Four years after the debacle of the 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball game, another scandal occurred. Like that infamous game, it remains shrouded in controversy. In a country wearied by Watergate, perhaps it is understandable that it didn’t capture the public’s attention. The time has come to clear the air.
I was once quite the fine speller. This was many years ago before spell-check rendered me a virtual illiterate. Spelling was my forte. I did quite well on spelling tests, of course. I well remember the first time I missed a spelling word. It was in the 3rd grade in Mrs. Brewer’s class. I cried. I guess I should also mention that I was quite an odd child, too.
I could spell almost anything. I learned to spell “Constantinople” before I even attended school (I think it was in a Dr. Seuss book). One reason I could spell was that I was an excellent reader, far ahead of many of my peers. You might now guess that I was a child prodigy of some sort (note that it is “prodigy,” not “protegé”). Alas, I was not. I was, however, of above average intelligence and armed with some kind of 6th sense when it came to spelling.
I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High School in Loyall, Kentucky. Loyall is in Harlan County, far off the beaten path for most folks. Don’t be fooled, though–we had our share of smart kids. Just because you live in the mountains of Appalachia doesn’t mean you can’t spell.
For most of my education, my spelling was never put to the test. Actually, it was, but those were just spelling tests. We’d occasionally have a class spelling bee, which I normally dominated like an academic version of Michael Jordan with a spelling hang time unseen before.
The 1975-76 school year was 8th grade for me. High school loomed. As with every year of school, my only goal was to go on to the next year. My early school years were marked by two things: 1) stellar academic performance; and 2) spells of habitual truancy. That latter had little impact on the former but great impact on my parents. I spent half the 7th grade at Evarts Junior High where my mother kept a watchful eye on me from her post as a teacher at the adjoining high school. It worked. One semester at Evarts, and I was ready to fly right back in Loyall.
8th grade was mostly uneventful. I promised that I wouldn’t skip school–and I didn’t (that would wait until high school). Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I was part of Loyall’s Health Fair Championship team.
The other event of that year was the school spelling bee. This wasn’t just any spelling bee. It was for the whole junior high. It was like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, except everyone got a bid. Every kid competed from the smartest of the smart to the most impaired dullards. It was a Battle Royale.
While I was quite confident in my abilities, I didn’t care for the spelling bee. Over the years, I had grown weary of being thought of as a smart kid. As offensive as this might be to say about myself, I was a smart kid; however, unlike my older–and even smarter–brother, I would rather have been an athlete or just average. I just didn’t care for it.
There was no refusing to participate in the spelling bee. I thought about it, but I figured that would just be another issue for my parents. So, I played along.
As you might suspect, I was spelling like a whirling Dervish dances. Every word lobbed to me was like hitting a beach ball. Not all my classmates were so fortunate. Some were felled by simple monosyllabic words. Although I don’t recall the specifics, I’m sure “cat” and “dog” took some out. Others choked, such as one lad who spelled “neither” N-I-E-T-H-E-R. That’s the spelling bee equivalent of a called third strike.
We started one afternoon in the gym. Participants dropped like flies as we moved to polysyllabic and more arcane vocabulary. I was cruising. As the day wore down, I became troubled (if I had a hobby back then, “being troubled” was it). A fear gripped me: What if I won? I would have to go the county spelling bee. Who the hell would want to do that? It was probably on a Saturday, too. How was I going to get out of this without looking like a moron who couldn’t spell? It was quite the conundrum.
When the day came to a close, only two spellers were left. Naturally, I was one of them. The other was a was very smart and a fetching young 7th grade girl. I suspected she had lived somewhere else at some time, because she had that Michigan-sounding accent which was a little suspicious. Now, I had another problem: To get out of it, I’d have to lose to a 7th grade girl to boot.
When we broke for the day, I consulted my friend Norman, my confidante on important matters. Norman was a fine fellow but a bit devious. He always had good ideas about how to get out of ticklish situations. For example, he once broke up with a girl by writing her a letter claiming that his father had gotten a job on the Alaskan Pipeline and that he would be moving to Yukon, Alaska at the end of the school year. A man of his stripe would know what to do.
He suggested a feigned illness. I know that doesn’t seem very original, but we were pressed for time. With the passage of time, I can’t recall which illness he suggested. He once claimed to have gangrene himself. He liked to accuse people of having VD, but I doubt that was one of the suggestions.
Nevertheless, an illness wouldn’t work. I had been fake sick so many times that my parents never thought I was really ill. Dangerously high fever or vomiting or both were threshold requirements. I wasn’t going to be able to swing that.
There really was only one choice. That’s right: take a dive. Norman was leery of this, believing that I would lack credibility. I told him that I would just screw up the first tough word I got.
As usual, Norman and I hung around after school goofing off for a while. Then, we started our walk home. We weren’t a block from the school when two of our classmates–notorious ruffians–yelled at me: “WILLIAMS!!” Uh oh. They were sitting on the steps of a church enjoying their after school cigarettes.
I’d known these guys since first grade. They were okay, but I was kind of terrified of them, too. They rarely had a kind word for anyone.
Here’s (roughly) how our exchange went:
Kid No.1: What’s this bullshit about the spelling bee?
Kid No.2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: Why? (surely my spelling prowess didn’t merit an ass whupping)
Kid No.1: We heard you’re throwin’ it. Gonna let that girl win.
Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: I don’t where you heard that…
Kid No. 1: From him (pointing at Norman)
Me: (looking at Norman): Thanks.
Guys, I just don’t want to win the thing.
Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Kid No. 1: ‘Cause you can’t lose to no 7th grader. We’re countin’ on you. Don’t f— it up.
Me: I’m not throwing it.
Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
So, with that, Plan B was scuttled. It seemed too risky. One of these lads, in particular, was pretty smart, despite his rough ways. He would probably detect a dive. The other guy was like the big guy who put Steve Buscemi in that wood chipper in the film Fargo–very quiet and probably dangerous. It was a bad combination.
The rest of the evening I vacillated between trying to fake an illness and losing the will to live. I had one other problem–part of me really did want to win the damn thing. Why? I don’t know. I guess it was because I really was smart. It was my only real objective strength.
After a fitful night of sleep, I woke up resolved to win and accept whatever embarrassing accolades came with it. I pictured myself in some sort of World Series of spelling bees with other socially inept children. Maybe it was just time to accept my lot in life.
We were back on center stage in the gym, spelling away. We didn’t get the kinds of words you see thrown at these freaky kids today spell in national bees–nothing like antidisestablishmentarianism. I don’t recall being allowed to have the words used in a sentence or anything like that. They just gave you the word, and you spelled it. It was an old school throw down.
We were back and forth for a while until it happened. I was up. The word: “Inquire.” (I know that’s not a tough word. This was Eastern Kentucky in the 1970’s. We weren’t considered linguists). I fired away. “E-N-Q-U-I-R-E.” Loser!! I was stunned. How could this happen?
I was taken down by the most basic of villains–mass media. As we all know, the National Enquirer uses that spelling. That is what flashed into my head when given the word. Yes, my penchant for tabloid journalism was my Achilles’s Heel. Or was it?
It turns out that “enquire” is a proper spelling, especially in Great Britain where it is used to denote formal queries. You don’t believe me? Let’s ask Mr. Webster. He defines it as a “chiefly British variant of INQUIRE, INQUIRY.” It’s also included in The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, the foremost authority on the English language. Loser? I think not. I was hoist on the petard of my own erudition.
I took the high road, of course. I did not appeal or ask for an investigation. I made no public accusations of wrongdoing, though I would have been justified in doing so. I’m also pleased to report that no ass whupping occurred. One of my antagonists, in fact, was outraged that my opponent was not required to properly spell the word to prove her superiority. Although I don’t think the rules required that, fair play certainly did. I accepted my defeat, much like the sore loser I have been my entire life. After several days of sulking, I returned to my normal activities which at the time consisted mostly of brooding.
Years of mostly unsuccessful therapy helped me deal with this and other injustices. My spelling skills have eroded over time, the victim of age and technology. I’ve gone on to bigger and better things. I’m a reasonably successful lawyer with a 25 year marriage and three strapping sons. Time goes on and heals all wounds. Far be it from me to allow one minor incident to stick in my craw.
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