Mrs. Secrist, 5th Grade & the English Language…vs. Mama


Mama was a stickler for correct grammar and clear and concise…nay, precise…annunciation and pronunciation. According to my fifth grade teacher, this was not quite the case.

Miz Mrs. Secrist was a very matter-of-fact, upper crust, “properly” educated matron from New England.

Emphasis on “England”. Forget the “New”.

She was strict, but fair. She was also determined to “properly” educate we poorly taught youngsters from the disadvantaged county of Pinellas, in the backwards state of Florida.

Mama’s rant, not mine. I liked Miz Mrs. Secrist.

Mama was indeed a stickler for grammar, spelling, correct pronunciation…and etiquette. She did not, however, accept criticism in those areas gracefully. Or graciously. Very un-etiquettely (did you see that new word I just made up?😀).

On day one of our fifth year, Miz Mrs. Secrist had each of us stand and introduce ourselves with a short bio – name, parent’s names and careers, siblings, pets, etc. Oh, and date and place of birth.

All were approved until it was my turn, and even I was doing well until I stated I was born in Natchez, Miss’ssippi, at which point she stopped me in order to teach the class the difference between proper (The Queen’s) English and “lazy American talk”.

“What state, again?”

“Miss’ssippi.”

“And do you know how to spell Mississippi?”

“Yes ma’am…M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.”

“And do you know how to count syllables?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come up to the blackboard,” she instructed, “and write it in syllables. Separate each syllable with a hyphen.”

‘Miss-iss-ipp-i’, I wrote, then added, ‘or: Mis-sis-sip-pi’.

“And how many syllables is that?”

“Four.”

Miz Mrs. Secrist nodded (albeit with a frown against the first example) and said, “Now pronounce it.”

“Miss’ssippi”.

She was getting aggravated and I couldn’t understand why.

She took up her pointer stick and tapped (unnecessarily hard, in my 11 year old opinion) each syllable for me to pronounce.

(tap)…Miss…(tap)…Iss…(tap)…Ipp…(tap)…I”

“Now…”, she slid the pointer across the word and indicated that I should read…

“Miss’ssippi.”

It took that poor woman a half hour to get through to me just what she expected. Or maybe I was doing all that 3 syllable “Miss’ssippi” on purpose. Can’t rightly recall 😀

And then there was the dictionary work, where she made us write the definitions of ‘ant’ and ‘aunt’…combined with comparisons of the pronunciation of tAUght, AUght (plus definition) and frAUght.

She informed us that she would not only be ashamed to claim family members who lived in tunnels, but also that it was genetically impossible for such a relationship to occur.

We kill ants. We’re related to AUnts.

Mama was neither happy, nor amused. She was, on the other hand, quite adept , in her own right, at teaching and proceded to educate the teacher about dialects.

She picked up a piece of chalk and told Miz Mrs. Secrist, “Here in St. Petersburg, Florida, we say… (and she wrote) ‘A’nt’…the ‘u’ is, shall we say, silent.”

We were fortunate that Miz Mrs. Secrist didn’t mark our spelling tests wrong for not adding “u” to words like “favourite” and “humour”!

I consider myself immensely blessed to have two such strong willed and determined women around when I was growing up and that I understood how important proper use of any language is.

Props to Mama for her demand for absolute adherence to the rules of English and etiquette! Without her influence, I would certainly be no writer.

But a real Shout Out to Miz Mrs. Secrist. I happen to see the logic of her teaching in that 5th grade classroom so long ago.

But I’m going to be me, no matter what. I speak and spell my own brand of English…both lazy American and the Queen’s.

My name is Pearl Kirkby. I am an old fossil, a mama/stepmom, grand/great-grandmother, sister and AUnt, who was born in a neighbourhood hospital in Natchez, Miss’ssippi!

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