Updated: Dec 10, 2022
When I was in school, we took English class. English class was taught by English teachers. Apparently, they hadn’t yet invented language arts. Frankly, we would have laughed at the notion of art being anything that didn’t involve crayons, tempera paint, or construction paper and Elmer’s glue.
We also had spelling. We didn’t take spelling, we had it. Just like we had mumps, chicken pox, or head lice. It existed and one day (we were promised) it would cease to torment us. Spelling came during elementary school, when the teacher who taught us to spell also taught us how to write, how to add and subtract, and how to avoid saying a bad word out loud to the class when she left the room. I learned that last one the hard way. A girl named Linda ratted me out. I’ll bet that these days Linda curses like a sailor.
In English class we had English tests. In grade school these mostly involved where to put commas, how to use quotation marks, and the difference between there, they’re, and their. You know, the sorts of things we writers pay no attention to because we know our editor will fix it.
Middle school English tests contained essay questions. Why did Charlotte the spider die when Wilbur the pig lived on? Why did Ponyboy in The Outsiders feel like an outsider? Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?
As our English teacher handed out these tests, someone would always ask, “Does spelling count?” Just as reliably, the teacher would say, “Yes, of course.” And, as inevitably as the arrival of fake Christmas trees at Home Depot in September, the class would let out a collective groan.
In elementary school, I prided myself on my spelling skills. A grade less than 100 on a spelling test was, for me, absolute agony. So, as you can imagine, winning the school spelling bee seemed like the highest achievement known to humankind.
To win the school spelling bee, you had to first be your class’s champion speller. In my class, to be your class’s champion speller, you had to beat Kevin. Kevin was a genius. Not only could Kevin spell words like ‘optimistic’ and ‘unsanitary,’ he could provide definitions and use them in sentences. In short, it was impossible to beat Kevin.
Except that one year, I did. With the two of us standing before the class while the teacher gave us increasingly difficult words, Kevin faltered before I did. I had scaled the heights. I was Rocky. I was the class spelling champ!
I studied hard for the school-wide spelling bee. I felt confident that, if I put in the hours, I would stand before my peers as the unquestioned spelling champion of Herod Elementary School. After that, who knows? District champion? Regional champion? Dare I say, national champion? A boy can dream.
The day came. I sat near the end of a row of chairs arranged in a semicircle on the stage of the school auditorium. Each contestant would repeat the given word, spell it, and repeat it again. After everyone had spelled their word, the principal would call out the numbers of the kids who had made a mistake. I caught (or thought I did) several mistakes as my turn neared. I pitied these poor suckers who would never taste glory.
The principal gave the kid before me his word. ‘Choose.’ The boy calmly said, “Choose.
C-H-O-S-E, choose.” It was my turn.
Now, I knew that the kid had messed up. Choose has two O’s. But when I was given the word ‘chose,’ I froze. Self-doubt crept into my brain like ants at a picnic. Panic followed on its heels. One O or two? I don’t know!
With as much confidence as I could muster, I said, “Chose. C-H-O-O-S-E, chose.” Moments later, the principal called out the numbers of those excused from the stage. Mine was among them. I trudged off that stage like a dog going to the vet.
I had failed. There would be no district bee for me. No regional competition, certainly no trip to Washington for the national contest. But, somehow, I survived. The world kept turning. Mom still made pancakes and Dad still took me to baseball games at the Astrodome. But thereafter, every time a teacher said, “Spelling counts,” I uttered a silent curse. And I never confused ‘choose’ with ‘chose’ again.
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