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Thinkin’ about Rufus

We have these really great friends whose son Drake (not his real name) is roughly 168% boy. He’s a great kid with a good heart, and he’s really smart. When I picture Drake, even now, in my mind’s eye, I can only see him smiling. But because he is all boy, and because our public school system’s really set up to benefit only the children who are willing to sit, silently comatose, and have lessons taught at them as they follow a tax code’s worth of Draconian rules… Well, let’s just say he struggled when he was five.

Unable to sit still, and also unable to stop asking “Why?” every fifteen seconds or so, Drake was constantly on the dark side of his teacher’s moon. Let’s call her Mrs. Manacle (not her real name). Mrs. Manacle had a really hard time keeping Drake under control, and Drake likewise had a really hard time with a sweet, smiley young woman constantly trying to keep him under her control. But then one day Drake stumbled upon, quite by accident, a magical technique of psychological judo for which Mrs. Manacle was wholly unprepared.

When Mrs. Manacle would ask Drake to do something, some task with which he had no intention of complying, or to answer some question that might as well have involved a slide rule and quadratic equations (keep in mind that he was five), he would simply look far into the distance, forlorn, and respond, “I’m sorry. I can’t right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

And when Drake was thinkin’ about Rufus, there was simply no reaching him. It was as though he shut down emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, fortress walls and impenetrable forcefields surrounding the very essence of his being. He was C-3P0 in The Empire Strikes Back, blown apart mid-sentence by offscreen stormtroopers. Mrs. Manacle could tell that Drake was truly, profoundly affected by thinkin’ about Rufus. Often, his eyes would well and glisten with tears that never quite pooled enough to fall. And when it was so evident that she was not going to be able to break through, Mrs. Manacle knew she had to back down.

Drake skated by for some time on the “thinkin’ about Rufus” ruse. However, as is most often the case with elaborate plans masterminded by five-year-old kindergartners, Drake had not thought through the calendar and realized that eventually, inevitably, Mrs. Manacle would have access to his parents, at which point she would no doubt ask them that most probing of inappropriate questions: “Who is Rufus?”

In fact, at the very next teacher meeting, where Drake was not present, but where both his mom and his dad sat down with Mrs. Manacle, to chart out elaborate strategies and plans and a coordinated effort to help ensure that Drake’s academic performance in kindergarten would not suffer, because as everyone knows, that phase of life is so critical for five-year-old boys to one day get themselves into the right college, which as everyone knows, is the only way one can procure sufficient employment in adulthood, the question surfaced.

His parents looked at each other, confused, as the words hung there in the air, a mist not yet fully dissipated. Drake’s mom, Andrea (not her real name), was first to break the awkward silence. “I’m sorry. What?”

Mrs. Manacle repeated herself. “Who is Rufus?”

Again the parents looked at each other, baffled. Mrs. Manacle realized she was going to have to do what she had not wanted to do: delve into this family’s personal business and press for that most difficult of resolutions. So she explained. “Well, sometimes—often, actually—when we’re doing work in class, I’ll turn to Drake and ask him to answer a question. Or I’ll ask him to complete some task—some center, some activity, some craft, whatever. And he’ll draw up, his eyes will water, and he’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Manacle. I just can’t talk about that right now. You see, I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.’ So of course, I feel like I have to know: Who is Rufus?

Andrea choked. She chortled. She wheezed. She snorted.

Mrs. Manacle wriggled uncomfortably in her seat. Clearly, Rufus was a person of some importance, someone very significant in all their lives, who just as deeply was felt as a wound in Andrea’s heart as in sweet little Drake’s.

And then Andrea full-on laughed. She roared. She guffawed so hard that she gasped. Tears came. But not like Drake’s tears. Tears of exuberance. When she was able to regain her composure, she began to explain. “Rufus,” she began, “is a cat.”

“Well,” she corrected herself, “actually, Rufus was a cat. Bryan (Drake’s dad, not his real name) and I had a cat for several years named Rufus. We still had Rufus when Drake was born, but he died while Drake was just a baby. Drake didn’t actually know Rufus. Not really. I mean, I guess, sort of through pictures. But he wasn’t attached to Rufus. It seems, Drake has found a way to avoid doing his work. I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Manacle no doubt realized she had been bested. It happens. It’s a hazard of the position, certainly. One learns, one moves on. Notes were made. Adjustments to plans and schedules and files. And the jig was up for Drake. Sadly, he would have to start “Thinkin’ about Lucy” or about “Peanut Butter” or about “Snowflake” instead. The “Rufus” work deterrent was taken from him, Benedict Arnolded by his own kin.

Now the beauty of the “Thinkin’ about Rufus” technique is that it’s available to anyone. Kendra and I use it. And I would encourage you to as well. The next time your boss wants to have one of those difficult conversations with you. The next time your spouse walks in and says, far too seriously, “We need to talk.” When a creditor or representative of the IRS is hanging on the other end of your phone to discuss “terms” or perhaps “irregularities.” You sigh deeply, inflating your chest fully with air, and find it within yourself to moisten your eyes from the inside. And you apologize with authenticity and say, “I’m sorry. I really can’t talk right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

What works for you? How do you passively-aggressively avoid conflict (or perhaps work)? Has your child ever managed to put one over on their teacher? What did they do? Wouldn’t grown-up life be so much better if we all had a little “rest time” built into our workday?

Regional Champion (Part 3 of 3)

(This is part three of a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.)

In the weeks leading up to the State Spelling Bee competition, I began to get more serious about the gravity of the possibilities. And by getting “more serious” of course I mean my mom had a heart-to-heart talk with me about what I really wanted from life and whether I thought this might be a door opening, an opportunity to be somebody. Certainly I didn’t feel at all that she was pressuring me or trying to live vicariously through me or trying to get me to do what she wanted. She genuinely wanted to understand what was motivating me and then decide what steps we could realistically take to make that happen.

Every word that would be used in the competition (at least up through State) was provided in the little booklet that we had received. So if we really wanted to, we could technically pore over it and memorize every last one. I can’t say for sure how many words were in there, but it was at least hundreds, perhaps over a thousand. And so we practiced, me lying on the couch, my mom sitting in her chair, reading me words out of the little book, and me trying to spell them. If there’s anything worse—or more nerdy—than participating with ambitious intent in a spelling bee, it would have to be actually studying spelling words for a competition.

It was grueling. I don’t remember how long I lasted, but I’m gonna say maybe two days. At which point I told my mom, “I just don’t care anymore. If I win, I win. If I don’t, I don’t care. This studying is not worth it to me.”

I would like to say I was possessed of an enlightenment approaching Zen-like wisdom, or even that I had just had a solid education in the arts. But more likely I was just too lazy. The State contest was to be televised on our local PBS station, but that didn’t really faze me. I legitimately counted the cost and decided, meh.

Even the prizes were several notches higher than anything at regionals. The runner-up would receive an AM-FM stereo system with a killer cassette deck, which was, let’s say…tempting. But the coup d’état was that for first place—besides the trip to D.C. and all the fame and fortune and everything that goes with it—the winner would also receive a portable TV! This was huge to a seventh grade boy in 1981. I didn’t have my own TV, so that would have been like winning the lottery (presuming my parents would have allowed me to keep it if I won).

And then the worst thing that could possibly have happened, happened. Just a few days before the competition, I got sick. Really sick. Like, Brachiosaurus bronchitis and Grim Reaper cough and a persistent temperature north of 102° sick. But the show had to go on. I can remember crying in the car that night on the way to the TV station because my head hurt so badly. It was yet another of those times when under normal circumstances I probably would have been terrified out of my mind, but as it was I couldn’t even think about all that.

And then the moment was upon me.

Nobody at State seemed to have any tricks beyond the same stock techniques I had seen displayed at every other level. That is to say, if you weren’t certain about the spelling, stall. Try to give yourself some time and space to think. Ask for the definition. Ask to have it used in a sentence. Ask the judge their favorite color. You could ask pretty much anything you wanted except for them to spell the word. These were not practices that I admired nor used. For me, if I didn’t know a word, no amount of time was going to help me sort it out.

I only wish that one of the questions that you could have legally asked was, “So, pray tell me, judge: Where, exactly, do you get off asking a seventh grader from a small rural school in the United States of America to spell a word that’s not even in the English language, and in whose universe and on what planet could that ever be considered fair or appropriate, and how do you sleep at night, and I’ll bet you’re a sad, bitter little person whose life didn’t work out how you planned so now you like to take out your frustrations on helpless little kids…am I right?” (I had to change it up there a little at the end to keep it a question.)


That was the word. We were down to just eight kids remaining, and other kids were still getting words like Brachiosaurus and segregation and abysmal, and they gave me guipure. Honestly, had you ever heard that word before I just shared it with you? I hadn’t. (It’s French, by the way.)

I would torment myself for hours and hours later, watching and re-watching myself on that stupid video, but no matter how many times I watched it, I couldn’t go back in time and repair the damage.

Later that night, on the way home, my brain still throbbing and the top of my moppy hair wet with perspiration, partly from fever and partly from the suit I had to wear, my dad said we had to run an errand before we could go home. He seemed in kind of a rush. I just wanted to get home and put my pajamas on and go to bed and cry myself to sleep. But we stopped at the mall, and my mom and I stayed in the car so I could lie down in the back seat and rest while he ran in. When he came out, he was carrying a portable black and white TV, brand-new in its box. It even had an AM-FM tuner and came with headphones. It was perhaps the kindest, most thoughtful gift I can ever remember receiving in my life. I would watch that TV in my room for the next six years, and I loved it even after it died.

Thanks, Dad. I love you. I know that you were proud of me. But I’m at least equally as proud of you. You were—and are—the greatest dad in the world.


(This is part three of a three-part series. Part one is here and part two is here.)

So who wants ice cream? Is it just me, or is guipure a crappy word to ask a seventh-grader to spell? Who was the National Spelling Bee champion in 1981? (I don’t know, either.)

Regional Champion (Part 2 of 3)

(This is part two of a three-part series. Part one is here.)

My next stop was of course Regionals. Each school sent their winner and runner-up, so you really only got one shot at your own little taste of the 8 Mile dream.

During the competition at school, I hadn’t really taken it seriously, and I just kind of went with the flow. There were no prizes or anything, unless you count the bladder-expansion-inducing fear of having to spell on demand, competing against brilliant minds from other schools before a crowd of parents who were every bit as ‘roided up and amped as the parents you’ll find at any weekend Metro area soccer league. Under such circumstances, I imagine it’s far worse to hear your dad rage from somewhere in the room, “Spell it, Jimmy! Get in there and get yours! Rip those dork-weeds’ pocket protectors right off their chests!”

My dad of course would never say such a thing, whether at a spelling competition or at any sporting event. And to be fair, while technically I didn’t actually hear that there, I know some kids’ dads were thinking it.

The Daily Oklahoman provided little staple-bound booklets that explained all the rules and lined out all the schedules and listed all the words and, in the back, perhaps most importantly, told what the prizes were. First prize for winning at Regionals was a sophisticated solar calculator. Reading that disappointing fact, I couldn’t help thinking, So THIS is what the organizers of this competition think of us:

“Hey, the kind of nerdy kids who might win a regional spelling bee are exactly the sort of dorks who’d geek out over a solar calculator.”

Um, need I remind you, Mr. I’m-On-Top-Of-The-World-In-My-Career-And-Going-Places, that you’re organizing and presiding over a regional spelling bee made up of middle schoolers in Oklahoma which, although some of us here like to think of it as living in the buckle of the Bible belt, most of the rest of the country pictures us instead as the dirty bellybutton of the Lower Hillbilly Kingdoms? (It’s true. I read a survey online.)

And then I discovered some fine print. Not only the Regional Champion, but also the Runner-Up, would both be guaranteed slots to compete at the State Spelling Bee. The top winner of the State competition would then be flown with one guardian (expenses paid, of course) to Washington, D.C., to compete at Nationals. And we all know where the winner of that mêleé ends up: Lucrative endorsement deals, recording contracts, a butler, etc. A diabolical wrinkle, to be sure.

Random aside: I wonder if in French spelling bees, they have to specify all the wacky accent marks their words include. The main reason I love to spell “mêleé” in the proper French way is because that first tiny “e” looks so adorable, like it’s wearing a silly little hat. But I digress…

This of course led me to check the second prize: A cheap knockoff of a Sony Walkman cassette player. I only make this particular distinction because I want to be perfectly clear: It wasn’t a Sony. It wished it was a Sony. On Saturday nights this player would get all dolled up to go out with its friends and they’d talk about all the ways they were better than Sonys anyways and laugh about how snooty the Sonys were in their club that none of the knockoffs could get into and besides they didn’t want to go to those clubs anyway, because it was probably really lame in there. But any kid who’s ever been in the seventh grade knows: Any music player is better than any calculator any day.

I don’t know if it was because I honestly didn’t feel any pressure, or because it occurred to me at some point that I didn’t care what any of these people at Regionals thought of me because I realized that even if I bombed terribly there none of them would even remember me, or if I actually was so terrified and traumatized by my fears that I have a huge gap in my memory of the event so that today it doesn’t even register with me. But whatever the reason, I breezed through Regionals. I mowed down all those dork-weeds, a flurry of pocket protectors floating to the ground like so much chaff. (And that was without even a hint of irony.)

All of them, anyway…save one. When I first began to reflect on this story, I thought I would tell you the girl’s name. Because I remember it like it was yesterday. She was a seventh-grader from Heritage Hall, and she was my spelling nemesis—my spellemesis, if you will. But then I googled her name and, hand to God, I found her in less than two minutes. She taunts me still, from out there in the ether of the cyberworld. (She evidently is a successful surgeon today. With her permission, perhaps I shall share more of our story another time.)

But on that day, we progressed into the final two, at which juncture the organizers took the opportunity to try and build some drama—as much as you can at a spelling bee of middle schoolers, anyway—explaining to the crowd that both of us would be going on to compete at State. In that moment, we were Titans. And then, once it was time to spell again, I kicked into gear my ingenious plan. The very next word they gave me…I threw under the buss. I smirked shrewdly. Take that, Heritage Hall hussy! Enjoy your solar calculator.

All she had to do was spell my missed word correctly. But she was having none of it. She misspelled it as well, albeit in a new and creatively incorrect manner. Succubus! Wenchical! Cheat! It was my turn to take back the competition. To the shock of all the adults in the room, I missed my next word too. (Collective gasp.) She had the opportunity to steal. And she feigned that perhaps she was descended from secluded mountain people, themselves descended from something less than apes. She missed it. Again, differently, creatively.

Turn for turn, we took dives, trying for second place to grasp that crappy Walkman knockoff. I can’t say how long it went on, but I can tell you it was an uncomfortable stretch. At least five words. Finally, her patience and restraint got the better of me. I could stand it no longer. When I spelled my next word correctly, she positively radiated. Miraculously, she missed.

I have that calculator to this day. And it still works. (Bet she can’t say either of those things about her cassette player.)


Up next: State.

Did you ever shame your family in some competition for selfish reasons? Did you ever take a dive in a contest you by all rights should have dominated? When a hole wears in one of your favorite socks, why do you think it’s always just in one of them, and they both don’t wear evenly? I can never bring myself to throw away that perfectly good sock, even though it no longer has its companion, not unlike the sad dog at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.

Regional Champion

(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?