I was in second grade.  The teacher put a word up on the chalk board and asked us to figure out what it was.  M-A-N-U-R-E

Looking back, one wonders why Mrs. Rothenberger picked that word for a competition to motivate second graders, but at the time all I knew was that we were given a challenge, and I already loved challenges.  Many of us knew the first three letters spelled MAN, but those last three letters threw us off.  I knew I had seen a word about that length somewhere else.  Where was it??  I went to the back of the room to look and, sure enough, there was a book with a word–MANUEL–almost like the one on the board.  Close, but no cigar.

But it got me to MANU–and from there, I could get the the R sound.  MANUR, MANNER, MANOR, none of these were right.  I could make sounds in my head, but the word I sounded out also had to make sense. It had to conform to some object or idea in the world.  And these sounds were tricky.  The URE sound in MANURE was pronounced OOR, not UR or YOUR but OOR.  Both the sound and the sense eluded me and most of the class for some time.  Then, I got it!

Saint Paul was struck by lightening on the road to Damascus.  I was struck just as suddenly by immediate, certain revelation.  That word was MANURE!!! Being from the farm, I certainly knew what the word meant.  I was a little shocked to see it there on the board, but, boy was I excited.  Before I knew it, the word was not only in my head but out of my mouth.  Not in a whisper but with a shout. As I looked up, radiant with my new knowledge, expecting beatification, I saw Mrs. Rothenberger’s face go red with anger.

I was lucky, I guess.  Saint Paul was blinded; I was merely gagged.  Mrs. R went to her drawer, got out some masking tape, and put it on my mouth.  I had to keep it on a long time.

And thus, my first intellectual breakthrough and one of my most remembered public humiliations coincided.

I tell this story as an answer to Susan Neufeldt’s question to me a few weeks go–can you remember your first intellectual epiphany?  Here’s her own memory about her first remembered intellectual breakthrough: “I can remember the moment when I figured out I could do math–something I thought I couldn’t do anymore–one morning in the bright light that comes before daylight savings when I was doing my seventh grade math with a protractor, and I can remember when I caught fire personally and intellectually in Mlle. Winfield’s French 3 class my junior year in high school.  We read St. Exupery’s Little Prince and I could suddenly understand the deeper lesson and think about that as well as the story.  I was so excited I could hardly stay in my chair.”

The most famous story about breaking through is probably the one in The Miracle Worker when Annie Sullivan teaches Helen Keller the meaning of W-A-T-E-R.

What is your intellectual breakthrough story?  Any miracles, large or small?

Shirley Showalter

Leave a Comment