Of course, I may be wrong, but one thing I do know is that I was a better speller in the sixth grade than I am now, a truth I had to confront fairly recently when I had to pause in the middle of writing a column to look up the words “recommend” and “gauge,” words I could have spelled with ease at the age of 10 or 11. These days, I write a word down and it just looks wrong to me, no matter how I spell it.
So, what happened then? I can’t really be sure, but I did have a traumatic spelling experience in the eighth grade, and it may be possible that I had suppressed the memory of it for 30 years until this fall, when I began the nightly ritual of giving my daughter her spelling test in preparation for her weekly test every Friday.
“Number one is ‘chat,’” I say, pausing before repeating the word, and then using it in a sentence. “You and I should chat about cleaning your room this weekend.”
As I go through the 10 words, the repetition of them, the construction of sentences (all cleverly encoded with subliminal messages: clean your room, floss your teeth, be nice to your brother, and so on) something dark and ominous begins to materialize out of the roiling cauldron of my subconscious. A memory. A narrative. An old hurt. Talons form, and then take hold.
The things I really wanted to do in the eighth grade, I could not do. I could not dunk a basketball. I could not beat up Ronnie Collins. I could not make Susan Hickerman, captain of the cheerleadering squad, sit next to me on the activity bus as we traveled to Wilkes County, where the Yellow Jackets would do battle with the Blackhawks. I could not bench press 200 pounds. I could not drive a car. I could not play “Stairway To Heaven” on my guitar.
Instead, I was kind of a secret genius of things that mattered to absolutely no one. For example, I could not only name every starting player for every major league baseball team in both the American and National Leagues, I could also recite each player’s statistics from the previous year. If Susan Hickerman had needed to know how many bases Dave Lopes had stolen that year, or how many strikeouts Bob Gibson had chalked up, I was her man. It just was not a currency anybody actually used, not in the untamed country of grade school.
I could also add numbers as quickly as the teacher could write them down, which did turn a few heads now and then in math class, but failed to resonate anytime or anyplace else. It was like a magic trick — kind of neat the first time you see someone perform it — but kind of tired every time you see it thereafter. OK, we get it, Cox can add really fast. But what can he bench press?
And then there was the spelling. Somehow, I could spell just about any word, even words I did not know the meaning of, words like “verisimilitude” and “cantankerous.” A teacher would say a word, and it just assembled itself on some Scrabble board inside my head. All I had to do was call out — or write down — what I saw there. I didn’t really have to think about it. I just saw it, and said it.
Once again, this didn’t do a lot for me socially, unless someone was too lazy to look up a word during class, or wanted to look on my paper during a spelling test. Otherwise, it was, like the math, a clever but geeky, parlor trick.
But then, one bright day, came word of the Spelling Bee. It was to be held in the auditorium, with the whole school in attendance, meaning of course that both Ronnie Collins and Susan Hickerman would be there. Tryouts would be held in the individual classes, and the top ten spellers in the school would advance to the finals. I felt certain that this must be some act of providence. Finally, my unique gifts would be recognized. I could already feel the lushness of Susan Hickerman’s thigh pressed suggestively against mine on that bus, as she called out words and I spelled them for 45 twisting, turning, delirious miles.
I advanced to the final 10 with ease, of course. On the day of the Bee, I was nervous, but confident. On stage, I looked at my challengers, a fairly pitiful gaggle of fellow misfits. I thought to myself, “They are all toast. T-O-A-S-T.”
One by one, they dropped out. Here was a young fellow who couldn’t spell “capricious,” and there went a young woman who tripped over “mendacity.” I was sailing along at cruising altitude, no turbulence at all, looking down at the crowd below, feeling their eyes on me. There were only two of us remaining, Sharon Pendry and I.
I had always liked Sharon, a plain and soft-spoken girl, but this day belonged to me. She had to know that, didn’t she? We each made it through the next three rounds with no problems, the tension building with each round.
I stepped to the microphone, and the principal said, “Gaa Gaa.”
I looked at him, not comprehending that this could be real. He paused a moment, and then said, “Do you want me to repeat the word?”
“Yes, please,” I said, thinking I must have surely misunderstood. He probably said “brouhaha.”
“Gaa gaa,” he said again.
Maybe if he had cracked a smile or shaken his head at the absurdity of it. Anything, any gesture at all. I looked at Sharon, unable to discern if she felt any sympathy for me, or whether she was perhaps in on the joke. Maybe her uncle was a powerful member of our local board of education. Her face gave away nothing.
“Gaa gaa,” said the principal. “We need your answer.”
I had spelled words like “banquet,” and “vicissitude,” and “pancreatic” without pausing, without the faintest sign of perspiration. I simply saw them, and spelled them. But I could not see “gaa gaa,” not even a glimmer.
I felt like a pirate walking the gangplank. I was going to give the most obvious spelling, and I knew it was going to be wrong.
“G-A, G-A,” I said.
“I am sorry,” said the principal. “That is incorrect.”
I looked at Sharon, who shrugged. Her expression was magnanimous. Of course it was. All she had to do was spell the next word correctly, and she would be the Spelling Bee Champion of Sparta Elementary School. I knew it was a fait accompli. I knew that I would never sit next to Susan Hickerman on the bus.
“OK, Sharon,” said the principal. “Your word is ‘zenith.’”
ZENITH? I wanted to jump off my chair and tackle the principal. This was even more farcical — F-A-R-C-I-C-A-L — than my having to spell “gaa gaa.” Any random toddler could spell “zenith.” It was a simple two-syllable word, no tricks, no surprises, no hidden letters laying in the bushes for you. It was a brand of television. Hell, why not give her “GE,” “RCA,” or “Sony”? At the very least, she should have had to spell “Panasonic” or “Hitachi.”
Sharon paused, for dramatic effect, I thought bitterly, although it may have been a token of respect for me. She could have been pretending that spelling “zenith” was a challenge for her.
“Z-E-N-I-T-H,” she said carefully, but firmly, and it was all over. The auditorium exploded, the shrapnel of applause stinging my cheeks.
You are probably thinking that a grave injustice was done here, and you’d be right. You are wondering whether “gaa gaa” is even a word, as well you should. Go ahead and look it up. It’s not in the dictionary, I assure you. But “zenith” is there, not that anyone would know, since any-freaking-body can spell it.
I don’t know whatever happened to Sharon Pendry. I’m sure she went on to accomplish great things, catapulted as she was by her spelling bee triumph. As for Susan Hickerman, well, she ended up marrying Ronnie Collins. I’m sure you can guess how that turned out.
As for me, well, I can’t spell very well anymore. I’m never going to win any spelling bees. But I can play “Stairway To Heaven” on my guitar. And I can bench press more than 200 pounds. And I have a hot wife, who sits with me all the time.
I would just like for all the people who were there that day for the eighth grade Spelling Bee held in the Sparta Elementary School auditorium to know that.