Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It was a slow day

It was a slow day

…and the sun might have been shining somewhere in another hemisphere. Icy New England winds whipped grit around under the sidewalk lights, which, if I turned around, I'd be able to see through the big windows. I thought about it--turning around that is--but the chilly outdoors didn't hold a lot of allure either.

"Tedious? Could you say it again?"


"T-E-D-E--" Ooh. Evidently there are no take-backs in official, certified spelling bees. She sighed and continued, eyes drifting floorward and shoulders slackening. "…I-O-U-S."

The panel had been as hopeful as I had been (probably for different reasons), although they tried to keep any feelings under their black suit jackets. I could see it in the slight tilt forward, and hear it in a brief indrawn breath on the microphone. From the back row of the audience, I could only see the backs of the panel members, dark business-wear to a woman, heads varying from black to gray and cropped in severe educator fashions.

"That is" [pause] "incorrect."

I guess they can't point out how close they got either, but everyone knew.

The speaker's hair was dark, cut in a horizontal line just above her shoulders, and it rippled a little bit every time she moved. When she looked down at her sheet, a cheek or jaw sometimes flashed, and I found myself wondering, without much interest, what she might look like, if she had bangs, maybe if she had wrinkles. Evidently she took this thing seriously--moreso than anyone else--so maybe she was there in some official lexicographic capacity. But that wouldn't describe the disappointed pause. Did it come from a freshly minted naiveté, still young enough to hope? Maybe it came from a bureaucratic frisson of seeing someone (almost) succeed within the rules. Her voice had neither the piping lightness of a young woman nor the breathy warble of an older one. "Is that person a teacher?" I stage-whispered to my younger daughter, who looked me in the eye for a second before scooting even further out of reach and deeper into her own fantasies, chattering softly. I myself daydreamed about a soft-eyed spinster handing me a form at the DMV.

"Your word is: 'Soldier.'"

Here's a kid with a lot of tells. The odds were bad just by the way he was standing, kind of shambling in place, not suggestive a lengthy attention span by any means. But in his defense, it's 6:30, he's still at school, and at three times his age, I was also fidgeting. He raced into a reply, without confidence or concern.


"That is incorrect."

He grinned his way to the losers' bench. The children who had had their turn were a badly organized row of disconsolate wrecks and, like the last contestant, overanimated goobers. The only thing that kept them from bolting was the glare of the principal. The ones who hadn't yet had their turn remained orderly and attentive.


Score, and about damn time. This is shaping up to be the shortest spelling bee in history, which is good, but there has to be some dignity salvagable from this sham. I mean, there were two hundred people and change stuck in there. Out of the first thirty or so contestants, "medicine" was the third correct answer. What are the odds they could spell 'decimate?' (Actually, decimate wasn't right--what's the word for one in ten left alive? For that matter, does 'medicine' come from the famous Florentine family? Nah, probably not. What's going on up there?)

"Um, could you use define that, please?"

Ha, someone had seen this done. Maybe there would be a competition after all.

"A musical term describing the perfunctory application of a musical note, usually with upbeat rhythmic phrasing."

Somehow, I don't think that helped.


Yes, yes…



"That is incorrect."

Staccato signals of constant information… The bastards put those three words together on purpose, didn't they? A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires, and… "Daddy, stop singing!" (The nerve of that kid. Well, what could I say?) "Don't cry baby, don't cry."

The little one has been working for months to perfect a withering stare, and I got one of her best. I glanced around at the crowd, and there was no evidence that anyone had made a similar connection. Just what the hell is wrong with these people? I hate this town.

"Your word is: 'Distraction.'"

The colons were all audible.


One game you can play while feigning interest at this sort of thing is to watch the kids, and try to surreptitiously guess which parents are theirs, based on how they dress and how they sit, what they seem to think of all this. The fat kid's parents are garrulous and large, the sorts of people that take up twice their allotted space, figuratively and physically. A few cute kids have ugly parents (and vice versa), but mostly it looks like the same crowd regarding itself through slow glass. The poor girl who flailed on "staccato," her parents appeared confident and caring, and not particularly concerned about this ridiculous event, a smile at the earnest attempt, a sympathetic eye-roll at the missed ending. I liked them on sight, but not so much that I wouldn't avoid a chat if it got me out of there thirty seconds sooner.

"Your word is: 'Chagrin.'"

The only parents that I already know were already sitting at the other side of the room when I walked in, which was just as well. Their daughter didn't come close to getting her word right, tacking on a string of nonsense letters at the end to fill up the space. My own little girl whiffed too, but made a passable guess at a word she'd never seen. She so much like me it's scary sometimes, but in fifth grade, I was always reading. This one, you have to twist her arm.

In that year, I came in a tightly contested second place in my own school spelling bee, ultimately missing on "freckle," which I spelled, like a dolt, with an "el." I remembered to share the story with Junior on the ride home, and performed my best fatherly scowl when I mentioned reading habits. I felt like a tool, and probably looked like one too.

"Your word is: 'Plebian.'"

"Can you use that in a sentence, please?"

The only thing that was keeping the curtain from falling was that a child, for the victory, also had to correctly spell a bonus word. This was a tough order, under the circumstances. Only one girl made it through the first three rounds, but she missed her game-winner. As a consequence, all eight survivors from the previous round had to be called back up for a replay. I felt bad: some other little kid ended up on the stage after that spelling for the victory, a little boy whose best effort that day would only get him shamed in the state competition and waste his whole family's day. Well, there was a trophy. The principal was looking uncomfortable on the side of the stage, and if I wasn't imagining it, the spinster's movements were getting just a little bit more stiff as she called off the final word. Could this be it?


"Okay, C-O-N-D-E-S-" [come on…] -"C-E-N-S-C-I-O-N"

But you know, these people are all right. What's more annoying than a spelling Nazi anyway? There can't be a more useless measure of intelligence than spelling prowess: it's no substitute for actually using the vocabulary, for effective language. The most valid reason to aspire to good spelling is to insulate yourself from looking stupid, but really, at the point you might actually consider using some non-Latinate, multisyllabic string of gibberish, you shouldn't anyway, and even when you insist, no one will get upset if you look it up first. Competitive spelling is the celebration of rote over critical thinking, of memorization over imagination. Maybe it works as a sport? Maybe the inspiring moments come from mining the improbable depths of the brain's resources, making the most tenuous inner connections and coming up right. My early vision of overeducated and underfulfilled parents slavering at the sideline as their diminutive homeschooled twerp morosely prattled out "phlegmatic" or "magniloquent" or whatever in front of a crowd of hundreds at some drab heartland community college theater turned into something more pleasant, the thrill of victory, or better, since it's not the sport that usually gets positive attention, a subplot of secretly held hands and unexpected kisses stolen from other little helicoptered kids, alone backstage for a few minutes, cornered, for once, with someone else's sympathetic fears and passions.

I also can't avoid noticing that I take some pride in being a fairly good, if utilitarian, speller myself, and all of these life prescriptions I'd been spouting looked, just a little uncomfortably, more like projections than anything. It's something that might really have sunk in if I gave it time, but the kids were pouring off the stage by then, and the little one was tugging at my sleeve and the older one needed a hug. The crowd of mostly strangers pushed through the door together tightly for a moment and then spread into the cold evening. The way we look to us all, oh yeah, oh yeah.

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