Monday, December 15, 2008

Spelling Bee...

See Sara, I TOLD you I would blog about this tonight...

One of my students made a remark today that caused me to remember the spelling bee in the eighth grade. It had nothing to do with spelling or bees or competition or perhaps school, but the memory hopped up and now it's stuck there until I blog about it.

I was always an excellent speller, probably the result of always having my head in a book. I would probably have preferred to watch television, but I was the youngest of five children and never got to watch MY choice. And all we had was black and white. You know, back in the day.

I was also fiercely competitive. Because I pretty much sucked at sports, I was determined to be the last one standing in a spelling bee. Or a geography bee. Or a science bee. I remember my question in our science bee in the fifth grade. "What makes thunder?" "Lightning heats the air and causes it to expand. It expands as far as it can, and then it snaps, and the sound it makes is thunder." I had no concept then, nor do I now, of how air can expand or snap, but I recited the answer we had learned in class and I got to stay in to the next round.

In the seventh grade, I was at the county level competition of the spelling bee when I got the word "lilliputian." Now pray tell me, what seventh grader has ever read Jonathan Swift or Gulliver's Travels or would even appreciate the satire if he/she HAD read it? Therefore I had no idea that "lilliputian" meant the equivalent of a wee little person sort of like a Munchkin (now THAT I could have spelled, and probably recited most of the script of Wizard of Oz), and they told me to go sit down. One of my teachers stopped me to explain the word's meaning and origin. I looked at her like, "Didn't you hear them just tell me to go sit down? Why the hell do I need to know NOW?" I think a fifth or sixth grader wound up winning. Nerd.

It was the eighth grade spelling bee, however, that defined me as a person and made me who I am today and not someone great or at least destined for greatness. It made me a person who will often settle for mediocrity. And if I can't at least be mediocre, I will pretend I wasn't playing anyway.

I had won at the county level by breaking the kneecaps of the nerd who was a couple of years younger than I and had won the previous year. I made that part up. But I was going to the district level competition in a nearby town. One of my teachers would accompany me (I'm guessing she drove, but I have no recollection of how we actually got there. Perhaps in Good Witch Glinda's bubble). They even agreed to allow my best friend Carol to go with me. My mother bought me a new outfit for the occasion. We didn't get random new outfits out of the blue back then. It had to be something special, like a funeral. Or a prom. Or homecoming. Or a spelling bee.

I was probably the third or fourth person down the row, and I was feeling confident, because after all, it was the first round, and only a real doofus would get knocked out of a spelling bee in the first round.

I distinctly remember a loud water fountain in the back of this cavernous old meeting room in a building that was old when Moses was a little baby. I'm just sayin'. And I was all nervous at being in front of all those people (exactly how DO they get people to come to a spelling bee?), but I knew I looked cute. And there was my BFF Carol (this was before she went off to a boarding school because her mother couldn't handle her and Jason became my BFF) smiling at me and all proud like she was my mama or something, since my mama couldn't be there.

And she knew I would not only make it through the first round, I would win the competition for our whole district.

Moderator (for lack of a better word): "Desolate"

Me (not hearing clearly): "Desolate?" Note the question mark at the end of that word.

Moderator: [Nods]

Me: D-E-S-O-L-A-T-E

Moderator: That is incorrect. You may go sit down.

I was the first one out. I was out in the first round. I had been called out because I had spelled the wrong word. I don't know how I eventually found out the word he had said was "dizzily." That was way back in the days before everything was supposed to be fair and someone would come to my defense and insist that I be given another chance. My teacher smiled ruefully at me and patted me on the back while I sat in my chair and cried.

We had to sit through the whole damn competition. And I knew how to spell every single word.