? Would we get polio? My big brother teased me with horrible possibilities and unthinkable scenarios as he made me go first.

That’s how I felt. Scared. Challenged. Shaken, even. I had to try to learn that word. Mrs. Wells would make me. Would I embarrass myself? Would my head explode? I didn’t know. Four letters. I just wasn’t sure I was up to it.

She called my name.

With her right arm she pointed to the dreadful new word. With the other one she opened up an invitation for me to come. Her arms opening up. It was like the locks on the Ohio River that opened up for a boat to pass from one elevation to another. I got out of my chair and made the long walk, knowing I would never be the same again. Something was happening. I was walking into a change point.

She held me to her as she pointed out the letters. She had the whole class read out the letters: “T-H-E-Y.” Then she indicated the first three letters.

“What is this word without the y”

“The,” said several girls.

“Or, you could say…” and she looked at me.

“Thuh,” I said. The girls laughed.

“That’s right.” She said. “The is right and thuh is right. Words and letters can sound different at different times. We can have an e sound or an uh sound.”

Complex, for sure. But, somehow, it made a connection. I didn’t really understand, however, I accepted it. If Mrs. Wells said so, it was so. She kept on, “We have a “thuh” with an “ey”. ‘Thuh’ and ‘Aaa’.” She challenged me with a squeeze and a smile that erased my fear of failure.

“Thuh. Aaa,” I repeated. Like a flash, I saw it. So easy. It couldn’t be! She saw the light in my eyes and nodded for me to speak. I swallowed back my anxiety and breathed out, “They.”

“Oooo,” she exclaimed. This was no doubt, one of the greatest public acclamations I’ve ever received, even to this day. “Oooo!”, Her eyes widened and suctioned me into her notion that I was wonderful. I was terrific. Had I presented her with a foolproof way to air condition her classroom I don’t know if she would have been more pleased. That is what she lived for. Teaching. And, planting seeds of love. The love of learning.

The whole class sat there before me. Slack jawed. Mouths agape. We had learned a word. We learned about putting letters together. And, I had done it right in front of everybody.

Strange and wonderful things, these letters. These words. They became a door into a new and fascinating world. Mrs. Wells said, “And, can you make a sentence with this word?” I looked at my fellow pupils, “They are over there.”

Her joy continued. She laughed. Not as if something were funny but because something was wonderful. I thought, perhaps, it was me. It was an unfamiliar way to think of myself. I liked it.

She released me. I floated back to my desk, at a slightly higher elevation than I’d left. I sat down and stared at that formidable word. It was mine now. It must be how a cowboy feels after he’s broken a horse. The still powerful animal is now under his control. That four-letter word was now mine. And, tomorrow? Who knows? Five letter, six letter words. No longer could they scare me. In fact, right there a love affair began. I fell in love with words.

And, teachers like Mrs. Wells.


Louis writes from Jacksonville, Florida where he lives with his old friend and wonderful bride, Joy. They transformed their friendship into the sacrament of marriage on August 30, 2012. They share their home with two self-absorbed, playful, twin cats (Flo and Jet) and one very allusive and arrogant cat named D. Louis has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and is fighting the good fight. Much of what he writes these days he is sharing his journey with us. Please keep Louis and his wife Joy in your prayers.

CLICK HERE to visit Louis’ Catholic Journeyman Archive

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