Sunday, January 28, 2018

Spelling Bee

©Linda Goodman 1/27/2018

            After I passed the fifth grade at James Hurst Elementary School in the Cradock section of Portsmouth, Virginia, I enjoyed a lovely summer vacation. I savored every minute of it, as I knew that, come fall, I would be attending sixth grade at Cradock Jr. High School. Brother Allen warned me that the sixth grade would be hard. He reminded me that Brother Lee, my oldest brother, had failed the sixth grade and had to repeat it. I cried when I heard that. I would have died if I had failed a whole grade. I assumed Brother Lee had been as upset as I would have been in that situation (I later discovered that it did not bother him at all.).
            Sixth grade was strange compared to fifth grade. In elementary school, students had one teacher all day long in one classroom. In the sixth grade, I had four teachers who rotated from class to class. My sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Mabry, took a shine to me. She admired my taste in books (we both loved Charles Dickens).She also discovered that I was writing a book, and she asked me about it every day. She knew how to nurture her students without being sappy. “Be proud of what you have achieved,” she told me at the end of the school year. “And here is my advice to you: think positive. Whatever task you are given, no matter how hard it seems, just repeat to yourself I think I can. I think I can, and you will always be at the front of the pack.
            Sixth grade was not so bad after all.
            In the seventh grade, my English teacher was Mrs. Mancuso, and she, too, enjoyed my writing. “You write so well, and you always use the correct grammar,” she told me, “And I have never seen you misspell a word. In fact, I think that you should enter the school Spelling Bee.”
            I had never heard of a Spelling Bee. Mrs. Mancuso explained that it was a contest where students competed to see who was the best speller. “I know you can win it,” she assured me. “You just need to have faith in yourself. Positive thinking can accomplish anything.”
            So two teachers that I loved thought I could win the Spelling Bee! That was good enough for me. I picked up the official Spelling Bee practice booklet and spent hours studying every word, except the small ones. I already knew them.
Some of the words were so hard that I had to memorize their spellings. But I had two teachers who had told me to say, I think I can. I think I can. I told myself that, too. And then I started telling my classmates, but by then my mantra had changed from I think I can to I know I will. I convinced myself that I could spell better than anyone else in my school, and I thought the more I staked that claim, the more positive I would be and the greater chance I would have to win that Spelling Bee.
Finally the big day came. I, along with nine others, sat on the stage of the school auditorium in front of every class in the school as we waited for the contest to begin. Each of us wore a number pinned to our chest. I was number two. Three judges, one lady and two men, sat at a table to the right of the stage.
            Once all the students were settled in their seats and quiet, the woman judge stood up. “Number 1,” she announced, and my friend Maureen stood up. The woman sternly looked at her and said, “Your word is nicotine.”
            Maureen nervously spelled out the word: n-i-c-o-t-i-n-e.
            “Correct,” the woman announced. “You may take your seat back on the stage.”
            How easy could this get?
            “ Number 2,” the lady said as she turned her attention to me. I stood up and she announced, “Your word is across.
            What? That was a baby word! Why was I being given a baby word?
            The woman cleared her throat and once again said, “Your word is across.”
            I was grinning from ear to ear. I would win this contest in no time at all. I stood up tall and spelled a-c-c-r-o-s-s.”
            “That is incorrect!” the woman announced. “Please take a seat down in the auditorium.”
            I was shocked! Had I really spelled it wrong?  A baby word?  I could not believe it.
            I felt like I was on a walk of shame. As I went down the steps to join the student body, I heard my classmates mates giggling all around me, saying “She bragged to everyone that she was going to win, and then she misspelled her very first word!” Cecil Boudreau, my classroom nemesis, started laughing so loudly he had to be escorted out of the auditorium.
            I hung my head low.
            My classmates kidded me for a few weeks, but they got over it. I carried the hurt and humiliation, however, for months.
            It was Mrs. Mabry who set me straight. “Being positive is good, but you should understand that over-confidence can make you look like a braggart. The good news is, you can always try again next year.”
            I took that little nugget and filed it in the deep recesses of my brain. It has served me well. To this very day, though, I cannot spell a word out loud in front of others. In the end, my humiliation made me humble.


  1. What a great story, beautifully told. Thank you!

  2. It’s a good lesson to share with kids.
    Linda Gorham

  3. Yes, it is. Some things are not meant to be taken literally. Thanks for reading, Linda.