As an English teacher, I’m used to homophones giving students trouble – usually more than they should, and enough so that they really should know better. Whether and weather, to and too, a part and apart, everyday and every day (the former is an adjective, as in “my everyday shoes”) – even granted and granite once, but thankfully, only once.
For the little ones learning to speak, the number of homophones is far greater than for those of us who are, say, capable of reading this blog. Multisyllabic words shrug off prefixes and suffixes. Difficult consonants, like “s” and “l” and “r,” are dropped in favor of whatever follows them. As we walk past the library, my little lovely points out the “bee,” and after I reinforce her efforts, saying, “Yes, that’s the library!” she proudly tells me that there are “booh”s there. “Yes, there are lots of books there!” I tell her. In our spoken language, I often understand her perfectly. If we’re looking at a picture of a bee, she will also say, “bee,” but in context, it all makes perfect sense. As teachers tell you, and as I’ve often said myself, context clues are important, and this is a lesson I am learning in very different ways than ever before.
Every day, her daddy wears a tie to work. He used to drape them over the bookcase when he got home – until she began mangling them, pulling them down and carting them around, gripped tightly in a hand of questionable cleanliness. (Ties, it seems, are really not meant to be cleaned; they are meant to stay clean, which is difficult with something worn around the neck, in line of fire of soup, water, or globs of mayonnaise.) “Tie,” he would tell her. “Tie.” After one tie suffered particularly, he set it on the shelf near her crib. After her nap one day, I went in, and she pointed. “Tie!” Yes, honey, that is a tie.
Many times a week, we can be found walking to the student post office, or SPO, to collect our mail. It’s a familiar path, lined with many landmarks, some of which move and some of which don’t: chickens which peck, gravel which is fun to play in, a swing that we go on together, bikes (“bike!”), and a particularly large section of bark mulch which is a major draw for her. “Tie!” she’ll often say as we embark on our small journey. Once at the SPO, we visit with the very kind people behind the counter, who ooh and ahh over her and let her do things which in most circumstances would be annoying, like ding the small bellhop-style bell over and over and over again. Before we leave, she’ll point and say, “Tie!” again. We walk back and gaze through the glass in the door and into the darkened pub, where a former carousel tiger has come to rest. He sits on his perch, mouth open in a silent roar. She’s entranced. “Tie!” she points as we stare through one door. We walk to the other of the double doors. “Tie!” she says again. “What does a tiger say?” I ask. She lifts her hands above her head, a little like the dancers’ hands in the Thriller video, and says, “rawr”. It is, perhaps, the least fierce roar one has ever heard. The tiger silently roars back and stares with dark and glassy eyes. Depending on the day, as we walk away from the tiger, she’ll cry. The tiger, proud and aggressive and strong-jawed, has become her favorite from-a-distance companion, and she hates to leave him for the walk home.
But as we look through those doors before we take our leave, she says, “Tie!” and holds up her index finger, usually her right one. When paired with earnest head nodding and direct eye contact, she wants it to be perfectly, undeniably, and absolutely clear: she wants to see the tiger one more time. “Tie!” she’ll say as I try to walk away. “Tie!”
“Tie!” she’ll say, as I put her on the potty before she goes to bed at night. We’ve read our stories, we’ve said our prayers, we’ve said, “I love you,” and she’s nursed. I might head to the crib, or we might be curled together on the bed, her feet above the covers because she’s kicked them off. “Pee!” she’ll shout, often vigorously signing for the potty. Usually, she’s right. She has to go. It doesn’t matter it you put her on the potty right before washing her up and helping her brush her teeth, she probably does have to pee again. If I think she has to poop, I’ll read to her while she’s on the potty to encourage her. Sometimes, it’s a ploy: we’ll sit, and the potty, too, will sit empty. “One more time,” I admonish, holding up my index finger, as we begin our final reading.
“One tie!” she said one day, holding up her index finger and shaking it a bit for good measure. I don’t think I even managed to hold in my laughter; I couldn’t resist the mimicry or the charm of a little girl earnestly asking to be read to as she sat upon her bright yellow potty. “One tie!” has been reduced to “tie!”, and it now happens every time we put her on the potty. We’ve taken to keeping a small stash of books in the bathroom. (Of course, being an independent-minded girl, she often wants the same book four times, not four books once each, which is what we’d prefer.) Sometimes, I’ll still tell her that I’ll only read something one more time, and I’ll stick to it. “Tie!” she’ll beg, if seventeen-month-olds can beg. “All done,” I’ll say and sign. Leaving the bathroom and its books can be as heartbreaking as leaving the tiger.
Repetition is key, apparently, to enjoyment: lots of books, lots of the tigers, lots of ties. Repetition’s good for all of us, I suppose: we learn by doing. We learn with practice how to use the proper words in context. We learn by reading. “Tie!” she said today, after we read Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book for the first (and second) time. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, claims that all good readers are rereaders, and maybe this is a lesson that my daughter is learning earlier than most. I just hope these early lessons stick with her, whether – not weather – or not she remembers.