Learning to Spell

Children are natural teachers. They have no curriculum other than that unfolding sequence they know nothing about:  A-T-C-G-T-C   A-G-C-C-U-U-G-A-G, long chains composed of nucleotide triads  (which in DNA are built on the chemical bases of adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, with thymine being replaced by uracil for RNA). These chains of codons are read and translated into proteins, the structures whose interaction with the world will create a unique personality.

For us adults, who have grown used to our own particular era of cultural and pedagogical bias (the current state of the sciences, our religious background, regional and historical perspective, level of technological development, global connectivity etc) children are an absolutely crucial source of original, empirical education.


To really get the most out of this education, you should have a child of your own, or at least a long-term connection with someone else’s child. That way you are able to watch one individual grow up on a regular basis.

In the space of just six years I have witnessed an incontinent, mewling, helpless little mammal, develop into a person capable of subtle psychological strategies, rational deductions, emotional expressions and wild imaginings, elaborate acts of sub-creation before she is even fully at home in the reality we share.


With my own daughter, the first big shock was to find that a sense of humour and an appreciation of the absurd preceded almost everything. I had always assumed that these were high level attributes resulting from years of cultural accumulation. But in practice it really wasn’t like that – they appeared fully developed the moment her body was able to coordinate that delightful human exercise we call laughter.

She got it all: excessive repetition, bathos, exaggeration, unexpected changes in tack, surreal juxtapositions etc. Upon these basic themes, I could see that all the complexities of farce, satire, irony, sarcasm, set-piece jokes and stand-up routines would merely be variations. Of course, this may be more about my daughter’s personality than human nature, but it is just one example of the way in which she overhauled my understanding of what we are.


Why was this so surprising for me? Having grown up in a stage of the modern era fond of emphasising the contingent and relative aspects of existence (much more so than for my parents’ generation, who still cling to the charred remains of the certainties that their own parents watched disintegrate during the World Wars: and it is precisely attitudes like these generational differences that are the effect of ‘nurture’ as opposed to ‘nature’), I had perhaps under-estimated the extent to which personality is pre-determined.

Without the love of her parents things would have been different no doubt, but the fact is that my daughter has been turning into a little person largely by herself – in her own way, in her own time, those codon chains gradually revealing the unique sentient being that she is.P1100772

Yet despite this basic revelation of parenthood, there remain some things that no permutation of nucleotides, no DNA sequence, can make sense of.

The process of evolution involves natural selection, the main mechanism of which is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals with heritable features. Richard Dawkins famously described this surprisingly successful, yet entirely automatic process as the ‘Blind Watchmaker’. However, the results of human evolution incorporate another form of blindness: ‘Death Blindness’.


There is an important distinction to be made here between self-preservation and awareness of death. Self-preservation is clearly one of the most basic instincts: a certain risk aversion which natural selective pressures have placed squarely at the centre of our being. Death Blindness, on the other hand, is the inability to conceive of death as a thing in the world. Sure, we have heightened awareness of potentially poisonous snakes and spiders, but the concept of ‘Death’ per se is a complete irrelevance to the struggle for life (and with the exception of H. sapiens, and arguably one or two of the other higher mammals, the struggle for survival has gone on for millennia without any individual wondering what comes next).


Natural selection is no metaphysician and has no purchase upon the dead. Or as Ludwig Wittgenstein once put it: ‘Death is not an event in life.’

Now I know some people dispute this, claiming that they have actually had a ‘Near Death Experience’. The key word here is ‘Near’ though, and it seems right to describe this kind of thing as interpretation of a lived experience. We must all agree, after all, that any person who says they have ‘lived through death’ is not in fact dead when they are making that claim – so they are using the word without that sense of finality which most of us feel the word ‘death’, of all others, truly deserves. Hahahahaa.

Anyway to get back to the main point, death is a vertiginous blank in our evolutionary consciousness. Ever since man began that singular transition into the phenomenal social animal we are today, with our self-consciousness, our complex languages, music, art, technology and science, we have been aware of that blank, as if our intelligence – our precious foresight – had quite by chance revealed the chasm for which we are so psychologically unprepared. Sociocultural evolution took over of course, resulting in the whole spectrum of different beliefs about death that we have today.

So there you are as a parent, marvelling at the development of your child and the way nature takes care of almost everything, when one day they formulate a special question… a question on which all those millions of years of blind watch-making are also deaf and dumb:

‘What happens when we die, daddy?’


And so you have a choice: 1. Give her a socially endorsed fantasy to soften the blow (and there are plenty available); 2. Be honest about the total blank and all the meaninglessness that that entails for existence; 3. Some sweetened combination of the two that you persuade yourself is barely even a white lie given the uncertainties involved:

‘Nobody really knows. Some people believe we go to a lovely place, like a sunny garden where you’ll be happy forever with all the people you love. But nobody really knows. The important thing is how you live your life sweetie. It’s a big circle. The leaves falling back to the soil each autumn, and new leaves popping out in the Spring sunshine.’

She’s not convinced by that though. You can see it in her expression. She knows when you’re sugar-coating harsh realities with half-baked promises to keep her cooperative – that’s basically all parents ever do.

So you have to try harder. And you remember the primal wrench of losing your own parent, the pain you felt at the loss of someone you have loved since infancy, someone with whom all emotions, good and bad, were long ago permitted to coexist, before you could even name them (assuming, that is, that you were lucky enough to grow up with loving parents). You know that her question is not going to go away as she grows up. You know that it will be a long campaign to show her that love and trust and hope are more than a match for the silence of the chasm into which we all eventually disappear forever. And, no matter what your beliefs, you will use Language to achieve this.

My daughter is learning to read and write at the moment, so I painted this alphabet mural for her.


‘It’s time for you to learn some real magic,’ I said on the evening she got back from pre-school to find the first three letters on the kitchen wall.


‘What do you mean, daddy?’

‘Spells, sweetheart. I’m going to teach you how to spell.’


‘Yep. These are just the first three, but we’ll add to them until we’ve filled up all the space under the shelf, and then you’ll be able to cast any spell you like.’

Over dinner for the next few weeks we would discuss which image should go with each new letter I got to (it’s in the kitchen, so we eat at that little table). Sometimes I overruled her (for the letter Z she wanted a ‘Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz’, but I had to explain there just wasn’t room). At certain stages of the design process she did get what she wanted though: C for cat is actually her pet cat, D for dog is the dog she grew up with, and H for house is where she spends her summer holidays. That aspect of it brought the whole thing alive for her – a sense of familiarity and ownership over the letters.

And she’s already casting spells on me with her messy handwriting and strange little notes.

Yes, spells (both the noun and the verb form coming from the Proto-Germanic spellam, meaning ‘talk or tell’; the noun via Old English spell, meaning ‘tale or story’, and the verb via the Old French espelir meaning ‘to signify, to mean, to explain’).

Think about it. Your decisions. The words that go around in your head. Remembered phrases, familiar intonations, memorised lines. We’re a social species. A few words can change everything.

‘You’ve forgotten the P. There’s no picture for the letter P.’ That’s what everyone says who comes into our kitchen these days.

‘It’s in the third dimension!’ I say, catching my daughter’s eye. They think we’re fooling around, but there’s nothing whacky about it. It really is in the third dimension – according to classical physics at least (the fourth dimension being that which we are all running out of ;))




















  1. I agree, beautifully crafted reflections, absolutely perfect. As a musician I was struck again by the associations the word ‘spell’ conjures up, because the word ‘enchantment’ has similar ways of ensorcelling the imagination. All those words — charm, conjuration, spell, enchantment — all speak of the power of the Word, especially when spoken but also when written. I love it, it’s true magic!

    Liked by 1 person

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