(This is part one of a three-part series. Part two is here.)
When I was in the seventh grade, I participated in our school spelling bee. It wasn’t as though I had some sort of far-reaching ambition and aspiration to ultimately become famous worldwide for my ability to spell on a whim words like conflagration and psychosomatic and even (gasp!) onomatopoeia, delighting and amazing late night talk show hosts and state fair goers alike. Rather, everyone in the school was absolutely required to participate. If you were in an English class—and everyone was—that meant you were automatically a player in the spelling bee.
Our big statewide newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, sponsored an annual state spelling bee. I suppose it was once someone at the paper’s brilliant marketing idea to host and organize this massive event under the auspices that they would be generating gravitas and recognition for what was known at that time as “America’s Frontier Lake State,” while secretly in smoky back-room handshake deals they were in fact conspiring to raise their own profile to more efficiently hawk their wares to a drooling, unsuspecting public. They could feign that it was their vision to encourage literacy in Oklahoma, which if it were true was the worst strategy ever conceived and by no means in their best interests. In fact, had they accomplished such a mission, in so doing they would actually have cost themselves readership, as those with greater than a fifth grade education at the time could easily spot typos, misspellings and absolute blitzkriegs on good grammatical sense throughout their “newspaper.” (I honestly haven’t “read” it in some time; I assume it’s probably much better today.)
Anyway, it was our school administration’s brilliant plan to ferret out our own spelling Cinderella story for the Oklahoman by requiring the English teachers in each of our three grades (sixth, seventh and eighth) to conduct a spelling bee in every English class, a dragnet campaign from which none of us closet wordophiles would be able to escape. Had I suspected then what the true end of this competition held in store for me, I would likely have spelled bus as b-u-s-(dramatic pause)-s. But I didn’t. The top winners from each class would participate in a second round spell-off, held in the form of a schoolwide assembly in the auditorium.
“Hey, nerds! We know how much you love being put on display in front of the entire school! So this is your opportunity to remind all of the other kids that you think you’re smarter than they are—never mind that you wear your big brother’s hand-me-downs from C.R. Anthony’s and have psoriasis and dandruff and halitosis and couldn’t make a layup even if you were the only person on the court and we gave you an oversized basket and a Nerf basketball and a mini-trampoline. Today, you’re the stars!”
Thank you, Vice Principal Cruella De Vil.
The winner of the schoolwide competition would then be forced—excuse me, honored—to represent our fine academic institution at the regional contest. Of course I have no idea how the other schools at regionals fielded their own spelling gladiators. (As I said, I was in the seventh grade. That means I was twelve. So you’ll forgive me being hazy on such details.)
I handily dispatched every kid in my English class. I didn’t mean to. It just kind of…happened. (You know, on account of English is my mother tongue and all.) It certainly didn’t hurt that in those days I had a photographic memory and could quite literally picture in my mind words that I had read before, including telling you on what page I had seen them and even where it was on that page. (I have long since lost that freakish ability, my photographic memory replaced by the far-less-useful pornographic memory, in which although I can recall vivid details of every significant event in my life, I can’t remember what anyone was wearing.)
By the time I made it onto the stage in that schoolwide assembly, I found myself surrounded by the kids I considered to be the best and brightest in our entire district. I was fortunate enough to actually attend a school where many of these kids were not nerds; in fact, most were attractive and popular, and several were even athletic as well. It was an honor to find my pasty self esteemed in their company. I was astonished at the rapid pace at which many of these children whom I knew to be brilliant seemed to flub what I reasoned to be not particularly complicated words. (Today I understand why some of my acquaintances from childhood probably considered me to be cocky. At the time, I honestly didn’t know any better. I genuinely couldn’t believe they didn’t know how to spell these words.)
The competition went quickly, and I can hardly remember it, it was a such a whirlwind. One specific detail I do remember happened repeatedly. It went like this: The judge would read aloud my next challenge word, followed immediately by murmurings from the student crowd, things like “Is that even a real word?” and “Impossible!” and “Oh, that’s it! He’s done-for now.” And then I would spell. And the self-satisfied teacher (from whom I had not learned that word, by the way) would beam, “Correct!” Followed by an audible gasp from the crowd. It was honestly like some Disney movie where the entire school starts out against the underdog and then gradually rallies to his side, cheering him on once they realize he is their brightest hope, their unassailable champion. For just a brief, glimmering moment, I felt accepted. I felt…dare I say it? Popular. And perhaps most importantly, I won.
Next up: Regionals beckon.
Have you ever had a moment where you were THAT GUY? What happened? Did you feel worthy or deserving? Do you know the legitimate medical reason why it’s at those moments that our bladder feels most full?