A lot of other middle-aged guys have cherished memories of the good ol’ days when they were on sports teams and won games and fame and attention, followed decades later by the deep frustration with how their athletic-hero phase was temporary, the pinnacle of those wonder years left far behind.
Me? For a few proud minutes, I had spelling bees. Recent headlines, in particular the exciting news that the National Spelling Bee at long last had its first Black American winner this week, dredged up a few of my own recollections and regrets.
Once upon a time I was one of those so-called “gifted” kids who was occasionally separated from the quote-unquote “normal” kids for infrequent extra classes that amounted to clandestine support groups with weirdly specialized reading assignments. Somehow I still remember a few of the concepts we covered, but mostly it was a chance to be singled out for extra homework and get deeply othered with a “nerd” label. Regardless, I knew a thing or two about vocabulary, having spent a lot of free time buried brain-deep in reading matter, from comics to the 1980s equivalent of YA novels to the occasional newspaper to puzzle books and beyond. Spelling quizzes were never a challenge.
I learned of the concept of competitive braininess from game shows, but in fourth grade came my first opportunity to try some of that for myself. That was the year we students could begin entering spelling bees. Usually your treatment or mistreatment of words was a secret known only to your English teacher and any parent who glanced at your homework. Spelling bees took the deepest, most obscure words in the conglomerated English language and turned them into exotic objects to collect and memorize and show off to others, kind of like Pokemon cards before they were invented, but without the fanciful art and stats and superpowers, and sometimes the words made even less sense than Pokemon names.
Spelling bees felt like exactly the right vehicle for me to stand out and win against other kids at anything in life besides board games. It obviously wasn’t happening in gym class.
Sadly, my first bee ended in embarrassment. I handily won our classroom competition but bungled the school-wide bee. The first word the judge gave me was “tongue”. I got cocky and spoke too quickly: “TONGUE. T-U-N…” My heart broke in the next split-second before I concluded with despair, “…G-U-E. Tongue.”
A few more split-seconds passed while I wished really hard that they hadn’t heard me, and that maybe my first U sounded like an O to them, or that maybe they’d feel generous and let me try again, or that maybe the creaky wooden stage would collapse in a surprise disaster and the survivors could get a do-over tomorrow. None of my wishes were granted.
Fifth grade, on the other hand, was the closest I ever had to a championship season. I won the classroom bee, then the school bee, from which I was sent on to the district bee, a much larger bout comprising multiple townships. I was given a thin workbook of large words to study, presumably the entire lexicon they’d be throwing at us. After a thorough review I was convinced 90% of them were fake, invented with random draws from a bag of Scrabble letters and compiled for this practical joke of a pamphlet. I did make a point of learning the longest word on the list, “sphygmomanometer”, because I imagined the mere awareness of its existence would come in handy someday, whatever it meant. I’m proud to report I remember what it means, that I used one a few months ago, and that I typed it just now without looking it up first.
Mom was not thrilled to have to drive me out to the south side of Indianapolis for the district bee, but she enjoyed watching me do my thing. To an extent, perusing the book of dubious verbiage had helped. I came in fifth place, which was good enough because the top ten competitors were sent on to the regional spelling bee. Next stop after that, Lord willing and talent permitting, would be the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. Our family could never afford real vacations and I’d never traveled farther from home than Kings Island in Ohio. DC might as well have been in Antarctica for all the chance I’d ever have of stepping foot in it.
For the regionals, my teacher Mrs. Robinson offered to drive Mom and me out to Arlington High School on the far east side. She was the oldest, strictest, crankiest teacher I’d ever had up to that point and would remain a Bottom Five finalist on my all-time teacher list for some years to come. That Saturday morning she was surprisingly pleasant from pickup to dropoff and in every moment in between. I didn’t get it. I wondered if she’d been kidnapped and replaced by an average kindly grandma her same age. She even bought us donuts. That car ride with her was among my earliest encounters with conflicting nuances in humankind and an early learning experience about The Duality of Man.
Scores of kids from all around the city lined up and took endless hours to screw up the English language one by one till well after noon, when all had fallen but two: me and a bespectacled seventh-grade girl. After several back-and-forth fumbles between us, eventually I tapped out on “fulsome”, which as of today means “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree”. Based on the vaguely similar definition they provided to me, which may or may not have reminded me of Eddie Haskell as this one does even now, I misspelled it “foolsome”. I was disappointed to lose, but happy to leave because it was past lunchtime and I was starving.
In a later write-up on the girl’s victory, the Indianapolis News misreported that I’d misspelled it “fullsome”. They also got my school wrong. It was the first time I’d ever seen such basic journalism errors on a subject that had nothing to do with comics (a notorious area of ignorance for them), and of course their errors just had to be on the sensitive subject of Randy Golden trivia. On a probably unrelated note the News went out of business in 1999 and vengeance was eventually mine.
The first-place prize was that trip to DC. For second place my prize was a 13-inch black-and-white TV. Yes, kids of today, TVs were once built that way on purpose. No, it was not state-of-the-art even then. The Glengarry Glen Ross prize disparity is even more laughable today than it was in 1983, but I have to admit it was nice having a TV in my bedroom to resolve prime-time scheduling conflicts in later pre-VCR years, especially the ugly Cosby/Simpsons/Flash debacle of 1990. To be fair, our family was poor enough in 1983 that our main living room set was also 13-inch and black-and-white. My meager near-accomplishment had just doubled our tech capacity.
Later that summer, the News ran a sidebar confirming my opponent had failed the National Bee in the first round, bombing out on “colossally”. As a longtime Uncanny X-Men reader I was enraged and amused.
Little did I realize that would be my one and only shot at the regionals. I returned to the district bee in sixth and eighth grades and stumbled too early on words I’ve long since forgotten. I got my first pair of glasses in sixth grade, but they didn’t improve my gameplay. In seventh grade I choked at the classroom level on “leasable” because in my mind’s eye it should’ve rhymed with “feasible”. And then I aged out of the bee biz, thus ending my string of shots at what was supposed to be my specialty. It never would be because there’s more to spelling bees than simply showing off what you already know. You have to triple your intake, accumulate even more know-how than what you already brought in, then figure out how to wield all those cumulative terminologies and nomenclature and multilingual lingo under pressure. And, in a clutch, improvise your way through whatever heretofore unknown linguistic gobbledygook they read off to you from musty 18th-century university libraries and pharma factory manuals.
Precious few other opportunities for intellectual competition came and went, none with any lasting satisfaction. There was the time I was 4-H King in fourth grade without turning in a single 4-H project. Then that briefly awesome time in eighth grade when I was a key member of a quiz-bowl team that won a divisional tournament, and yet I was disturbingly unwelcome to participate at the high school level. I also faintly recall a city-wide high-school chemistry-testing contest that went nowhere.
From a material standpoint all of those victories were ultimately hollow compared to the one time in seventh grade when I won $50 in a “Guess How Many Pepsi Cans Are Inside This Cardboard Display” supermarket contest. Apparently I was among the few entrants who knew how to calculate volume using atypical units of measure and who’d peered through a Tab-A/Slot-B junction in the cardboard and noticed the display’s entire bottom half was empty. The day was won thanks to math, not English, and material reward beat fleeting self-satisfaction.
I’m sure it says something that I remember any of this in detail. Maybe all it says is “my brain retains the most unnecessary information”, which is useful both for spelling bees and for blogging about childhood. But I should’ve done so much better at spelling bees than the glum results tabulated here. Despite my losses, at school and in the neighborhood I was renowned for spelling anyway. It felt nice to be celebrated for being good at something no matter how trivial, with or without my name etched in plaques afterward. It’s even cooler as an adult seeing that tradition carried on for other kids today. Hopefully they’re winning much better TVs.