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Spelling lessons

Su Lum

When my granddaughter Riley was about 3 years old, with the alphabet song firmly under her belt and just starting to understand the relationship between letters and words, I gave her her first spelling lesson.I think the occasion was a summer trip to Grand Junction shortly after I had a great “chicken spill” in my Toyota, wherein a chicken dish ample enough to feed 15 or 20 people sloshed, gravy and all, onto and behind the back seat when I took a sharp turn on McSkimming Road en route to the dinner party.The dinner guests salvaged what they could, and we thought we had done a creditable job of swabbing the upholstery and under the seat. But after a few hours in the broiling sun of parking lots while we shopped, Riley, strapped in the back in her car seat as we embarked on the return trip, announced that she was going to throw up.My daughter Skye, knowing to take her seriously, slammed on the brakes and we whisked Riley out of the car where she sat on a grassy meridian catching her breath. In less than five minutes Riley announced that she was feeling better and could continue. “You’re such a trooper,” I said. “T-R-O-O-P-E-R!”We piled back into the car and five minutes down the road Riley was feeling queasy again. This time, after she recovered, I got into the back seat and Riley’s car seat was put in the front (back then there were no air bags to kill her) and I almost passed out from old chicken stench.Riley was always a little trooper so I may have already been calling her that and spelling it out before the chicken incident. Suffice to say, she knew how to spell it and knew what it meant. She corrected me when I called her a trooper for something she didn’t think merited the praise, saying, “I can’t be a trooper unless it’s HARD.”I’ve always considered myself a pretty good speller – not perfect by a long shot, but imagine my shock when I came across the word TROUPER used in the context that I had been spelling TROOPER, the very first word I taught my granddaughter to spell!Looking up the two versions, TROOPER seemed to refer to the military or police, whereas TROUPER referred to actors as in, for example, “the show must go on.”I began to collect trouper/trooper references. If they appeared in books, I would Xerox them; if they showed up in newspapers or magazines I cut them out. After several years, I had a wad of them held by a strong magnet on my refrigerator.”A small woman in her sixties, Liz had enjoyed the trip so far, never complaining about the hardships. ‘A real trooper,’ recalled the boatmen.” “McCormack, who began modeling at 4, has been a steady trouper for five decades.” “We really had some great troopers who hung in there.” “These guys were troupers.” “My mom’s concerned she can’t make it, but I know she can. She’s a total trooper.””Some trouper YOU are! What’s a little rain?” “But Jack was a real trouper, finishing the round.” “She took it on the chin. Real trooper.” “Albeit a trouper in trouble, Ryder headed to a doctor for treatment.” “Chance was a real trooper.” “She’s a trouper.”The dictionary definitions and the quotes on the refrigerator arguably muddied the waters, but in my heart I knew that Riley was a T-R-O-U-P-E-R, not a T-R-O-O-P-E-R. I confessed the error, which Riley brushed off as not of significant importance to disown me, trouper that she is. A few months ago I used the word trouper correctly in a column, referring to my mother, only to have the proofreader change it to trooper!Su Lum is a longtime local who isn’t going to use this word anymore, either verbally or in print. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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