In the hyper-sensitive world of childhood, an ill-chosen word can sometimes have a devastating impact, even if no harm is intended. I’m not talking about the kind of taunting, bullying talk that was unfortunately common on the playgrounds of my youth and is still far too prevalent today. I mean a casual, harmless remark – often by an adult – that can catch an unsuspecting child off guard.
For some reason, I recently found myself remembering an incident that took place in my Grade 5 classroom a few days after the Christmas of 1952. In the run-up to the holiday, I had spent hours poring over the Eaton’s catalogue looking for one special gift I hoped my parents could afford. Time after time, my attention returned to a silver-coloured pocket watch, complete with matching chain.
I have no idea why a 9-year-old, who had never worn a waistcoat in his life, would hanker after a pocket watch, but this was a thing of beauty. It glowed from the page. The picture even showed a polished inner layer behind the hinged back, to protect the workings from small, inquisitive finger.
Ours was not a wealthy family, so my four siblings and I were content with making modest requests for gifts. At $3.95, this magnificent timepiece seemed a treasure beyond price.
On Christmas Day, there it was, with my name on it. All through the holiday, I wound it and polished it repeatedly, checking its accuracy against the mantle clock, the kitchen clock, my older brother’s alarm clock, and every other time-telling device in the house.
With that gleaming beauty in my pocket, I felt like a proper swell!
Our school didn’t have a formal show-and-tell period in those days, but it was tradition in the lower grades for pupils to bring a favourite Christmas gift to show off to the class.
When my turn came, I proudly demonstrated my new watch, shiny inner lining and all.
“Ah,” the teacher announced to the class. “That’s what is called a nickel watch.”
My face purpled with humiliation when the whole room burst into laughter.
“But, but… ” I stammered as the teacher turned his attention to someone else.
At recess, I did my best to avoid the other kids, although the occasional chant of “nickle watch, nickle watch” managed to get through. Somehow, I summoned up the courage at the end of the day to confront the teacher privately.
“It’s not a nickle watch, sir. It cost three dollars and ninety-five cents.”
It took a moment for him to respond.
“What I meant was, the metal it’s made of is called nickel. In Canada, we spell it n-i-c-k-e-l. The five-cent coin is spelled n-i-c-k-l-e. Here, look it up in the dictionary. It’s a beautiful watch, really.”
But it was too late. My favourite Christmas gift had already lost much of its lustre.
Still, I learned a spelling lesson that day I haven’t forgotten since.