Conflict of Excellence



Most of the students at St-Johns were francophone, and by grade six, we were expected to be fluent English speakers. I went to class, made some lifelong friends, held secret drawing contests, and all the while another language was softly seeping into my brain. I walked the halls of that small public school for a total of twelve years, and most of the learning I did occurred without me even realizing it.

In between geography and long division, our third grade teacher would pull out a picture book and read to us. Whenever an unknown word was spoken, every nine year-old child's language instinct did its magic and filed it somewhere for easy retrieval, along with its category and usage. Whole sets of rules for syntax and subject-verb agreement mapped themselves in my head, adjusting and expanding with each sentence I heard. This bundle of unconscious knowledge grew into a substantial pool of information, a magic spring that always held more than when I last tapped into it.

Before I knew it some teachers gave entire classes in English, and my cerebral cortex handled them just fine. The more I paid attention, the more words seemed approachable; they were no longer out to trick me with their intricate spelling and deceptive definitions. I thought in two languages, dreamt in two languages, and kept them side by side at all times.

At the end of a very transformative third grade, after I had come to enjoy my ever-growing spring of English rules, something shook it completely. On the very last day, I heard my name called and walked up to the front of the class. Our teacher handed me a plaque of some kind, a reward for my improvement in class. The second I glanced at it, something inside me became unusually agitated, and I froze.

The plaque congratulated me for my ''academic exellence.''

I had been absorbing information for months, tending to my bank of knowledge with increased interest. I had passed more than a few quizzes, and I knew for certain how to spell excellence. And yet the plaque diverged from my records; what was going on? ''No,'' I thought, ''that's not right. It's not even right in French.''

I thought about pointing out the error, but I didn't want to come off as ungrateful or pretentious. But maybe the teacher had seen it too, and if I said something about it she could take it back to the school board to have it fixed. But if she noticed, why still give it to me? I looked from the plaque to the teacher's well-meaning face, and decided to keep my mouth shut. I walked back to my desk after what felt like minutes and managed a smile of gratitude.

I stuffed the plaque in my bag without taking another look at it.

When I got home, my mother was ecstatic. She told my father to fetch a hammer and a nail; we were going to hang it up right this second. My unease continued to grow. I had come to think of the award as a deliberate attack on the very material I had learned to receive it. At last I cried that I didn't want to see the plaque, let alone hang it on the wall.

Years later, I still wonder how no one involved in the making and delivering of that plaque realized that it might be a bit absurd to hand out an award with excellence misspelled. I consider it a great blow to the institution's credibility, but it's also proven a kind of catalyst: when I am asked why I want to write for a living, I respond that I still can't get over the fact that a school gave me an award bearing the worst typo I have ever seen.

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