James Harvey Punch thinks about his word at the State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month.

James Harvey Punch thinks about his word at the State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month. Photo: Janie Barrett

I am a good reader. I know what lots of long words mean. Words that you wouldn't necessarily expect me to know, I do, in fact, know. And I can read pretty quickly, too. Because, as I mentioned, I am a good reader.

At one point in my life, it would have been extremely important to me that you knew what an excellent reader I was. I was reminded of this last week, when I attended the final of the NSW Premier's Spelling Bee and ran into Barbara Ryan, one of my old kindergarten teachers from North Sydney Demonstration School who now teaches at St Ives North.

After we figured out the connection, she recounted a story that has had me laughing and wincing ever since. Apparently when I arrived at kindy, she gave me a standard-issue reader, and asked me whether I read books.

The State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo.
6th November 2013
Photo: Janie Barrett

The State Junior Final of the Premier's Spelling Bee in Ultimo earlier this month. Photo: Janie Barrett

My reply was "I don't read books, I read encyclopaedias."

Yes, apparently that really happened.

Now, there are several things wrong with this. Firstly, clearly, that was utter bollocks. If anything, I occasionally read encyclopaedias alongside books. Books undoubtedly made up by far the majority of my reading diet. I probably glanced at an encyclopaedia once and wanted to boast.

It's also possible I'd been reading Encyclopaedia Brown and thought, incorrectly, that he was a heaps cool role model. Being a guy who was such a know-it-all that he was nicknamed ‘encyclopaedia’.

The broader problem here, of course, is what an arrogant little brat I must have been. While five-year-olds generally get a lot of latitude for cuteness, that is a monstrous little ego on display right there. If I was like that, it's no surprise that the odd bully decided to try to take me down a peg in later primary school years. Frankly, I can see their point.

Of course, anyone who needs to constantly and abrasively assert how smart they are hasn't managed to learn much about how society works. Anyone who's a bona fide genius presumably learns how to dial it down so that the rest of us normal folk don't openly despise them.

Clearly, though, at five I wanted people to think I was precocious so badly that the more important question of whether they thought I was a massive pain in the neck mattered relatively little to me.

What would no doubt have shocked the five-year-old me, though, is that the "good reader" concept is one that really doesn't have much currency beyond primary school. When you're growing up, you're constantly being benchmarked against everyone else who's the same age in events like the MS Readathon. Which I totally crushed, by the way - and, I regret to say, not out of a desire to advance research into a debilitating condition.

But, as I wish I could go back and tell my infant self, after the HSC, that benchmarking thing never happens again. Once you achieve adulthood, you're competing for actual achievements.

That is, if you're competing at all - in itself a fairly pointless and self-defeating exercise, in many respects.

Here's the thing I didn't quite realise - nearly everybody learns to read. Some struggle to achieve literacy in adulthood, which is most unfortunate, but the reality is that the ability to read an encyclopaedia is nothing special in the long term.

What I didn't realise about being precocious, as I so desperately hoped I was, is that it means you have a lead in a race where the only thing that really matters is getting there in the end. It’s like those early leaders in the Melbourne Cup who often fade away - there’s no prize for being the first after 500 metres.

Perhaps I could write stories with long words in them at age eight, but when you're an adult, all that matters is whether the stories you write are any good. And that's a far more difficult, and far more important challenge.

I see some of my friends with young children falling into the same trap of valuing precociousness. Some toddlers can speak in complete sentences remarkably early, but only very few of us never gain the ability to do that. Some kids grow big quickly, some can walk before others. And I know other parents who worry because their own children are behind others in their childcare group with things like toilet training. Well, we have plenty of years of being able to use the toilet by ourselves, and then most of us end up in nappies again in the end anyway.

Being supposedly ahead of the curve can also create extreme, unhelpful pressure ahead of things like the HSC. And being good at school, doesn't necessarily mean you're good at dealing with stress. Some people I know who've been successful in adulthood were precocious at school, but many weren't. And many early, bright stars fade out. I wish I'd known in my own schooldays that 'success' has many definitions, and that achieving happiness on your own terms is a more worthwhile goal than ticking off things that society tells you are important.

For the record, I no longer read encyclopaedias. And of course, in 2013, encyclopaedias have been superseded, and I can tell you that five-year-old Dom never saw that coming in any of his fancy long-worded books.

I do, however, read for pleasure nowadays. And if I see a word I don't understand, I look it up in a dictionary, and draw no conclusions about my own cleverness from the size of my vocabulary.

And when I attend an event like the NSW Premier's Spelling Bee, and it occurs to me that I might have done well at it because I was a good speller back in primary school, I try to slap what remains of my five-year-old ego down, and tell myself that in an era where everybody types on machines with inbuilt spellchecking, one's spelling ability is of extremely limited use.

What ultimately matters in life is which words you choose, and what you try to accomplish with them, not how long they are, or whether they’re spelled correctly. And that’s something you won’t learn in an e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-a-e-d-i-a.

 

Nominate your Woman of the Year and win an iPhone 5 for your trouble.