Larry Larkin

I think it was back in the Fifth Grade. It might have been the Sixth, but I don’t think so. Whichever, it was the school year we had to learn how to spell each of the United States and their capitals.

There was a small break.

We only had 48 of each at the time. Alaska and Hawaii were still a year or two away.

You might think this task came from a geography class. Nope! It was science.

The teacher was Mr. Butts. He was the only male teacher at my small east Tulsa elementary school. You can imagine the jokes and snitchers his name caused. It didn’t help that his head was shiny and bald except on the sides.

Knowing this spelling test was coming up was quite disturbing. Our normal spelling list each week in home room contained only 10 words. Here we were looking at 96. It sounded like it was impossible.

Up to this point the longest word I had memorized was Independence. It came with the capital “I” because it was the name of the street that we lived on. Now I was expected to remember names like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Those were states. I also had to spell cities like Sacramento and Montpelier.

Mr. Butts, why couldn’t we just stick with the typical science topics like plant life and the causes of electricity?

There was no way of getting around it. Last year’s students had to learn the states and capitals and next year’s bunch would do the same.

This might be the place to admit something.

Somewhere during the lessons where we were taught phonics and to “sound out” words for correct spelling, I must have been out to lunch. Never learned how to do it and still can’t. My spelling comes from memory only.

No slack was coming from Mr. Butts. It was do or die…maybe not that harsh, but certainly pass or fail.

The way the test would work was Mr. Butts would say the state and we would write it down and then write the correct capital. There were no hints on the latter.

We started with Alabama and Montgomery and went all the way to Wyoming and Cheyenne.

Of course Oklahoma and its capital were easy. All we had to do was add City. Why couldn’t all the rest be that simple?

There were more cities, but Salt Lake City and Jefferson City were for Utah and Missouri. One would think New York City and Kansas City would follow Oklahoma’s example. No way. They had to have Albany and Topeka.

Indiana was a little more helpful. Indianapolis added only four more letters. Another “polis” was trickier. It ended Annapolis and that belonged to Maryland.

Thanks to the M.I.S.S.I.S.S.P.P.I song Mississippi was easy but one had to know when to quit spelling it. Another one like it was Tallahassee.

St. Paul and Little Rock were easy to spell if you knew they belonged to Minnesota and Arkansas. Carson City and Nevada went together and I was familiar with them because they popped up often in the Western movies I liked.

Others were not as easy. Olympia and Washington didn’t seem to mix, but Bismarck and North Dakota didn’t either.

On the directional states, you had to be careful and not reverse the one just mentioned with Pierre and South Dakota. It was the same with North Carolina and Raleigh and South Carolina and Columbia.

Somehow we all managed to survive the dreaded spelling test. That may have been the only “science” test I scored a 100.

Thanks to my teacher Mr. Butts, today I know Salem is the capital of Oregon and not Massachusetts, there are countless towns named Springfield but Illinois has the only capital, and the capitals Lincoln, Madison, and Jefferson City in Nebraska, Wisconsin and Missouri are named for Presidents.

At the time I was preparing for Mr. Butts’ test I remember thinking why go to all this effort? When in my future would I even think about someplace named Dover, Delaware?

Well, that day just arrived.

Thank you, Mr. Butts.