I was a kid, visiting some relatives when she asked me. Her voice was sharp and loud, hard on my ears and dangerously low in pitch. In the week I’d stayed here, I’d learned that voice meant anger from my aunt. And she didn’t like me, so she was angry around me a lot.
“Do you even know what that means?”
I was five, I think. I know I was old enough to be in school, but young enough that when people praised me for something, my happy flaps weren’t punished yet. Old enough to know that not making eye contact was dangerous, young enough that I hadn’t yet figured out the forehead trick. I didn’t yet know I was different from the other kids, or that difference paints a target on your back, but I knew most of them didn’t like me. And I loved books.
I looked at her, my words gone from my suddenly-sore throat. I focused on a hair sticking out of a mole on her chin. It bobbed as her mouth moved.
“Answer me! Do you even know what that word means?!”
I knew she was angry. Didn’t know why. What’s wrong with the word exceptional? It’s a nice word. Grandma had said that you shouldn’t say anything if you couldn’t say something nice, but exceptional was nice. Why was she yelling? I didn’t have time to ponder it. I knew that grown-ups got angry if I took time to figure them out. So I nodded silently that I knew what it meant.
“What does it mean?”
I stared. Opened my mouth to say, really good. What came out instead was, “I-I-Iunno.”
“I-I-I – Talk proper! If you looked it up in the dictionary, what would it say?!”
I shrugged. I didn’t know how to use a dictionary yet. Didn’t know that I should. Dad said it was easier to figure out what words meant by the context, which I thought meant the things around it, but I admitted to myself I only knew context’s meaning by context, and felt a stab of guilt for breaking a rule I didn’t know existed. And I stared at the hair. It started to bob again.
“You shouldn’t use words you don’t understand,” she snapped, her voice rising. I covered my ears with my hands.
I wanted to protest, I did understand. Just didn’t know what it said in the dictionary. Didn’t know I should. One of my hands was pried loose in a grip strong enough to hurt.
“Listen! Don’t ignore me!” My arm shook with enough strength to nearly throw me off the couch. “You might think it makes you look smart to use those big words. But it doesn’t. It makes you look dumb.”
She punctuated the statement by throwing me backwards into the couch cushions.
I didn’t understand. My vision wavered as tears filled my burning eyes. I stammered unintelligibly, trying to get out an apology. A dictionary landed in my lap. I flinched belatedly at the motion of it falling past my face.
“Here. Next time you use a word, make sure you know what it means.”
The floor of the old house shook and creaked as she left the room. With shaking hands, I opened the book. Wiped my eyes.
And began to read.