I am very upset that I missed the national spelling bee on television.
I had such big bee plans! I was going to make some popcorn, chill a beer, and watch with a pad of paper and pencil, spelling along. I’m very curious as to how I would measure up to those spelling androids disguised as children. But, alas, I missed it. It’s really all for the best, because I’m smug about my spelling, and I think that watching the brilliant Kavya Shivashankar take home the trophy by correctly spelling Laodicean would make me realize what a spelling poser I am.
Although, of course, I may have stood a chance on that last word. It’s the title of a Thomas Hardy novel, and Thomas Hardy is one of my nineteenth-century boyfriends. (Of course, he can’t compete with my true Victorian love, Robert Louis Stevenson.)
I love spelling bees because — and this is where my nerd really begins to show — I love discovering all of the weird, quirky ways language can work. I like being in on the secrets of silent letters. Strange plurals give me a thrill. I find the predictable patterns of prefixes and suffixes soothing, but when some rebellious word bucks all of the rules, I feel a degree of respect for its ballsiness.*
This all began at St. Bernard’s Academy in Tennessee. In second grade, the entire class used to line up around the perimeter of the room for a monthly spelling bees. If the student to your left missed a word, it would be passed along to you. Once in a while, a truly toxic word would burn through the egos of eight or nine children before it was finally spelled out of the contest. One such word was “people.” (Remember now — we were in second grade.) I watched kid after kid fall before that word, shuffling back to their desks in worn-out Keds complaining that the word wasn’t fair, that obviously no one knew how to spell it and that it’s a stupid word, anyway.
I knew that the expected “e” at the beginning of the word was followed by a rogue, unexpected “o.” I knew about that “o,” and I wanted to prove that I knew it.
I watched as the word made its way down the line of children and finally — tada! — I had my moment of triumph. That was the beginning of my spelling smugness, and I’m sure it’s appearance was obnoxious. In any case, spelling “people” correctly won me a place in the school-wide spelling bee, an event that I know understand for the strange, slightly cruel spectacle that it is — pitting kids just out of kindergarten against eighth graders. I was eliminated in the first round. I couldn’t spell gaseous.
In fact, I still can’t spell gaseous. I had to look it up.
* Did you know the word “ballsiness” is in Merriam Webster?