Debating a Second Grader on the Merits of Wikipedia and the Etymology of ‘Ladybird’
Evan Lavender-Smith May or May Not Be Smarter Than His Son
He reads in the ugly brown reclining chair with the quilt tucked in around his half-naked body. He reads a chapter book, a designation we use to refer to a book that doesn’t contain pictures and isn’t a movie or TV tie-in, a book with discrete chapters and a sustained narrative account. He reads for a half hour. I set the kitchen timer. We’re forcing him to read for this length of time, but it’s a different kind of forcing than when we force him to do his chores or when we force him to eat all the food on his plate—he enjoys being forced to read. The kitchen timer beeps. I walk down the hall to the study, tell him that although the half hour is up, he’s free to continue reading if he likes. He says he would prefer to stop. But he can’t find his bookmark, he says, the Post-it Note he affixes above the last sentence he’s read so he’ll know exactly where to pick up tomorrow night, so he won’t accidentally reread a sentence he’s already read. I tear a Post-it from the pad and hand it to him. He evaluates his progress: page 122, only 55 more to go. I ask him how it’s going. He says it’s going fine. Better than some, he says, not as good as others. He stands, asks me to please get out of the way because his TV show is starting and he needs to get across the house to the living room. I stand with my back pressed against the doorframe and watch as he canters down the hall.
There’s the missing Post-it, stuck to the back of his underwear.
I asked him if he would tell me what’s going on in his book right now.
He said he didn’t know what I meant. Going on?
What’s happening at this point in the book. What’s going on with the characters right now.
He said he couldn’t say. He’s not trying to think about what the words mean, he said, but only what the words say. He said he’s mostly just reading the letters of the words.
I said expand/explain.
He said it’s that he’s not putting the words together. That he’s reading the words separately. That he’s reading each word in isolation from all the surrounding words.
I asked him if he realized he’s doing only maybe half or maybe even less than half of what the reader’s job is supposed to involve. I told him the words are there to all come together for the reader in order to tell a story, maybe to create an HD or even a 3D world in the reader’s mind’s eye. Following along with the story, falling head over heels into the world of the book, is the most fun part of reading. I told him he really should start trying to read in a way that would allow him to follow along closely with the story so he can actually get to hang out with the characters and get to know them and get to figure out what they’re up to and maybe start getting really excited about what they might be up to next.
He said that’s not the way he reads. The way he reads is good enough for his age level. Seven-year-olds are supposed to mostly read only the words.
I said expand/explain.
He said seven-year-olds are supposed to read one word then forget about that word then read the next word then forget about that word then read the next word then forget about that word and on and on until they get to the last page then read the third-to-last word then forget about that word then read the second-to-last word then forget about that word then read the last word then forget about that word and then put the book back up on the shelf, where it belongs.
I told him I felt I had no choice but to schedule an emergency parent–teacher conference for the following AM and would he please help me find my iPhone.
“Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. “You’re not hearing me right.” “I’m hearing you perfectly well,” I said. “You’re not reading that book.” “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. “Now just hold on a second. You’re not hearing me right.” I said expand/explain.
He said he already expanded/explained. Twice.
He sat on the ugly brown reclining chair with the quilt tucked in around his body. I knelt down beside him.
I told him there’s a reason that the writer of that book chose those words instead of other words. I asked him why does he think we’re having him read chapter books instead of picture books or movie or TV tie-in books?
He said he didn’t know. Maybe because chapter books have more words? Or maybe because chapter books are harder to read than picture books?
I told him that was part of it. But the biggest part of it is that chapter books create a whole new world just with words, I told him, and we want our son to experience some of these worlds that are created only out of words.
So what’s wrong with pictures? What’s wrong with worlds created by pictures? So was I saying that worlds created by words are better than worlds created by pictures?
That’s not what I was saying. I was just saying there are lots of different kinds of worlds in the world, worlds made of pictures, worlds made of words, many different kinds of worlds, and Mom and I are eager to expose our son’s growing brain to as many of these different kinds of worlds as possible, not just one kind.
So how come we don’t force him to watch TV? How come we don’t force him to read picture books, if those worlds are so important? And what about comic books, for crying out loud?
But I would argue that those worlds, TV worlds and picture-book worlds and comic-book worlds, are in fact not as good as chapter-book worlds, are in fact not as good as pure-word worlds. Of course some pure-word worlds are better or worse than other pure-word worlds, just like some TV and movie worlds are better or worse than others, but I think that pure-word worlds, in general, specifically chapter-book worlds, have a substantially higher batting average, in terms of the quality of their worlds, than TV and movie and picture-book worlds do.
“So what is it exactly,” he said, “please tell me right now, that makes one world better than another?”
It was getting late, so I told him we’d have to pick up our conversation tomorrow night, after he was done reading. We’d put a Post-it in our conversation, so to speak, just like he puts a Post-it in his book to let him know where to pick up with his reading the next night. We’d put a figurative Post-it here, at this moment in our conversation, so we’d know exactly where to pick up when we’re ready to start going at it again tomorrow.
He reached beneath the quilt, pulled a fresh Post-it from the pad, and slapped its sticky end against my forehead.
He prefers to keep the light low while he reads. He reads by the light of the floor lamp next to the ugly brown reclining chair. After ensuring that the quilt is tucked in everywhere between his body and the chair, I turn off the desk lamp, close the lid to my laptop, and turn off the overhead light. The reclining chair is positioned in the corner of the room where the walls are lined with bookshelves; he positions his drink, a tall glass of ice water we refer to as the reading beverage, on a shelf within reaching distance of the chair. During the weeks immediately following the commencement of his new nightly reading routine, he would call out for me after every drink he took, asking that I tuck his left side back in beneath the quilt, as that side had become untucked when he had reached for the reading beverage on the shelf. I indulged him for a while, but soon I grew frustrated with walking all the way across the house every time he took a drink. I insisted that he find a way to tuck the quilt back in himself after placing his reading beverage on the shelf.
The first evening following our implementation of the new rule, the kitchen timer beeped and I opened the door to the study to find only half his body under the quilt. The left half of the quilt was not only untucked but was folded away from the left half of his body and doubled up over his right half so to completely expose the left side of his body all the way down to his bare left foot.
He looked down sorrowfully at his body. Then he looked in the direction of the far wall, and he fixed his gaze there as he spoke.
“I’m freezing,” he said. “The left half of my body is very cold.”
He said that he had been unable to concentrate on his reading because the left half of his body had all this while been exposed to the air of the study, ever since he took his first drink from the reading beverage, nearly a half hour ago. He said that despite several attempts to do so, he couldn’t figure out how to tuck the quilt back in on the left side, because it was necessary for him, he said, to keep his right hand and arm under the quilt for fear of his right side becoming untucked. Had the right side also come untucked, he said, had he untucked his right arm to aid in the tucking in of his left side, and had he not been able to tuck himself back in on either side, it may have come to pass that his body would have frozen over completely, he said, that he would have frozen solid, and that he would have died.
“How would you like it if I died?” he asked me. “How do you think that would make you feel?” His tone was cautionary, severe. “How do you think Mom would feel if I died from being frozen in here?”
I told him that the thermostat in the hallway was set to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and it couldn’t be colder than 40 outside. I said it’s highly unlikely that he’d freeze to death under these conditions, regardless of whether or not he’s tucked in under the quilt.
“It may be unlikely,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Don’t you think it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to something like this? Don’t you think it’s important enough for us to not take any chances? Because what if the thermostat is wrong? Please tell me we have a backup thermostat somewhere in the house.”
I told him that the backup thermostat was my own body, that if it really were cold enough in the house that we were in danger of freezing to death, my body would let me know, and I would do something about it.
“Would we stay in a hotel?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I replied. “But probably I’d try to find a way to manually engage the heater, bypassing the thermostat somehow.”
“How would you do that?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’d try to hot-wire it.” “So you know how to hot-wire things?” “Not really, no.”
“Well, if you don’t know how to hot-wire things, then I think we’d have to stay in a hotel.”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. We’d have to stay in a hotel.” I sat down on the arm of the chair and draped the quilt over the whole of his body. “How’s your book?” I asked. “What’s going on in it right now?”
“I don’t know,” he said, affixing a Post-it over his last-read sentence, throwing off the quilt, and getting up to leave the room. “I already told you that’s not the way I read.”
So what is it, exactly, that makes one world better than another?
“Each of us gets to determine, finally, what constitutes a quality imagined world, according to the unique terms of our individual literary value systems.”
The quilt was pulled up just below his chin. An old aftermarket automobile cupholder sat on his lap, holding a plastic cup filled with ice water. The upper portion of a very tall bendy straw rested on the cup’s lip.
“Well,” he said, “according to the unique terms of my literary value system, I think Cartoon Network has way better worlds than anything I can read in some chapter book.”
He went on to say that if the goal is to seek out high-quality imagined worlds, and that if he is the final judge of any given world’s quality, then there’s no point in continuing his nightly reading routine. He might as well just sit in front of the TV in the evenings, because TV worlds are, in his humble opinion, far superior to pure-word worlds.
The dog, dozing on the rug, farted. She jumped up and barked, then began growling and dutifully sniffing all around the room, attempting to seek out the source of her disturbance.
He and I realized what had happened, that the dog had scared herself with the sound of her own fart. We began laughing, and our laughter was further fueled by the sight of the dog concertedly patrolling the study, sniffing around among its nooks and crannies, trying to figure out what had jarred her awake. Her search was in vain, we knew, because the source of her disturbance was so clearly her own butt, and her butt was so clearly on the opposite side of her body from her nose. We knew she’d never find it. Tears formed in our eyes as we laughed, as the dog continued to make her rounds, trying to work out the puzzle.
“She should check behind the desk!” I exclaimed, crying.
He was laughing so hard his nose had begun to run, and he wiped it with the quilt. “Maybe she should check her own butt!” he said.
“Maybe we should open the door so she can go check the rest of the house!” He choked on his laughter. Tears streamed from his eyes.
“Hey,” I said, speaking sternly in the direction of the dog, who was sniffing around by the bookshelves. She looked up at me. “Be sure to check the S shelves carefully. I suspect the sound came from that direction, over near the Shakespeare!”
His laughter subsided. “Who’s Shakespeare?” he asked.
“Famous English playwright,” I replied. “From the 1500s and 1600s. I was trying to make a joke referencing all the scatology in Shakespeare. Scatology basically means fart jokes. There’s tons of fart jokes in Shakespeare, tons of scatology. That’s why I said she should check the Shakespeare section carefully.”
“You have a whole section by him?”
I pointed at the shelf. “Pretty much that whole row is Shakespeare. There’s the Norton, the green one with all the Post-its sticking out of it. That’s the one I used in college. And then I’ve got the Oxford, the blue one, which doesn’t have any glosses. Glosses are like little interjections included on the page by the people who edited the book, to try to help the reader out with unfamiliar words or historical references or whatever. The Oxford’s the one I like to read the most because the glosses in the other editions distract me. And then I’ve got another one there, the Bedford, from graduate school. And then all those thin white books with the different-colored ovaloid shapes on the tops and bottoms of the spines are Norton Critical Editions of individual plays. Those ones each have a single play followed by essays about the play written mainly by professors who teach Shakespeare. And then after those, you see all those different-colored books all the way to the end of the row? Those are all books about Shakespeare, written by people who have devoted their lives to studying him. The coolest one is probably this huge one.” I walked to the shelf, grabbed the book, brought it over to him. “This is called a concordance. It contains pretty much every word ever written by Shakespeare arranged in alphabetical order, and then next to each word it shows you in what plays or poems he used that word.”
“It’s huge,” he said.
“Because he used so many words. He probably did more to help out the English language than any other writer in history. A bunch of the words we use today were first written down by Shakespeare. Look here,” I said, flipping through the book. “Ladybird, from Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 3, line 3.”
“What’s a ladybird,” he asked, “like a girl bird?”
“I think it actually means ladybug,” I replied. “But girl bird is a good guess.” “So why didn’t he just say ladybug if that’s what he meant?”
“Maybe ladybird sounded better,” I said, “or maybe ladybug wasn’t in use back then. We’d have to check the OED to find out.”
“What’s the OED?” he asked.
“The Oxford English Dictionary,” I replied. “It contains most of the words in the English language that have appeared in print, and it provides the date and a quotation of every word’s first known appearance.”
I went to my reference shelf and took down the compact OED, placed it on my desk and removed the first volume from its slipcase. He tossed off the quilt and came over to the desk. I opened the drawer at the top of the slipcase and took out the magnifying glass.
“You have to use this magnifying glass because the print’s so small. There’s a full version, which is like twenty-something volumes. In that one the print is normal sized and you don’t need the magnifying glass, but this is the one I have, the compact OED, because your mom won’t let me buy the full version. Of course now they have it all on the internet. They also have it as software, which I have on my laptop, but it’s way more fun to do it this way, actually look up the words in the real book.” I flipped through the Ls toward ladybug. “If ever you’re looking to buy me a Christmas or birthday present,” I said, “you should tell Mom you think the family should all pitch in to get me the full version of the OED and see what she says. Maybe if it’s coming from you she’ll be more amenable. Amenable basically means cool, if she’s cool with it. If you can somehow work that out for me, I’ll try to work out the Lego Death Star for you.”
“Deal,” he said, offering me his hand. “But you have to promise.”
“I promise,” I said, “but I’m only going to do it after I get the full version of the OED. Once all twenty-something volumes are here on my shelves, only then will I attempt to get you the Death Star.”
“But what if I try my best and it doesn’t work out?” he asked.
“Then no Death Star. There’s no way I’m even going to try for the Death Star unless I already have the OED in my possession. And also, if you tell Mom about the deal, then the deal’s off.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll try my best. But you have to try your best, too.” “I will,” I said. “But I’m only going to try if you succeed.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll try my best, I promise. Hopefully I’ll succeed.” We shook hands.
“Okay, now look here.” I handed him the magnifying glass and pointed at the entry for ladybug. “Read it.”
“Ladybug,” he read, “equals sign ladybird.”
“The equals sign means the word is synonymous to the word following the equals sign. In this case, we’re being told that the word ladybug is another word for the word ladybird. Synonymous means it means the same thing. And now look at the first date in the quotations.”
“1699,” he said.
“That means that as far as the editors can tell, 1699 is around the first time the word ladybug appeared in print. What were the years I told you that Shakespeare was writing his plays?”
“1500s and 1600s,” he said.
“So the word ladybug couldn’t have been used by Shakespeare, because the first appearance of the word is dated to 1699.”
“But wasn’t he writing then? You said 1600s. So that means he was writing then, because 1699 is in the 1600s. That means you’re wrong and I’m right.”
“Right about what? Shakespeare died in the early 1600s, I don’t know the exact year. I think he wrote his last play in the teens, in the sixteen-teens. I’d have to look it up to tell you exactly.”
“I think you’d better look it up,” he said. “Because before you said 1600s, which in my book means all the way up to 1699, and now you’re saying sixteen-teens. When you said 1500s, what did you mean, like only a couple years in the 1500s? Was he born in 1599 and died in the sixteen teens? Was this Shakespeare guy a teenager when he died?”
“No. I was only saying that he was alive during part of the 1500s and part of the 1600s. Of course I didn’t mean he was born on New Year’s Day in the year 1500 and died at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve in the year 1699. That would mean he lived to be 200 years old.”
“Not quite 200,” he said. “That would make him 199 and change. Almost 200.”
I pointed at the Shakespeare section. “Hand me one of those NCEs with the ovaloid shapes on the spine. NCE equals Norton Critical Edition.”
“Which one?” he asked.
“I don’t care. Pick one. Pick your favorite color.”
He handed me Hamlet. I looked on the back, but Shakespeare’s dates weren’t there, so I started scanning the prefatory material, but still no birth and death dates, only dates related to the composition, publication, and staging of Hamlet. I handed the book back to him. “Doesn’t have his dates,” I said. “Reshelve it. You should just trust me that he wasn’t 199 years old when he died. He was like 50 or something. Hand me my Oxford there, the one that says Complete Works.”
“You’re stalling,” he said, retrieving the Oxford from the shelf. “Stalling equals taking too much time because you know you’re wrong.”
I was hoping for Shakespeare’s dates somewhere on the dust jacket, but they weren’t there, so I turned to the General Introduction. “First line of the introduction,” I said. “This volume contains all the known plays and poems of William Shakespeare, a writer, actor, and man of the theatre who lived from 1564 to 1616. See? Now what’s 1616 minus 1564? You can think of it as 116 minus 64, if that helps.”
He looked up at the ceiling and attempted to perform the calculation in his head. He made a soft clicking noise with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. I stopped him after several seconds.
“Try it this way: what do you need to add to 64 to get to 116?” “Fifty-two,” he immediately replied.
“Good. So the question has now officially been settled, born 1564, died 1616, at the ripe old age of 52.”
“I mean, if you think you can trust the people who wrote that book,” he said. “I don’t know them, so it’s hard for me to say if they can be trusted. Do you know them?”
“I do not know the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare personally, no. But I would imagine they are all PhDs specializing in Elizabethan drama, that’s when Shakespeare was writing, the Elizabethan period, which just means the time when Elizabeth was the queen of England, in the 1500s and the 1600s. Drama equals plays and PhD equals doctorate, the highest degree you can receive in academia, the most school you have to take before you can go off and get a job. Academia means life related to the university, like your mom and I are both involved in academia, because we’re both professors. Now, in academia, people’s reputations and their job security rely on the truthful presentation of information like this, like references to somebody’s birth and death dates. If academics just started making things up in order to trick people into believing false information, their reputations would be compromised and they could lose their jobs.”
“But I thought you wrote fiction,” he said, “and isn’t fiction all about making stuff up and trying to trick people? Remember you told me about the suspenders of disbelief, how in fiction you try to get people to think that lies are really the truth? So if you’re all about tricking people and lying, then how come they let you have a job?”
“Look,” I said. “I know you’re smart, and I know you know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In fiction it’s okay to lie. In fiction, yes, the suspension of disbelief is important, but in nonfiction, especially in critical writing like the kind found in this introduction here, in a book out on Oxford UP, pretty much the most highly regarded university press in the world, there’s no fiction, there’s no attempt at fiction. People read this introduction to find out facts about Shakespeare’s life. If the editors just started throwing around random dates, born 1500 died 1699 or whatever, then nobody would buy this book and those editors would probably have a hard time finding someone to publish the next book they edited.”
“I think you should double-check the dates on Wikipedia,” he said, “just to be on the safe side. The great thing about Wikipedia is that the whole world gets to edit it. My teacher told me that everything gets checked and double-checked millions of times. It’s the most trustworthy source we have for this kind of thing. I even know some people who added things to Wikipedia. I know them personally and I can couch for them.”
“Vouch. You vouch for them. A couch is something you sit on in the living room while watching SpongeBob. Listen,” I said. “I’m going to indulge you here and look up Shakespeare’s dates on Wikipedia so we can move forward with this ladybug question. But I’ve got to say something first, and I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m about to undermine your teacher again. I can’t simply sit on the sidelines and watch silently as your growing brain gets steamrolled by pedagogical incompetence due, at least in part, to the government’s de-prioritization of public education funding. That’s not your fault and it’s not your teacher’s fault, but it’s obvious to me that both of you are experiencing its fallout in very serious ways when you come home championing Wikipedia’s ethos. So, I would kindly ask you to please not tell Mom or your teacher or any of your schoolmates about what I’m about to say, because if you tell Mom I’m definitely in for it, and if you tell your teacher it will likely get back to Mom, and if you tell your schoolmates it will likely get back to your teacher and then get back to Mom, just like it did last time. You have to promise me that you’ll keep mum on this. Our Death Star deal depends on it. Keeping mum equals keeping your big fat mouth shut. So can I get a promise? Do we have a deal?”
“Deal,” he said, “as long as I can go watch an episode of SpongeBob right now.”
“Deal,” I said. “Hand me a Post-it.”
He said that when he comes to a word he doesn’t know, he skips it. He said he tries every word, first he tries it in his head, and if it doesn’t compute in his head, he tries it in his mouth, and if it doesn’t work itself out in his mouth, he skips it, he admits defeat and moves on to the next word. He said it rarely happens that there’s a string of more than two words he doesn’t know. He said he’s encountered such a string only a few times in his entire life. He said his teacher told him that if he encounters more than ten unfamiliar words on a single page, then that book is too difficult for him and he shouldn’t be reading it.
He said that a while back he read a page in his book with thirteen unfamiliar words on it, but he kept reading the book anyway because he liked it and eventually he finished it. He said he felt proud of himself to have finished a book that was obviously way too difficult for him to read.
I asked him if his teacher has talked to his class about context, about trying to figure out what the unfamiliar words mean by using other words of the sentence as clues. He said of course they talk about context, what, have I forgotten he’s in second grade? Do I think he’s still in kindergarten or something?
I was only asking, I said, because of what he had said a while back about reading only the words. That if he really was reading only the words, as he claimed, that if he wasn’t trying to put all the words together to create meaning of some kind, then it would be impossible to rely on context to figure out what the unfamiliar words mean, because there’s no context available.
He said that’s not exactly what he meant when he said that. He said I hadn’t heard him correctly. He does use context sometimes, he said, but only in small amounts. Like when he reads a sentence like this one, he said, pointing at a sentence in his book, he knows that the small boy referred to in the middle of the sentence is the same small boy as Charlie Bucket, because in between the words small boy and Charlie Bucket we get the words whose name is. He read the sentence aloud, to demonstrate his point.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bucket have a small boy whose name is Charlie Bucket.”
He said that from that sentence we learn some things. We learn that Mr. Bucket and Mrs. Bucket are the parents of a boy whose name is Charlie Bucket. We also learn that Charlie Bucket is small. He said that Charlie has four grandparents, two of whom are the parents of Charlie’s father, Mr. Bucket, and two of whom are the parents of Charlie’s mother, Mrs. Bucket. Grandpa Joe, he said, is the most important grandparent, because he’s the one who will accompany Charlie to the chocolate factory. He said that before Charlie and Grandpa Joe head to the chocolate factory, the whole family is in pretty bad shape, nutritionally.
“They can’t even afford good food,” he said. “They eat bread and soup and that’s pretty much it. The best day of the week for them is Sundays. Guess why.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” “Just guess.”
“I have no idea.”
“Then guess. Make an educated guess.”
“They get to eat something special on Sundays. Something that isn’t bread and soup. They get to have some kind of meat dish for dinner on Sundays.”
“Nope. Guess again.” “I have no idea.” “Then guess.”
“I’m sure I’ll guess incorrectly again. Look, either tell me or don’t tell me. I’m interested in what you have to say, and I’m excited to hear that you do seem to be following the narrative of the book. Now I’m thinking you probably told me you read only the words because you knew that would upset me, you knew it would bother me to hear that you’re not reading in the right way. But it sounds like you do actually understand the stories in the books you’re reading, and I’m very glad to hear that.”
“You’re not hearing me right,” he said. “It’s that I’ve seen the movie of this book, that’s how I know all this stuff. Now, why do you think Sunday is the best day for them? You only have to guess one more time. If you’re wrong this time, which I’m almost positive you will be, then I’ll tell you the real answer. Deal?”
“Why do you want me to guess?”
“Because you’ll never get it in a million years.”
“So what you’re saying is, you take pleasure in hearing me guess incorrectly.” “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“On Sundays they huddle around the plasma and watch NFL. That’s why it’s the best day.”
“Nope. Wrong. Guess again.” “What happened to our deal?”
“Okay,” he said. “Here’s the real answer. Sunday is the best day for them because they get to have seconds of bread and soup and they don’t go to bed starving. Isn’t that sad?”
“I hope that makes you appreciate all the good things you have in your life,” I said, “all the good food you have to eat.”
“No,” he said, “because this book is fiction. It’s not real. If it were nonfiction, then maybe it would, but since it’s all just make-believe, it doesn’t really make me feel like the stuff I have is good, like the food you make is good.”
“But surely it’s still sad to you that the best thing they have to look forward to in their lives is seconds of bread and soup on Sunday nights?”
“It’s fiction,” he said. “I was just asking if it was sad to you. You said it was to you, but it’s not to me. It’s just something that Ronald Dahl made up in his head.”
“Roald Dahl,” I said. “There’s no N is his name.”
He looked at the cover of the book, and then he turned it around and looked at the back cover. He opened to the title page and read the author’s name silently.
“I think that’s just a watchamacallit where they make a mistake in the typing of the book,” he said.
“A typo,” I replied.
“Like in this one book I was reading it was supposed to say her but it said herk by mistake, with a K at the end. Here it’s supposed to say Ronald but the typer accidentally forgot the N.”
“No,” I said. “His name is actually Roald. It’s not a typo. That’s his real name. Roald.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “You can believe whatever you want, though. I don’t care.”
“You want to look it up on Wikipedia?” I asked.
“You said that Wikipedia wasn’t a trustworthy source. I didn’t mean to tell my teacher, Dad, but she had us doing a project and we didn’t have all the facts so she told us to use the computer to look them up on Wikipedia and I told her I wasn’t allowed to use Wikipedia anymore because my dad, who’s a university professor, said it’s not a trustworthy source. But you’ll be proud of me to know that I made her promise she wouldn’t tell Mom, so you don’t need to worry about that. So is our deal about the Death Star still on? I told Mom about what you want for your birthday, the whole expensive OED without the magnifying glass, and I didn’t mention a single iota about our Death Star deal.”
“Have you completely lost your mind?” I said. “Do you know what you’ve done? What in the world is wrong with you?”
He looked at me blankly for several seconds. Tears began forming on his eyes.
“Put a Post-it in your book and get to bed this instant.”
“So now let’s look up the word ladybird,” I said, turning back the page. I found the entry and handed him the magnifying glass. “Read it.”
“Ladybird,” he read. “One. The common name for the hard word insects belonging to the genius another hard word.”
“Genus is a term used in the classification system for plants and animals,” I said. “Botanists and zoologists have a method for distinguishing organisms from one another based on a classification system that breaks things down into species, phyla, and genera. Genera is the plural of genus. Basically all that’s saying is that ladybird is the insect’s common name. Like a nickname.”
“What’s this second definition?” he said. “I don’t know,” I replied. “Read it.”
“Two. A sweetheart. Often used as a term of en. Dear.” He looked up at me. “Endearment?”
“Right,” I said. “Endearment.”
“And look at the quote underneath the second definition!” he exclaimed.
I grabbed the magnifying glass from his hand: 1592 Shakes. Rom. & Jul. i.
iii. 3 What Lamb: what Lady-bird. Where’s this Girle?
“Same line from the concordance,” I said. “That’s an interesting coincidence. Very cool. Okay, why don’t we look up another word now?”
“Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. “So there are two definitions here. There’s the first definition that says ladybird is anonymous to ladybug. The second definition, the one with the quote from Shakespeare under it, says ladybird is anonymous to sweetheart. So Shakespeare didn’t mean ladybug like you said he did. He meant sweetheart, which is anonymous to somebody that somebody loves. Like a girl?”
“Synonymous. Anonymous means you don’t know who wrote something.” “So he meant a girl? Like a girl that’s kind of like a bird? Like a girl that’s sweet like a bird?”
“I guess we’d have to look at the play itself and try to figure it out through context. That might be difficult. Why don’t we look up something else. Let’s look up fart or something. That’d be fun, right?”
“Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. “You’re stalling again. Are you telling me that when you asked me what I thought ladybird meant and I said girl bird and you told me good guess but that ladybird actually meant ladybug, are you telling me that you were wrong and I was right that whole time? Are you telling me that you’re a professor in a university who teaches this stuff to people every day and I’m just some kid in second grade who knows more about Shakespeare than you? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Again,” I said, “it’s hard to say exactly. We’d probably need to go to the original quote and try to figure out the context. That could take a while. It’d be way more fun to look up some funny words in the OED or in the concordance. I’ll even let you look up a bad word if you want. But you have to promise not to tell your mom.” I extended my hand to him. “Deal?”
“I think we need to first look at this play of his. . .” he said, grabbing the magnifying glass from my hand and peering through it at the OED, “Rom and Jul, and find this quote with ladybird in it and look carefully at the context so we can settle this once and for all and figure out who’s smarter, you or me. Why don’t you hand me that Oxford there so we can finally settle this whole question about if a second grader knows more about Shakespeare than you, who’s supposed to be a university professor.”
“Look,” I said. “It doesn’t matter what we find, that’s not going to change the fact that I’m smarter than you. Now if it turns out I made a little mistake in thinking that ladybird was synonymous for ladybug—which it is, by the way, as the OED indicates—but in the context of that quote if Shakespeare meant something a little different, then this little mistake of mine—and I’m not saying it is a mistake, because I think there’s a definite chance that the editors of the OED could be a bit off in this case—then that’s not going to undo the fact that I have read pretty much every single word Shakespeare ever wrote and you have only just now read your first two or three sentences of Shakespeare in some random quote from the OED.”
“Wait a second,” he said. “So are you telling me that the writers of the OED are wrong about definition number two of ladybird? Are you saying that they shouldn’t have used this quote from Rom and Jul underneath definition number two? That they should have put it underneath definition number one? Shouldn’t you maybe send them an email and let them know? That’s a pretty serious mistake, don’t you think? Do you think that they could lose their jobs if people found out?”
I tapped my foot. “Let’s put a Post-it in this conversation. It’s getting late. I’m tired. And I can tell you are, too.”
He motioned with his eyes toward a blank square of paper on the table next to the ugly brown reclining chair, the empty pad of Post-its.
A knock sounded at the door before it opened.
“Mom,” he said, “you are not going to believe what’s going on in here. Dad made the biggest mistake of his life. He thought Shakespeare meant ladybug in Rom and Jul but Shakespeare actually meant sweetheart and now he’s trying to pretend like the writers of the OED are stupid just so he can be right and I can be wrong because he can’t stand a seven-year-old being smarter than him!”
“That’s not exactly how it went down,” I said.
“Come on, you two, let’s wrap it up. Tomorrow’s a school day. Why not put a Post-it in your little debate here and pick it up tomorrow?”
The door to the study closed. He and I stared into each other’s eyes. The dog continued dozing on the rug.
Seated in the ugly brown reclining chair, he folded his arms, raised an eyebrow, tossed the quilt back over his body, and said, ominously, “We’re out of Post-its.”
This essay appears in volume 38, number 4 of the New England Review.