Third graders have fairly loose standards for word usage. Many of them seem to operate under the philosophy that if a word falls within a few letters of the word they’re looking for, it’ll suffice. Their filing system for unknown words defaults to alphabetical, so when we read the word “grungy” in a poem, they open up the mental file labeled, “Words Beginning with ‘GR,’ ” reach in, and pull out “grumpy.” Eh, close enough. While this system actually does work for related words some of the time, “close enough” can be quite far indeed.
One afternoon as we cleaned up from lunch, a group of about six kids gathered around the deep red blossom of our newly blooming amaryllis plant. The various plant parts fascinated them and Vanessa leaned in close to examine the pollen-bearing anthers inside the flower. “Aww--they look like little tampons!” she marveled. “Little baby tampons!” I did a double take at what I had heard as I walked by, and waved Vanessa over.
“What are you talking about?” I whispered urgently, shielding our conversation with a batch of paperclipped math tests, horrified and a little confused by her comparison of the amaryllis to feminine hygiene products, especially around a gaggle of eight-year-old boys. “That is a girl thing and a private bathroom-type topic! What are you talking about?”
Vanessa’s “Words That Begin With ‘TA’ And Then Later Have a ‘PO’” folder had let her down. She gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth, genuinely realizing her mistake. “I meant TADPOLES!”