I read a lot when I was a kid. It was mostly because there was nothing else for me to do. Somehow, there were no girls in my neighborhood to play with, so I spent a lot of time entertaining myself, and books played a large role in that.
As a result, I developed a vocabulary that was legendary among my fellow students. I still recall returning to class from the bathroom one day and being put on the spot by the teacher:
“Bad4, do you know the word for returning someone to their original country for legal prosecution?”
Flummoxed, I shook my head.
“Oh, your classmates thought you might. It’s extradite.”
Embarrassed, I never forgot the meaning of “extradite.”
That was seventh grade. Also in seventh grade, after speaking a sentence I don’t recall, a classmate looked at me in frustration and said, “Can’t you just talk like a normal person instead of a dictionary?”
That was when I realized I had to tone it down outside the house.
Still, you’d think English class was one place I could safely use my most sesquipedalian vocabulary.
So, when I got a 10th grade essay returned with the word “masticated” circled in red and interrobanged in the margins, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“What does this mean?” I wondered out loud to my friends.
“Oh I got that too,” one replied, showing me her essay. The word “bullshit” was circled and interrobanged.
“You used that word in an essay?!” I had pretty much the same reaction as the teacher.
“What’s wrong with it?” she looked flummoxed. “Doesn’t it just mean fake and made up?” To be fair, she was about three years off the boat from Iran. Certain subtleties of language still eluded her.
We turned our attention to my essay now, and the circled word “masticated.” “You used that in an essay?!” was her reaction. She looked at me in horror. “Even I know better than that!”
“That’s not what it means!” I fumed. I was angry and embarrassed. Here I’d used a perfectly wonderful synonym for “chew” and everyone thought I’d mentioned… well, something unmentionable.
“It doesn’t even make sense!” I complained. “I wrote about cows masticating thoughtfully in the field. What do you think I meant?!”
She looked at me very silently, considering the possible interpretations of that sentence.
“Why not go over and ask?” Devorah suggested. Devorah, the great asker for logic from teachers. I was not a great asker. Instead, I fumed quietly in my desk, thinking vituperative thoughts about English teachers who didn’t bother using dictionaries.