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Nashville Scene Word Games

One wrong letter, and your life is over.

By John Bridges

JUNE 8, 1998:  It was not as if I did not know how to spell alligator. It was simply that, before I could get the second l out, the i had already bullied its way in, and there was no turning back. There was no point in any show of contrition. Repentance was of no moment at all. It did not matter that my father owned the Rambler dealership or that my mother was president of the county PTA. All that mattered was that, two letters into the word alligator, I was wasted, a dead issue, a bust.

I thought to myself, "I bet this is how Miss Alabama feels when she drops her fire batons in the Miss America Pageant." But in a spelling bee there is no swimsuit competition in which to play catch-up; there is no question-and-answer session in which you can explain that what you really want to do in life is help disabled children; it does not matter how you look in an evening gown.

I looked out across the darkened auditorium and told myself, "It is not as if I really asked to be smarter than anyone else in my junior high school." I thought, "It is not as if I wanted to be the only kid in my seventh-grade class who could spell persnickety." I thought, "This is the sort of thing that makes 12-year-old boys get all their hair shaved off and go in for shock treatment." But I did not really say those things. The a and the l and the i were already gone. I said, "g...a...t...o...r."

If there had been a God at that moment, the spelling bee lady would have said, "I'm not sure I heard you correctly. You are an intelligent child from a worthwhile and productive family. Would you like to try that again?" But she did not.

She said, "I'm sorry. That is incorrect."

Two rounds into the county spelling bee--the one that was supposed to take me on to Birmingham and then on to Washington, D.C., and a full-paid scholarship to any college I wanted--I considered shouting, "I really said two l's. You know I did. You just didn't hear me."

But I did not. I was, if nothing else, a child of principle. I went to my seat and sat down.

The next word went to the little girl beside whom I had stood in the line. The spelling bee lady looked at her and said, "persnickety." I wanted to curse God and die.

It is a burden, after all, being able to spell things. I have often thought it would be a relief not to know the difference between "their" and "there," not to fret over the number of n's in "Cincinnati," to be content to make a mad stab at "pusillanimous" and then move blithely on. But the kid who knows better does not have those options. He does not have football and air rifles and a solid-oak gun rack that he built for himself in shop class. All he has is his correctness and the knowing of stuff that other people could not possibly know.

That is why he takes calculus classes in the middle of the summer, when other 12-year-olds are out riding their bikes through intersections and doing belly flops off the dock at the lake. They come back from summer vacation, tanned and able to bench-press their full body weights. He comes back having read Balzac and able to tell you what hors d'oeuvre really means. In his mind, it is pretty much the same thing. Except that, when you are 12 years old, you are very seldom asked to discuss proto-Realist literature on the playground. It's not often that you are asked to explain overused French idioms.

It is for that reason that spelling bees were invented. They are there so that bookish children can understand what it feels like to go on a first date--so that they can have some justifiable reason for lying awake at night and chewing the corners off a foam-filled pillow. They are there so that a child cursed with the ability to spell "quodlibet" can feel some sense of purpose in life. They are there because, surely, there should be some sort of reward for simply knowing that the word "triskaidekaphobia" exists.

They are, however, precisely the wrong sort of challenge to set before clever children. It is the clever children who never quite understand the fascination of football--all that getting up, dusting off, and starting over again. It is the clever children who already know, without anybody having to stage a spell-down, that being smarter than everybody else in the classroom is not a team sport. It is the clever children who know that, once you've left an l out of "alligator," there is no making up for it later in the season. There is no best two out of three.

If the most strenuous thing you've ever done is play baseball, this is not the sort of harsh truth you are likely to understand. You are likely to assume that life is full of next seasons and comebacks and, at the very least, the rich rewards of a career in coaching. You have to be smarter than that to know what a spelling bee teaches you: It's you out there facing the wordbook. Smiling at the judges isn't going to get you anywhere. Put an e on the end of "potato," and you might as well starting dictating the old memoirs.

The other day, I watched a finals round of the National Spelling Bee from Washington. At least, I watched as long as I could, until a perfectly pleasant-looking young girl--the sort of person who probably visits old people and has a pet hamster named Lulu--stood up and heard the spelling bee man slam her with "triskelion." I watched as she closed her eyes. She looked sort of Eurasian. A lot of people probably thought she was doing yoga.

But I knew what she was thinking. I knew she was thinking, "Triskelion. I come here all the way from Des Moines, Iowa, and this is the kind of crap I get?" I knew she was thinking, "I have a perfectly lovely family back at home. I don't need this. I'm cute enough. This fall, I could go out for cheerleader. If I stop spelling now, in a couple of years, I could be homecoming queen."

But she did not say these things. Instead, she began, "Triskelion--t...r...i..." And then I turned the TV off. Surely, I thought, there can be a way to save bright, noble children from this sort of torture. Surely, I thought, they can learn to live, uncringing, in a world where "recommend" has two c's and "tomorrow" always has two m's. Surely, I thought, somebody will tell them they do not have to fix these things. Surely, I thought, somebody will tell them it's all right to run spellchecker.

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