Saturday, February 25, 2012

A-B-C: Spelling Bees

In sixth grade, a sort of adolescent transition took place in more ways than one.  Yes, we moved to a house with a backyard filled with lilac bushes on a tree-lined street.  My sister and I shared a girls' only bedroom, instead of sharing with my brother.  My feminine senses became heightened.  Boys started mattering.  And the high school loomed as a very real "next step" only a few blocks up Broadway.

The traditions and repeated events we enjoyed throughout grammar school started to disappear, though I didn't see it at first and wouldn't appreciate it until much later.  I should have treasured those last experiences, but like everything you trundle through as an adolescent, the experiences were confusing and painful and I was never quite sure whether what I did was "right."

At the Hamilton School, once a year we had a spelling bee, and if you made it to the "finals," you ended up in the auditorium on the stage in front of the microphone . . . staring down at a small audience of friends and family who had come in to cheer on their spelling bee participant.  For days before the bee, my mother would sit at the kitchen table with me, drilling me on the lists of words our teacher gave us throughout the year.  The bee was usually scheduled at the end of the year, right before summer break, so those lists were long.  I remember laying my head on the table, begging her to stop so I could go to sleep.  I knew these words.  Why did we have to drill for hours?

On the day of the bee, I joined everyone else who had made it through the preliminary rounds.  Heart pounding, palms sweating, we sat on stage next to each other until it was our turn.  Then we would be given a word, repeat it, spell it out correctly, repeat it again, then sit down. I distinctly remember every single spelling bee and every word I misspelled that took me out of the bee.  I would go home and tell my mother, and years later, she, too, remembered the misspelled word and would ask me out of the blue how to spell it . . . F-R-I-E-N-D, capital A-m-e-r-i-c-a, C-O-U-L-D-N-apostrophe-T.  Ugh.

Finally, in the 6th grade, I participated in the final spelling bee.  Thank God.  Only this time, the bee wasn't in the familiar auditorium that I remembered, there was no microphone, and no one I knew in the audience. 

I felt more trepidation than I ever had before.  Surely everyone in the room would laugh out loud at the new girl when she made a mistake.  Surely everyone stared at me when I rose out of my seat to repeat the first word back to the teacher.  Surely everyone wanted me to fail.

I knew that my strengths in the classroom revolved around anything to do with reading or writing.  Had there been a Math bee, I would have failed miserably.  But I also had less faith in myself as the years went by because of those earlier failures and my mother's expectation that I would get nothing but A's on my report card.  Perhaps it was my own insecurity that I wasn't perfect that butted its ugly head into the last spelling bee, making sure that I lost in one of the earlier rounds rather than to face the fear of standing on a stage in front of a microphone to be tested to spell words that I would normally have no problem at all spelling . . . but, whatever the case, that 6th grade spelling bee was over quickly.  And I was happy.  My mother, however, was not.

These days, I watch on TV when the grammar school kids make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  I see them struggle with roots and prefixes, know that they are aware of the Latin and Greek spellings that give them clues to words they have never heard before, and I wonder how many of them practice with their parents for hours and hours before striding onto that stage.  I think about the time they spent with mothers or fathers more intent on their child winning than the child him/herself. I also think about the incredible satisfaction and rush of love they share when the child spells the word correctly, the partnership, the bonds that strengthen as a result of spending so much time together striving for a common goal. 

And I realize I miss that.  I miss the intense caring only my mother could provide.  It's not the spelling bee.  It's time.

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