Friday, June 1, 2012

Spelling Bee

Since it's Scripps National Spelling Bee time, I thought I'd share with you my own spelling bee story.

When I was a little kid, there were three grade schools in town:  the public school where I went, the Catholic school, and Wentworth Military Academy.  My 7th grade year there was a spelling bee competition between the three schools and my teacher, Mrs. Entine, asked me to participate.  Now, I have to tell you that there was no love lost between Mrs. Entine and myself.  She was an elderly lady who wore dresses that might have fit 20 years earlier when she bought them, before she became as short and stout as a fireplug.  (I doubt, however, that the dresses were in fashion even two decades earlier.)  In a moment of careless honesty, I once told her that her black lace-up orthopedic shoes looked like hooves.  I steadfastly refused to abide by her rule of no reading ahead in our schoolbooks and when I finished reading both my history book and my English book from cover to cover, I used them to disguise (not very well) the fact that I was actually reading Nancy Drew.  No, Mrs. Entine did not like me.  Her choosing me for the spelling bee team meant only one thing:  she intended to win. 

Mrs. Entine handed out the official list of spelling bee words and told us to study them.  I threw mine in the bottom of my locker without a second glance.  See, I was one of those kids who "broke the code" to reading when I was about 3 years old.  My mother told me she was reading me Green Eggs and Ham when I started to say the words along with her.  At first she thought I had simply memorized the book--after all, I demanded that she read it to me every night.  She pointed to one of the words and asked me what it was.  "Eggs," I said.  She got a cookbook from the kitchen, pointed to a word in it.  "Eggs," I said again.  Then I read the entire recipe to her.  After that she handed me my dad's Readers Digest and I read a page, and then the front page of the Kansas City Star.  One of the unique things about little kids who figure out how to read by themselves, without being taught, is that we very often have no idea how to pronounce words, but we know how to spell them.  To this day (and I am 45 years old now) I often don't use words in speaking that I frequently use in writing because I don't know how to say them. 

Anyhow, the day of the spelling bee dawned and I walked from my grandma's house to the Catholic School with my friend Patrick Arteaga.  "Good luck," he said.  "I'll wait on you."  He waited all morning as one by one my competitors fell, then walked with me to my grandma's house at lunchtime, and then sat in the front row of metal chairs again that afternoon.  I think he was the only child in a crowd of other kids' parents.  My own parents were not present because my brother had a football game.  I did not take this to mean that they liked him better, but that the outcome of my competition was more certain than his. 

Finally there were just two of us, a red-headed boy from Wentworth and me. 

One of the judges addressed me.  "Your word is medallion," he said.

I stood up and carefully said, "Medallion. M-E-D-A-L-L-I-O-N.  Medallion."

"That is incorrect," he said.

"It is not!"  I replied.  Mrs. Entine awoke from her drowse to frown at me.  "It isn't wrong!" I told her.  "He says it's wrong, but it's not." 

"Shush," said Mrs. Entine.  "Sit down."

I was enraged.  I refused to sit down and stood there with my fists balled at my sides.  "It--is--NOT--wrong," I stubbornly said.  There was some commotion among the judges.  I appealed to Father Ryan.  "Father, I know you're from the other school, but you know I spelled that word right.  Tell them." 

That was the day I learned that Father Ryan was not a good speller.  "I--well, I'm just not sure," he said.

"Get a dictionary!" I yelled, and then remembered I was talking to the priest.  "I mean, please, Father Ryan, get a dictionary, thank you." 

He fetched one from his office and returned shortly.  "She did spell the word correctly," he said.

The judges looked at the dictionary and talked amongst themselves.  Mrs. Entine sat by silent as a stone.  I like to think that Father Ryan argued on my behalf, but I don't know that.  The red-headed kid smirked at me.  I stuck my tongue out at him.  Patrick gave me the thumbs-up. 

Finally, embarrassedly, one of the judges spoke.  "There seems to be an, uh, error on the spelling bee word list....uh, a typographical error."

I beamed.  I'd won.  I'd won the spelling bee!  I planned to push aside all my brother's stupid football and baseball trophies to give mine pride of place on the shelf in my parents' dining room.  It was a beautiful trophy, with a white fake marble base, a red-white-and-blue column, and a gold plastic star on top. 

But the judge continued.  "However, this list is the official spelling bee word list and we have decided to use that spelling of the word.  All contestants were given a copy of this official list prior to the competition."  He pointed to the red-headed boy.  "If you can spell the word as it is on the list, you are the winner."

The kid stood up next to me (I still remained standing) and said, "Medallion.  M-E-D-A-L-I-O-N.  Medallion." 

The judges declared him the winner and handed him the trophy.  I stood there whomper-jawed as they placed the second-place prize in my hand.  It was a small brass medallion on a white ribbon.


  1. That's messed up. I've always known you were a champion.

  2. The only totally fair way to have handled that is to pick another word and bypass their incorrectly spelled word.

    Why didn't your hoofed teacher catch that misspelled word? Why didn't any of them catch it? Were they high from the fumes coming off the freshly printed mimeograph spelling bee word list?

  3. No freakin' way! You were robbed! What kind of message does that send?

  4. How traumatic!

    Can you spell, "unjust?"

    I agree with Jan, they should have thrown that word out!

  5. Criminey. You should have told them what to do with their second place prize.

    I'll revisit my youth, and remember an engineering honor society that didn't admit women. Instead females got a "woman's badge." I told them what to do with that.

  6. OMG! That is horrible. How's this for a word: B-U-L-L-S-H-*-T!

    Having done my share of spelling bees in grade school, I can only imagine how furious I'd have been in a similar circumstance. Good for you for standing up to them. (It's even harder to do in a Catholic school; I know about that, too.)

    A bunch of adults acting worse than kids! Sheesh.