I'm confused about the bolded part:

We went on a bus, about forty kids and three chaperones, and spent the first night in New York, where the drinking age was then eighteen. Thanks to my bad ears and crappy tonsils, I was almost nineteen. Room to spare.

What is the relevance of "bad ears" and "crappy tonsils" with respect to his age?

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    As a child, he spent a lot of time in hospital having his ears pinned back and tonsils removed, The implication being this caused him to drop back a year at school, so he was [nearly] a year older than his peer group. It doesn't make much sense to me, and I did spend the equivalent of nearly a year of my childhood in hospital having repeated plastic surgery. But the only reason I was younger than almost all of my classmates was because I was born in August, just the wrong side of the "cut-off" date for school year groups. Commented Jan 20 at 16:00
  • @FumbleFingers. Are those hospital stays covered in previous chapters of "On Writing"?
    – Zan700
    Commented Jan 20 at 16:53
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    @alphabet I think the answer is less important than how it was derived. Did FF have previous knowledge of King's "bad ears," or was it due to his own childhood experience? Upon first reading the OP, I thought the sentence meant being held back a year in school, but it wouldn't have occurred to me that "bad ears" had anything to do with ears that had to be pinned back. Is there a clue in the parallel colloquial adjectives?
    – Zan700
    Commented Jan 20 at 22:30
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    @Zan700: I made the assumption precisely because of my own experience - where very noticeably, most other children were having ears pinned or tonsils snipped. But who knows? Perhaps my interpretation is spurious, and he meant he missed a lot of school because of persistent tonsillitis and poor hearing and/or susceptibility to ear infections. Commented Jan 21 at 0:35
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    King suffered from ear and throat infections when he was young. He sat out most of first grade and repeated it the following year. Hence he was a year older than his classmates. When he went on a high school trip, he was 19, well over the of legal drinking age of 18 in New York. (All of this is sourced from the actual book.) Commented Jan 21 at 19:25

1 Answer 1


Show, don't tell

King is using subtext to infer the connection between his "bad ears and crappy tonsils" and the fact that he was considerably older than his classmates. We need to use inductive reasoning, so our conclusions can't be certain, but my reasoning goes something like this:

Known Facts

  • King has "bad ears and crappy tonsils",
  • He "was almost nineteen",
  • The former is the cause of the latter,
  • Being almost nineteen is unusual for an American high school student - this is not something King tells us, but most of his readers would know this.


  • if he is older than the normal age for students in his year, he started school at an older age, repeated one or more years of school or both.
  • Either of these could be the result of developmental disruption caused by, say, chronic sickness,
  • "bad ears and crappy tonsils" are the types of things that can cause chronic sickness. They may be aspects of the same underlying problem - there's a whole medical speciality, otorhinolaryngology, dedicated to the ears, nose and throat (which is where the tonsils are).


King's "bad ears and crappy tonsils" caused sufficient illness that they delayed his normal progression into or through the education system, making him older than expected for a final-year high school student.

  • Bad ears and infected tonsils never cause ageing. Rather, with ageing come deteriorations leading to increased likelihood of disease. // Isn't King saying that effects of tonsillitis, and early-onset partial deafness, give a false impression of age? Commented Jan 31 at 14:20
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    @EdwinAshworth no he’s saying he was sick and missed enough school to be held back. That makes him older than his peers.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jan 31 at 20:56
  • Right, that makes sense, though the way it's expressed gives the illnesses as the reason for his age while they constitute the reason why he's in an unexpected class for his age. Very unusual use of language. Commented Jan 31 at 23:15

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