Friday, June 02, 2006


In Which I Have a Bee in My Bonnet...

I don't watch a ton of TV, especially sports and contests of skill. But tonight, just after putting the kids to bed, I switched the set on and there was the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live, somewhere in the 8th or 9th round.

When I first heard it was going to be televised live on ABC tonight, I made my usual smart-ass remarks about watching another boring sport. And I should know: when I lived in England, it seemed like every time I turned on the telly, I was watching some marathon snooker tournament, or the World Series of darts, or even skeet-shooting. I learned to cope with these programs by drinking heavily. Now here was the American equivalent, I joked.

Except that when I actually turned on the TV, the moment I saw one of the lil guys standing in front of their parents, a huge live audience, and a viewing public of millions, trying to remember how to spell a word they will never use again in their lives, I had nothing but admiration for these kids. I watched the rest of it with rapt attention and no small amount of awe. I mean, I work with words everyday and am considered to have an above-average vocabulary, but these kids were fielding words I never even knew existed. Every time some young man or woman stepped to the mic and asked for his or her word to be repeated, I would shout at the TV to pronounce it one more time for me (luckily, some of the kids heard me and they were pronounced again). Surely some of these words had to be made up, or the judges were using the wrong dictionary. I mean "dghaisa"? "Kalanchoe"? "Ursprache"?

And yet, these kids knew them. And when little Kerry Close won tonight, I found myself cheering like she was my own daughter.

Her Lovely Self regarded me with her usual look of pity and amusement. "How is it you can't stand to watch the Super Bowl, but you can watch this?"

I thought for a moment as I watched the look of sheer jubilation and relief on the winner's face. It was a look I recognized. "Well," I finally said to my wife. "I never played in the Super Bowl."

I did, however, compete in the National Spelling Bee. Or I guess, to be more precise, I should say I made it to the playoffs.

I was in 6th grade when I competed in the District Division of the National Spelling Bee. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and our district consisted of several schools, which meant I was up against roughly 40 other 6th, 7th and 8th graders. In the five or six years that the district had participated, the 8th graders had always dominated, which made sense, seeing as they were older and knew more words. Once or twice a 7th grader won or was a runner-up, which was not bad, because back then they got to go to the county finals (you could send two spellers from each district to participate in the county, and two from the county division could go to state finals).

I easily won my class eliminations, but my spot in the district bee was challenged almost immediately by a teacher I will call Mr. F, because F stands for so many words I wanted to call him. Mr. F had taken an almost instant disliking to me the moment I entered the school where he taught. He thought I was too big for britches, he thought I had a smart mouth. He accused me of taunting the bigger kids into attacking me (like the fellow my Big Brother stuffed in a garbage can) so that they would get in trouble for beating the piss out of me (let's just think about the logic of that for a moment).

Anyway, Mr. F was out to get me, and here he saw an opportunity to trip me up. He went to the principal and complained that I was not old enough to participate because I was only 10--the age of a 5th grader (I may have mentioned a time or two that I started kindergarten at 4 and just kept going up a grade each year, making me the youngest kid in class--by a year or more--for my entire academic career). The Bee was for older students, he insisted, and I would just embarrass the school (and myself) because I was too young to compete with the big boys, such as his son Brent, who was the 8th grade champion and the winner of last year's district bee as a 7th grader.

I didn't find this out til much later, but the dispute went all the way to the state judges, who went to the rulebook and saw that the participants were restricted by grade level, not by age. If I was smart enough and mature enough to handle the workload of a 6th grader, I was smart enough and mature enough to participate in the Bee.

And the Bee was a big deal in our little section of Kansas, let me tell you. On the day of the event, the school gym was packed with kids and parents from all across the district. Even my own father left work early so he could watch me, which made me both secretly pleased and scared. This was during a long period of my childhood where he thought I was lazy and not of much account, so his coming meant he thought I had achieved something of value. But I was also scared because, well, the odds were pretty high that I would lose--no sixth graders ever won, or even ever made it to the final round--and I didn't want to fail in front of him and cement his opinion of me.

In a few moments, though, it didn't matter. The two judges from some distant town (a neutral one that had no interest in who won or lost in our district) had arrived with their dictionaries and shushed the crowd so that we could begin. Right then, I found myself focused only on the words, watching them appear in my head, even as the crowd faded to nothing in my mind.

The first hour was a blur. More than half the sixth graders from the other districts were eliminated in the first round, on their first and only word. And then I got my first word--


I remember sweat trickling down my back as I spelled it, but the first hurdle was over.

I'd love to tell you I remember every word I was given, but I don't. All I remember is that, in the next hour, the 40-some students were whittled down to 6 kids, including three from our school--me, an 8th grader named Kim (who had been a runner-up last year) and her classmate Brent, Mr. F's son and the defending champ. I remembered well when he won last year, on the word "ambidextrous." When his victory was announced, he bounded into the stands and slapped five with his classmates, who all cheered and taunted the losers, including poor Kim, who was left standing by herself in the empty row of chairs, no one congratulating her on making it to the county bee as a runner-up.

This year, Brent looked on track to win again. But then he got the word "mollify." He started to spell it:

"M-A...I mean O! I mean O! M-O-L-L-I-F-Y." he blurted.

The judges were about to disqualify him when Mr. F, a big and imposing fellow, raised his voice to the judges and insisted that Brent be allowed to stay. It was obvious he knew the word; he had simply misspoken, Mr, F argued.

This caused a murmur in the crowd. I mean EVERYONE knew there were no take-backs in the spelling bee. If you said the wrong letter, that was it. You were out. You can bet Mr. F would have made sure I was physically thrown from the room if I had made a similar gaffe.

But in the end, the judges decided to let it pass and allow Brent to stay in. Kim spelled her word correctly. I spelled mine.


By the 10th or 11th round, it was down to Brent, Kim, some 7th grader from the next town over, and yours truly.

Brent got out next, and I'm pleased to report it was his own bone-headedness that caused it. Especially because he got what seemed like an easy word.

"Heart," he heard one of the judges say.

Brent smiled. "Heart--H-E-A-R-T--heart," he rattled off.

But the judge hadn't actually said "heart." The word she had given him was "hart." The male deer, not the blood-pumping organ. Brent had failed to ask for a definition of the word. And boy, was it a righteous failure; even Mr. F couldn't contest it.

Two rounds later, the 7th grader got out on "onomatopoeia," which I remember, because if I'd gotten the word, I'd have spelled it wrong too.

And just like that, it was down to Kim and me, the only 6th grader (and 10-year-old) to make the finals.

It went back and forth for a while. It seemed we were suddenly getting easier words, but I kept bracing myself for the poison dart, the unexpected toughie that would throw one of us off.

Kim got it first: "garniture."

She stood silent for a second, then asked for a definition to buy her some time. I didn't know what to hope for. I had never heard of the word before, and to win the bee, I had to correctly spell the word she got wrong and then spell a new one. I was as likely to get it wrong as she was.

And then, she got it wrong, spelling it with an "m" instead of an "n."

I figured I had nothing to lose. If I got it wrong, we'd just go round again. So I just took a stab--G-A-R-N-I-T-U-R-E.

"Correct," the judge said, and suddenly there was a mighty gasp from the 6th graders. If I got the next word right...

"MM, if you correctly spell the next word, you will win. Are you ready?" one of the judges asked. I nodded. My mouth suddenly seemed too dry to speak.

"Canopy," I heard the judge say.

Oh my God, I've won! I thought. Canopy was easy!

"Canopy," I said. "C-"

Then I stopped.

"Is it too late to ask for a definition of the word?" I begged the judges.

"Yes!" blurted Mr. F from the stands. But the judges ignored him. One of them looked at me.

"We can give you the definition, but you will still have to begin spelling the word with the letter C. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Then she read from the dictionary: "'A thin piece of bread or cracker served as an appetizer.'"

I closed my eyes. "Excuse me," I said. "Is it pronounced 'can-o-pee' or 'can-ah-pay'?"

The judges looked at each other, then puzzled over the pronunciation section of the dictionary. Finally, one of them looked up. "Yes, it could be pronounced 'can-ah-pay.'"

"Canape," I said, pronouncing it just as I'd heard my mother pronounce it hundreds of times when we'd had people over for Christmas partied. "C-A-N-A-P-E. Canape."

It was almost 30 years ago, but the moment the judges smiled and said "Correct!" simultaneously remains as clear to me as if it happened yesterday, and ranks among the top 10 greatest moments of my life. I had never won anything before, certainly nothing like this.

My classmates all stood in the stands and cheered, hands up, ready for the celebratory back-slapping and giving each other fives.

Instead--and I don't know what possessed me, because I was a pretty cocky, ill-mannered smart-ass kid--I turned to Kim, the runner-up for the second year straight, and offered her my hand.

"Good game," I said, which was what we always said after baseball games and didn't really fit in this context, but it was the only thing I could think of. But it was that moment that people remembered more than me being the first 10-year-old to win the district bee. Even Mr. F told me how surprised he was to discover what good sportsmanship I displayed. My dad commented on it as well. My stock had risen ever so slightly in his books.

The rest of the afternoon was an impromptu party of cheering and hollering and the presentation of trophies. And somewhere in there, a guy from the county paper showed up, and, sadly, immortalized the moment for all time.


Incidentally, I placed 4th in the County Bee, going out on a word so simple I can't bring myself to tell you what it was. As third runner-up, I was an alternate to go to the State Bee if the winner and the other two runners-up suffered some kind of mass catastrophic accident, which I'm ashamed to say I sort of hoped for. This was a farming community, after all. Lots of dangers could befall kids when they were around threshers and combines and animals with long horns. But nothing happened and so that was the short life and death of my Spelling Bee career.

But I've never forgotten that moment of relief and pride and satisfaction and exhaustion, when I realized I had beaten everyone else. The look I had on my face then had to have to been similar to what young Kerry Close felt tonight, with those beaming eyes, that radiant smile. That memory will stay with her forever. And even when she's old and can't spell so well anymore, I hope she'll think back on this day and, for a brief time anyway, smile that smile of pure incandescence.



Way to spell, kiddo.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

That's awesome :)

I had teachers who wanted me to participate in spelling bees, but I always refused because I had horrible stage fright. I'm not sure how far I would have gotten if I had participated anyway--I have a knack for spelling, but I don't know all those words the kids in the bees know.

That is an awesome picture. Kim was quite the looker, wasn't she?

Someday I should get the embarrassing photo of myself from when I won a Governor's Cup writing competition in 6th grade and post it on my blog. My grandma still has the newspaper clipping. I'm wearing pink sweat pants, a T-shirt (untucked), a man's belt with a huge belt buckle (over the untucked T-shirt), and a brown trenchcoat, and my hair is pulled back (either in a pony tail or with a headband, I forget which). Also, I have huge, red-rimmed glasses on.

Yes, I was a fashion plate in middle school...
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Cool story, MM. I actually placed second once in a high school spelling be, because I had studied a list of words they might use, which not many other people had apparently done.

Oh, if you haven't seen the documentary "Spellbound" yet, I highly recommend it. It's follows several kids in the national championships of the event you watched.
I went out on calendar. I was the best speller in the school and yet went out on calendar. I hated spelling bees for the rest of my academic career.
Doesn't everybody--no matter how good a speller they otherwise be--have those words, you know, those damned easy words that trip them up every time? For some reason back in fourth grade I had taken it into my head that "restaurant" was spelled "R-E-S-T-A-U-R-E-N-T" and wouldn't you know it, that was the first word I was asked for in the only bee I ever entered. The memory of that humiliation kept me away from bees forever, even though tests showed I could spell at a college junior level in grade four.
(There are still certain words I persistently misspell. "Vacuum" is one. My hand insists on writing that with two c's. I have no idea why...)
Great story.
Spelling bees, my old nemesis. I remember well when first we met. I was a doe-eyed nine year old when our first class spelling bee was held, completely unannounced, one Friday. (Interesting side note here being that each class in the school held the spelling bee at the same time, on the same day, completely unannounced. The children who usually competed in the bee were understandably upset, having had no preparation time whatsoever, I just wanted to go out to recess.)

There were no age restrictions on the spelling bee, at least at the school level, as the three winners(?) from each class (there were two classes in each grade from first through sixth) competed in an actual spelling bee the following Friday in an after school assembly.

Possibly because of the varying age range of the contestants (or all grammar level competitions may be that way, I have only ever been in/seen the one) the words went from gimmes to insanely hard. When the group was down to about five of us remaining, one word came along that eliminated all but two of us: O-B-I-T-U-A-R-Y. I was the last of the group to take a crack at it, and the only one to get it correct (which was more a process of elimination than actual skill; I had already heard it spelled obitshuary, obitchuery, etc. There weren't many logical ways left to even try). The other kids were given another word to see which of them would also be going to represent our school at the district "spell off" (I don't really know why I remember that word, since I never had to spell it and it has no bearing on my results, but the word was H-E-L-I-C-O-P-T-E-R). It would be Sarah B. that was going with me to the district spell off.

They gave each of us the complete list of words that could be used at the district competition (do they still do that? Have they ever done that? It actually had every word on it that the judges could possibly ask at the competition, it almost seems like cheating). I prepared for this competition in exactly the same way as I had done for the one at the school level; I just showed up.

I lost on the third word, which still kind of irks me to this day. The word was S-T-A-U-N-C-H, which I spelled S-T-A-N-C-H (come on, I was nine for christ's sake). The reason it pisses me off: pick up any dictionary, or even, that word is correct spelled either way.

It was then that I turned to the life of crime, but that, as they say, is another story.
Good on you for shaking Kim's hand. I got second in our school Spelling Bee back in middle school. I got to go to the local community college for the district competition.
Sweet story, made me cry at the end.
I was in a spelling in elementary school. It came to down to me and Cass - the petite, cute popular girl that I oh-so-wanted to push off her pedestal.
But I tripped on jewel. As in J-E-W-E-L.

I spelled it J-E-W-L-E, which my dad quickly reminded that I should know how to spend considering we often bought groceries at Jewel Osco.




Should've asked for a definition. I went out at the third round at state. Sigh.
I am so NOT a speller.. spell-check is my friend...

your runner-up looks like a cutie, so there was a bonus!
ExhilAration. Not exhilEration.
Didn't spell it, didn't feel it. Still pains me ever since 4th grade.

Yeah, that Spelling Bee last night was gripping. I actually got weltschmerz right from my couch. And I don't even know what it means. Bring me back to Mrs. Ekins' class, I'll waist* 'em!

Kelly Filler is really nice to look at. :)
I competed in middle school, but I was immensely relieved that I didn't make it to the county level. I found it tremendously nerve-wracking.

Congratulations on your win though!
uh hem...Kim was a little hottie in her day. Sadly, you looked just like a 6th grade boy that you were :-) My 7th grade photo was even worse. I'll never forget my older sister saw my photo and said, "Wow, you look like you are going to vomit."
Never the less, what a great story. Thanks.
I love spelling and can truthfully say that I'm good at it. In fact, I'm the one friends go to when they don't know how to spell a word.

But all this reminds me of something George Bernard Shaw said about the insanity of English spelling. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something like ... Do you know how to spell fish? It's ghoti: gh as in rough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.

I think it's hilarious, but whenever I bring it up around friends they look at me like I'm from another planet so I've given up on it. Still privately amusing though.
I do hate it when you leave us hanging on one story and move on to another. Don't you know we are all sitting on the edge of our seats anxiously awaiting the riveting conclusion to the bargain basement book story?

Oh well, while I wait I guess I will go look at some internet pornography.

It was extremely interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to them. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Best wishes
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